Posted: July 14, 2015
JITTERS FOR A SPECIAL ELECTION
By Celia Cohen
There are names that strike fear in the heart of Delaware politics.
Wayne Smith. Diana McWilliams. Becky Walker. They were legislators who flipped off their districts, and their parties paid for it.
Now the question before the House -- literally before the House, as in the state House of Representatives -- is, will Mike Barbieri join that hall of infamy?
The word came Monday that Barbieri, a Democratic state representative since 2008, is walking away mid-term from his constituents in a Newark-Christiana area district for a state job as a division director in the Health & Human Services Department.
It pays $144,213 a year, as opposed to an annual legislative paycheck of $44,541. It could also be over in a year and a half, when Jack Markell reaches his constitutional expiration date after two terms as the Democratic governor, but that is nobody's problem but Barbieri's.
There has not been any grumbling about Barbieri's fitness for overseeing the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Division -- he has a doctorate as a social worker who has operated his own agency since 1992, not to mention his familiarity with state government -- but that is not the point.
What matters is the bearing Barbieri's premature evacuation from legislative office could have on the special election that will have to be held, sometime yet to be scheduled in September, to replace him in the 18th Representative District.
It brings to mind Wayne Smith, Diana McWilliams and Becky Walker and the way voters do not like it when they think someone has pulled a fast one.
Smith was the state House majority leader, back in the day the Republicans were in charge, when he quit about two months into a new legislative session in 2007 to run a health care trade association.
The voters were not amused, even less so when Smith's next-door-neighbor turned up as the Republican candidate trying to replace him, and they gave the Brandywine Hundred seat to the Democrats, who have held it ever since. Not only did the Republicans lose the special election, it arguably contributed to their loss of the House majority a year later in 2008.
McWilliams, a Democratic state representative from Brandywine Hundred, waited until after she was re-elected in 2008 before her oh-by-the-way pronouncement that she was planning all along to move out of state. Momentarily.
The timing forced the voters to go to the polls for a special election three days before Christmas, and they delivered a bah-humbug message to the Democrats and elected a Republican, although they kicked him out after that term to reinstall a Democrat.
Unlike the others, Walker did not make her district in southern New Castle County have a special election. Instead, her deal was she waited until two days after the candidates' filing deadline in 2014 to let on she would not be running.
The timing meant the Democrats' replacement candidate would have to be chosen by the local party officials and not by the rank-and-file in a primary. It was a little too cute for the voters, and they turned over the seat to the Republicans.
Clearly there is a pattern here of voters scorned and taking their revenge on the party of the legislator who deserted them, but if there is a district that could be an exception that proves the rule, it could be Barbieri's, because it is such a Democratic stronghold.
The Republican Party here is so woebegone, it ranks third in registration. The Democratic voters account for a whopping 57 percent of the electorate, the voters unaffiliated with either major party amount to 24 percent, and the Republicans come in at 19 percent. It is so bad, the Republicans did not even bother to field a candidate for state representative in the last two elections.
Still, a special election can be a dicey thing. Turnout is notoriously low, so the outcome is unpredictable, and this one actually has some meaning to it.
No matter what happens, the Democrats would keep control of the House, where they outnumber the Republicans by 25-16, but a loss would cost the Democrats the super-majority to pass tax bills.
If there was ever a chance for the Republicans to grab an election they have no business winning, this could be it. They have many gifts -- the gift of an open seat, the gift of a Democratic legislator who quit on his constituents, the gift of the six-figure state job he took, and the gift of a send-them-a-message shot against the Democrats' super-majority.
Everything could change once the parties name their candidates, but still. The specter of Smith, McWilliams and Walker says the Republicans might make something of it.