Posted: Aug. 10, 2006
THE LAST DUPONTER
By Celia Cohen
There is a certain irony in a legislative race for a Pike Creek Valley district, where the Republicans are trying to beat state Sen. David P. Sokola, a 51-year-old Democrat who has represented the area since 1990.
Sokola used to be one of the most common figures in state politics -- a native Delawarean who worked for the DuPont Co. It was so common that Ralph Nader, the anti-corporate crusader, saw a conspiracy theory and wrote about it in a book called The Company State.
The book, published in 1971, went after the chemical connection the way Joe McCarthy snooped for communists, except the company and the family behind it were hiding in plain sight.
The governor was Russell W. Peterson, once a DuPont chemist. The congressman was Pierre S. "Pete" du Pont, a descendant of the French patriarch who arrived in 1800. The mayor of Wilmington was Harry G. "Hal" Haskell Jr., the son of an upper-echelon executive.
There were plenty more du Ponts and DuPonters in office, so many that Peterson cracked at a political roast, "It is not true that I am going to change the state seal to have a chemist's test tube on it."
When Sokola joined their ranks, he was something of an exception to the DuPont rule. They were almost all Republicans, and he was not, although he hailed from a Republican district, located in the science-wise outskirts of Newark, where his neighbors knew a familiar DuPont type when they saw one and had a civics-book belief in voting for the person, not the party.
Sokola, a senior lab technician, observed his 25th anniversary at the company today, Aug. 10, and found himself a lonely symbol. He is the last DuPonter in the General Assembly. True, there are some pensioners as well as state Sen. Charles L. Copeland, a Republican from the family, but Sokola is the only active payroller in a legislature that once teamed with them.
Now the Republicans are making a prime target out of Sokola, the Democratic outlier from the company that once made them strong. The chemistry between the DuPont Co. and the Republican Party has given out.
James R. Soles, a political scientist retired from the University of Delaware, was the first to note the link between the Republicans' decade-and-a-half slide in state politics and the shrinkage of the company, which went so far as to contract its name from Du Pont to DuPont.
"The decline of the DuPont Co. has mirrored the decline of the Republican Party," Soles said in an interview a year ago.
From 1990 until today, the company slashed its Delaware workforce by two-thirds, dropping from 25,000 to 8,000 employees, at the same time its attention became more global than local. Inside a business that once not only accepted but encouraged public involvement, it became harder to do.
"DuPont has gotten more demanding, but I don't think it's unreasonable. It's gotten more demanding for everyone who works there. In light of everything, I think the company's very supportive," Sokola said.
As DuPont changed, the Republicans were collateral damage, victimized by a loss of candidates, operatives, volunteers, contributors and voters. At the same time, President Bill Clinton and Gov. Thomas R. Carper, now a U.S. senator, were making the state safe for centrist Democrats.
The Republican Party, which held all but two of the statewide offices as recently as 1980, is down to two itself, clinging to U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle and state Auditor R. Thomas Wagner Jr.
The Republicans also have the majority in the state House of Representatives, and while they are under a determined onslaught there from the Democrats, they are doing what they can to chip away at the Democrats' 13-8 margin in the state Senate by going after Sokola and state Sen. James T. Vaughn Sr., a Clayton Democrat.
Sokola's Republican opponent is Michael J. Ramone. At 45, Ramone has lived his entire life in the district, although his first home in Limestone Acres was shifted out by redistricting.
Ramone represents the new type of recruit the Republicans will have to find to replace the DuPonters. He owns a network of swimming and fitness enterprises, including the championship Delaware Swim Team. He no longer has his signature Ramone's flower shops, which he sold to his manager, but he does have an interest in a funeral home. It means he still has a chance of making a customer out of anyone who avoids his main line of fitness businesses.
"These are different times," said Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman who is an ex-DuPonter herself, leaving in 1992 after 29 years. "It is not only DuPont, but it is a change for any big company. They are under pressure to produce, and that is passed down to the employees. Small business now has the majority of the jobs in the country."
The race between Sokola and Ramone in the 8th Senatorial District, which is shaped like a cross between a stealth bomber and a horseshoe, is difficult to call.
The Republicans have high hopes for Ramone, an enthusiastic personality who ran against Sokola in 2002 and came within 277 votes of unseating him.
Since then, Ramone has matured as a candidate. He was knocking on doors in Democratic neighborhoods during the heat wave, he has dozens of teen-age swimmers in yellow "Ramone" t-shirts as volunteers to hand out his campaign literature, and he recently had a fund-raising breakfast featuring K.C. Keeler, the University of Delaware football coach.
Sokola, however, is no stranger to tough races. He is a steady presence, a contrast to the cheerleader in Ramone, and he is encouraged by a persistent rise in Democratic registration that has made the district more hospitable to him than it was in his early campaigns.
The registration hardly could be divided more evenly. As of Aug. 1, there were 12 more Republican than Democrats -- yes, 12. In a district of 26,179 voters, there were 9,627 Republicans, 9,615 Democrats and 6,937 others for a breakdown of 37 percent Republican, 37 percent Democrat and 26 percent others.
"I don't see him [Sokola] losing the district when it's dead even," said state Sen. Anthony J. DeLuca, the Democratic majority whip.
It appears that the district's voters, who generally prefer their legislators to be mainstream moderates, would not get much of a change from Ramone on some of the more emotional issues to come before the General Assembly.
Ramone, like Sokola, favors embryonic stem cell research and wants to outlaw discrimination against gay Delawareans in employment and housing. Sokola voted for the smoking ban, and although Ramone does not like smoking -- "You're talking to a guy who never smoked a cigarette in his life. I hate the smell of smoke" -- he would have preferred a law regulating air quality and giving businesses the option of installing a clean-air system.
Of course, there is one obvious difference between Sokola and Ramone. Sokola is the incumbent, Ramone is not, and in this election year, voters across the country seem to be in an unforgiving mood that favors challengers.
Nationwide three incumbents -- most notably U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut -- were rejected Tuesday in primaries. At home legislators are nervous about fallout from such matters as the financial follies in the Christina School District and ballooning electric bills.
"People are asking if you're an incumbent or not," Ramone said. "It's absolutely a dominating topic of discussion. They don't want to have anything to do with anybody in Dover. I'm reminding people I didn't win last time."
Sokola knows there is some grumbling, but not enough to discourage him. "I'm cautiously optimistic that things are going well. There's some anti-incumbent sentiment," he said.
Sixteen years in the legislature is a long time. Sokola seemed grateful for it when he declared his candidacy for re-election at a gathering of family and friends last month at his in-laws' house in North Star.
"I'm really proud today that I am running again," he said.
Sokola's voice caught as he said it, a little flutter of wonder that time still had not caught the last of the DuPonters, but when would it?