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EDITORIAL: CarperTown will never really close

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Sen. Tom Carper

Sen. Tom Carper will leave a legacy as the most-victorious elected official in state history. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

When I received the notice late on a Sunday evening that Sen. Tom Carper was holding an impromptu press conference just hours later to “announce his plans,” the end of CarperTown as we’ve come to know it over the last 40 years was near.

Jacob Owens
Delaware Business Times

That Carper, now 76, would step down from his senior seat in the U.S. Senate rather than seek a new six-year term is no surprise, but it undoubtedly marks a momentous change in the political landscape for Delaware.

His retirement at the end of his term in 2025 will open a Senate seat for the first time in 14 years. Even if he successfully backs a candidacy from Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, her ascension will open Delaware’s sole House seat.

That race is already becoming one of the most discussed in years in political circles as state senators, elected state officials and even Carney Cabinet members are sizing up their chances. The down-ballot ramifications of Carper’s decision will be significant on the legislative future of the state.

But after the West Virginia native became a Delaware son –  a journey not unlike his good friend, President Joe Biden – and became the winningest politician in state history, he will leave an indelible mark on the First State.

It was 1976, when a young Vietnam War veteran and state economic development manager made the fateful decision to run for state treasurer while laying on the beach and listening to the Delaware Democratic Party Convention proceedings on the radio conclude without a candidate in the race.

The exuberant politician-in-training worked hard to reach the public and won three consecutive elections, leading to another fateful turn in 1982. Without a candidate to challenge a scandal-plagued Republican incumbent Rep. Tom Evans, Biden cornered Carper at the Delaware State Fair.

After some arm-twisting, Carper agreed to seek Congress, and would win the race, flipping a seat held by Republicans for the previous 16 years.

While he carved out a role in Congress promoting banking deregulation and environmental protections, he also spent a considerable amount of time at home cleaning up the state’s Democratic Party. Carper recruited new candidates to push out old party bosses in New Castle County, including several who had been snared in federal investigations. In doing so, he became one of the most well-liked Democrats in the state.

By the time of the 1992 gubernatorial election, it was almost a foregone conclusion that he would swap roles with then-Republican Gov. Mike Castle. “The Swap,” as it became known in Delaware, was more than just political savvy, but a recognition of like-minded goals for the First State.

“While the country veered into ideological warfare, manifested in the partisan strafing of Supreme Court nominees and the frenzy of presidential impeachment, [Castle and Carper] clung resolutely to the center and kept the ugliness out of politics here,” longtime journalist Celia Cohen wrote in her book, “Only in Delaware.”

Pete du Pont may have created “the Delaware Way,” but Carper arguably perfected it.

He brought his moralistic streak to the governor’s mansion in 1993, holding over some Republicans for his Cabinet and selecting other secretaries from out of state to the annoyance of state Democrats. Just weeks into his first term, he sank a proposed pension hike for legislators amid public scrutiny of spending. He made tax cuts, economic development, welfare reform and educational accountability hallmarks of his tenure, which could understandably come from a GOP agenda.

Carper is perhaps best remembered as governor for his stumping for economic development, saving the General Motors Boxwood plant in Newport from closing in the early 1990s, attracting AstraZeneca’s U.S. headquarters to the Wilmington suburbs and spearheading the redevelopment of Wilmington’s Riverfront.

He achieved those goals through dogged pursuit of the decision-makers and the assembly of teams who could make a difference. Carper collaborated with the autoworkers union to help spare Newport from the axe and inked the state’s then-largest incentive package for a company to beat Pennsylvania in landing upward of 5,000 high-paying bioscience jobs that have helped change the narrative of the state’s industry.

While enduring bruising campaigns and the heart-wrenching murder of his scheduler Anne Marie Fahey, Carper became the first Democrat in state history to win consecutive terms as governor. It was the dawn of a new Democratic resurgence known as CarperTown.

His lieutenant governor, Ruth Ann Minner, and finance secretary, John Carney, would both go on to become governor. His labor secretary, Blunt Rochester, reached Congress, and his support of Jack Markell launched the political career of the relatively unknown businessman to a stunning governorship of his own. He tapped the former county councilman Mike Purzycki to lead redevelopment efforts at the Riverfront, and today he serves as the city’s two-term mayor.

For an entire generation of state leadership, Carper has been a kingmaker. His impact will be felt for generations longer as those he’s influenced likewise impart their wisdom to a new generation.

So while the Boxwood plant he saved may now be gone, his iconic Chrysler minivan has been replaced with a sleek Tesla, and Arner’s, the New Castle restaurant where he ate breakfast on every Election Day for decades, may be a thing of the past, rest assured that CarperTown will endure.

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