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Former DNREC Secretary O’Mara plans governor run

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WILMINGTON – In the latest twist in the 2024 election, Collin O’Mara, a former Delaware Secretary of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and current CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, is exploring a run for governor.

Collin O'Mara

Collin O’Mara | PHOTO COURTESY OF O’MARA FOR DELAWARE

O’Mara, who has kept a home in Bear despite working out of Washington, D.C., for nearly the last decade, has formed a campaign committee to run in the 2024 Democratic Primary.

He joins a gubernatorial campaign that already features New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer and Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall Long, who has been endorsed by Gov. John Carney but also been hamstrung by prior campaign finance issues.

O’Mara told Delaware Business Times on Monday morning that a number of people had reached out to him about running, and he said his filing came because he wasn’t satisfied with the current field and that he felt he could offer voters something different.

“I think the public is desperate for another option,” he said. “They want to talk about bigger things, and I think the recent polling has shown that.”

The campaign has been the subject of the state’s rumor mill for a few months, but still comes as a surprise because O’Mara has largely been out of the local public eye since taking over the NWF. He also now has less than nine months to begin fundraising and setting up a campaign team and infrastructure before the 2024 primary election on Sept. 3. According to the campaign’s statement of incorporation, O’Mara’s treasurer is J. Brett Taylor, who is director of finance for the city of Wilmington.

Although O’Mara’s time on Capitol Hill and at the NWF’s headquarters in D.C. often ends up in the national media, he is quick to note that his family life in Bear, where his three children attend the Appoquinimink School District and he coaches youth sports at the YMCA of Bear, has flown more below the radar over the past decade.

His involvement as board chair of the Mid-Atlantic Clean Hydrogen Hub (MACH2), a regional nonprofit that was recently chosen by the Biden administration for $750 million in funding to help build out cleaner hydrogen production, has also kept him close to local officials and business leaders.

The experience of MACH2 has convinced O’Mara that Delaware needs to be more aggressive in its efforts to sell itself and the region as a destination for jobs of the future.

“I think the MACH2 experience proves that if we pull the pieces together, especially across the region, we can compete with anybody on the economic side,” he said. “With all these historic federal investment opportunities, it would be crazy not to seize those opportunities.”

O’Mara said his campaign would work to improve “the Four E’s” – the economy, education, environment, and equitable access to housing, health care, and public safety. He stressed that economic opportunity was a driver for change in public education support and environmental protection,

“I think there’s an opportunity to create a ton of good jobs here if we take advantage of this moment in time, where we even have a president from the state driving the investment,” he said, noting that he felt other regions were benefiting more from the billions allocated by the Biden administration to date.

As head of DNREC from 2009 to 2014 – then the youngest cabinet secretary in the nation at age 29 when then-Gov. Jack Markell appointed him – O’Mara helped to make the department more assertive in the fight against climate change. He oversaw the creation of a statewide recycling program and the development of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) to cap and reduce power sector carbon dioxide emissions across a dozen states.

He also helped oversee the reduction of coal-fired power production and the increase of cleaner fuels like natural gas and green energy like solar. One of his biggest controversies though was supporting the deal to subsidize Bloom Energy’s operations in Newark, with Delmarva Power ratepayers having now paid millions to the company that hasn’t hit promised job levels. That subsidy runs for another decade.

As CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, the nation’s largest grassroots conservation organization with 7 million members and supporters, O’Mara lobbied for the Inflation Reduction Act, the Infrastructure Jobs and Reinvestment Act, the Great American Outdoors Act, and the Delaware River Basin Conservation Act.

Delaware has continued to advance environmental priorities under Gov. Carney, including the recently announced regulations to reduce new gas-powered car sales by 82% by 2032, the state’s net-zero emission Climate Change Solutions Act, and a stricter Renewable Portfolio Standards law.

As governor, O’Mara said that he’d want to continue that progress in balance with the economic opportunities that the green-energy economy can bring.

“I’d like to see us be much more aggressive in making sure that the technologies that the companies are using to reduce emissions and reduce pollution are actually made in Delaware or made in the region,” he said. “I can make the case until I’m blue in the face on the environmental benefits, but … we’ve got to figure out ways to make the economics work. I’d like to utilize state and federal funding and private financing to try to make our net-zero and 100% clean electricity journey the obvious economic choice, and not just the necessary environmental choice.”

With the campaign’s launch, O’Mara will scale back his hours at the NWF, but does not plan to step down, he said. The MACH2 board position is a non-compensated role that is largely advisory, with a hired staff soon coming on to lead the day-to-day operations, he added.

Prior to leading DNREC, he served as economic development officer and clean tech strategist for the city of San José, Calif., and as assistant budget director for the city of Syracuse, N.Y.

He graduated from Dartmouth College and Oxford University as a Marshall Scholar, before serving as a university fellow at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. His wife, Krishanti “Krish” O’Mara Vignarajah, served as policy director for First Lady Michelle Obama and currently leads one of the nation’s largest immigration nonprofits, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. They have three daughters.

Vignarajah notably ran for governor of Maryland in 2018, finishing fourth in the Democratic primary.

On Monday, County Executive Meyer said that his gubernatorial campaign would not change even with the introduction of O’Mara into the race.

“This is about protecting Delawareans who’ve been regularly left out and left behind, and who has a track record to show that they’ve done that,” he told Delaware Business Times. “We’re eager to continue talking about leading this state forward in a way that leaves the multimillion-dollar insider deals of the past behind us.”

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