Posted: Aug. 20, 2015
DISTRICT IN PLAY
By Celia Cohen
The 18th Representative District, where the special election is, was once the pride of the Democrats. This was after the district bugged them for years and years and years.
What happened there is pretty much of a microcosm of the way the Delaware House of Representatives has gone for the last 35 years or so, as it switched from Democratic control to Republican control and back again.
As went the chamber, so went the 18th Representative District, or maybe it was vice versa.
The district should have voted in Democrats all along. It has plenty of blue collar neighborhoods, as it stretches from the outskirts of Newark southwards to Bear and takes in the Christiana Mall, and the registration is a ridiculous mismatch with the Republicans trailing both the Democratic and the "other" voters -- 57 percent Democrat, 24 percent "others" and 19 percent Republican.
Still, for 28 years from 1980 to 2008, the district was represented by Terry Spence, a Republican who rose to be the speaker.
The Democrats were exultant when they finally took out Spence. It was the election in which they came away with the state House majority, after 24 years in the minority, so they were elated, anyway, but this one was the topper, ousting the speaker and bringing a wayward district home.
The Democrats won with Mike Barbieri, the same Mike Barbieri who has given them the headache of this special election and put the district in play by quitting mid-term to ensconce himself in a $144,000-a-year job with the state in the Health & Human Services Department.
Spence did not really lose to Barbieri, though. He lost to Obama. The Democrats in the district streamed out to vote for Obama in 2008, and even though Barbieri polled 2,000 fewer votes than Obama did, it was enough to get him past Spence.
As went Spence, so went the Republicans.
Spence won the Democratic district just as the Republicans were taking charge as the House majority. The Democrats had surged into control in the Watergate election of 1974, but the Republicans knocked them out in a special election in 1979 and stayed in the majority except for one session until 2008. The chamber has been Democratic since.
By holding the seat all that time, Spence was a critical part of the Republicans' success.
Whatever happens in the special election, it will not change the Republicans' current plight in Dover in Legislative Hall, where the governor is a Democrat, the Senate is run by Democrats, and the House had 25 Democrats and 16 Republicans before Barbieri walked out on them.
Still, a party can dream, right?
It was not that long ago Spence had the seat, and the Republicans are putting up a fight in the special election, which is set for Saturday, Sept. 12, with David Bentz for the Democrats and Eileen O'Shaughnessy-Coleman for the Republicans.
"We are running with a clear understanding that we are out-registered 3-1 but with the knowledge that we have a superior candidate," said John Fluharty, the Republican Party's executive director.
The thing about Spence, though, is he was a different kind of Republican.
"I'm not worried," said Pete Schwartzkopf, the Democratic speaker. "The Republicans have their hopes up, because Terry Spence won that district for 28 years. Yes, you have Spence, who was a pro-labor Republican, and he had labor support."
The labor unions are not with O'Shaughnessy-Coleman. The endorsements have gone to Bentz from the AFL-CIO, the Delaware State Education Association, the building trades council and the public employees union.
The Democrats are banking on their daunting registration edge, but strange things can happen in special elections and voters can turn on the party that caused them.
The turnout is inevitably so low, it can skew the results, and the voters are not necessarily paying much attention, particularly when the election falls around the return to school, a new football season and Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
The last time the 18th Representative District voted in a special election was the one for the New Castle County Council president in 2011, and it came close to going Republican. The turnout was an abysmal 6 percent, with 740 people going to the polls in the district, and the Democrats carried it by only 50 votes.
This is even worse than it looks, because the Democratic candidate was Tim Sheldon, a county councilman who actually represented a piece of the district. Sheldon went on to lose overall to Tom Kovach, the Republican candidate, even though the Democrats out-registered the Republicans in the county by 2-1.
The countywide special election is exactly the sort of evidence of what can happen when almost the entire electorate decides to sit it out. In this case, only 7 percent voted.
The Democrats were so proud when they won the 18th Representative District in 2008. They could even legitimately think they had settled it for a good long haul, after the Republicans did not bother to field anyone in the race for state representative in 2012 or 2014, but no.
Now that Barbieri has split, here it is, back to bug them again.