Posted: Aug. 4, 2014
SOMETHING FISHY THIS WAY COMES
By Celia Cohen
There is a sneaking suspicion Becky Walker, a two-term Democratic state representative, was pulling a fast one when she waited until two days after the candidates' filing deadline to take herself out of the race.
Even if Walker is given the benefit of the doubt, it sure looks like she pulled at least a slow one.
Whatever happened, it is easily the strangest twist so far to befall a race for the Delaware General Assembly in the 2014 campaign season.
It turned stranger still when the choice for a candidate to replace Walker came down to two political converts, both of whom previously ran as Republicans. This, in a Democratic district?
In yet another complication, all of the maneuvering has implications for the contest for speaker when the next legislative session opens in Dover in January.
Maybe above all, it puts in play what should have been a solid Democratic seat.
It has been quite a month in the 9th Representative District, which lies in southern New Castle County alongside the Delaware River from the C & D Canal to the Kent County line and takes in Port Penn and Odessa.
The situation unfolded as Walker, who is not only a legislator but a nurse with a law degree, stood pat as Filing Day came and went on July 8, only to withdraw on July 10, because she could not, as she explained in a press release, stay in the legislature and also keep a job she took last January as a director of graduate programs at Widener Law School.
Walker's belated withdrawal left the field temporarily to Kevin Hensley, a real estate agent who is the Republican candidate, although it did leave the Democrats time to regroup.
By law, it was still early enough to allow for the Democrats to come up with a new candidate, but too late to allow for a primary on Sept. 9. Instead, the selection was up to the party.
The timing seemed a little fishy, and maybe it was. Still, it all could have been worse.
There were rumblings it was a setup all along, so Walker could grease the skids for Jason Hortiz, her preferred candidate. Also that the original plan was for Walker to pull out of the race with just enough time to spare before the filing deadline for Hortiz to slip in, primary free.
Walker is not talking -- she disregarded e-mail and phone requests for an interview -- but Pete Schwartzkopf, the Democratic speaker is, and he says there were extenuating circumstances.
Schwartzkopf became involved on June 30, the last day of the legislative session, when Walker told him the law school had informed her either the legislature or the job had to go.
"I asked her, are we going to have an announcement tonight? She said no, I'm going to try to make it work," Schwartzkopf said.
Schwartzkopf tried to help her do so, but to no avail. With the filing deadline approaching, it was clear Walker was going to have to give up her legislative seat, and Schwartzkopf warned her it would look bad if she arranged to give way to Hortiz in a spur-of-the-moment switcheroo.
"She did listen to me. She decided not to do it that way," Schwartzkopf said.
Schwartzkopf could be said to have more than a casual interest in the situation. He won the speakership this term in a close vote over Helene Keeley, but the caucus never consolidated behind him. Walker was a supporter, but he was adamant he did nothing out of an ulterior motive to save the seat for Walker or an ally of hers to shore up his support.
"She may be a vote for me, but that's not why I wanted to keep her," Schwartzkopf said.
Once Walker was out, the Democrats' local committee met to vote for a replacement and found itself choosing between two lapsed Republicans -- Hortiz, the Republican candidate for New Castle County recorder of deeds in 2006, and Andye Daley, the Republican candidate for a New Castle County Council seat in 2010.
Hortiz became a Democrat in 2007 and Daley in 2012, state election records show.
Both of them said their thinking evolved -- with Hortiz making his switch in anticipation of voting for Joe Biden in the 2008 presidential primary and Daley leaving the Republicans after Christine O'Donnell won the 2010 senatorial primary -- but it is hard not to note that for anyone with ambitions, state politics was also evolving into deepening shades of Democratic blue.
It took the Democrats two meetings to settle on a candidate. Hortiz and Daley tied on the first vote, but Hortiz won decisively on the follow-up vote days later, according to people who were there. Initially Richard Griffiths, who lost to Walker in a Democratic primary in 2010, also wanted to be considered, but he was out after the first vote.
After all that, the field is set with Hortiz for the Democrats and Hensley for the Republicans, and both bring a certain amount of name recognition to the race.
Hortiz, who is in marketing with Bank of America, has the reflected glory of being the brother of Joe Hortiz, a scout for the Baltimore Ravens football team, and Hensley has stuck in people's minds after advertising his real estate business five or six years ago on grocery carts.
The race has been so messy for the Democrats, it is conceivable that an election they were supposed to win could go against them. Nor is it beneath the Republicans to remind voters what happened.
"I just thought it was very unfair to the citizens of the district to be a little conniving about when Becky Walker dropped out," said Debbie Hudson, the Republican minority whip in the House of Representatives.
Not that long ago the seat did belong to a Republican, up until Dick Cathcart retired in 2010, and the voter registration is not insurmountable for the Republicans with 42 percent of the voters Democrats, 32 percent Republicans and 26 percent otherwise affiliated.
Not to mention history is against the Democrats. The voters have made it plain they do not like to be left in a lurch.
Both parties have seen this show before, and it cost them. The Democrats lost a House seat in 2008 after Diana McWilliams resigned immediately after she was re-elected, and the Republicans lost one in 2007 after Wayne Smith resigned early in the legislative session.
If Walker's seat is lost like McWilliams' and Smith's, it could be pivotal. In politics, once is a fluke, and twice is a coincidence, but three times?
Three times is a cure.