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DuPont-powered legislature a thing of the past

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Alfred Victor du Pont almost had his name changed to Dorsey Cazenove du Pont at age 13 because of DuPont Powder Co.'s influence on Delaware legislature. After his parents divorced, his father Alfred I. du Pont requested and got a secret meeting of the legislature's Miscellaneous Committee to attempt to change the boy's name. // Photo courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library

Alfred Victor du Pont almost had his name changed to Dorsey Cazenove du Pont at age 13 because of DuPont Powder Co.’s influence on Delaware legislature. After his parents divorced, his father Alfred I. du Pont requested and got a secret meeting of the legislature’s Miscellaneous Committee to attempt to change the boy’s name. // Photo courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library

by Kathy Canavan

The DuPont Powder Co. had such sway in the Delaware House in 1913 that lawmakers met in secret when company vice president Alfred I. du Pont proposed a bill to change the name of his 13-year-old son.

He wanted Alfred Victor du Pont, the product of his first marriage, to be renamed Dorsey Cazenove du Pont. He said the boy showed tendencies that might eventually bring disgrace on his name.  More on that later.

When Sen. David P. Sokola, was “excessed” from DuPont Co. last May, politicos were stunned the company would let a state legislator go.  As the DuPont Co. waned, so would the Delaware tradition of DuPonters running for the state legislature. “I was the last one,” Sokola said, “I have no ill feelings toward DuPont. They gave me 25 years where I was able to do both jobs.”

“They’ve been dwindling over the years as DuPont has dwindled,” said Sen. Karen E. Peterson. “Yeah, it is kind of surprising Dave Sokola was the last DuPonter in the Senate, but, you know, the world’s changing. There was a time when there were a lot more people from industry, but industry has gone away.”

“The private sector is just so much more volatile than it used to be,” said Sen. Sokola, who now works as a spinning instructor and senior fitness coach.

In 1969, 12 DuPont employees and three du Pont family members were serving in the legislature. “The company,” as it was called when it was Delaware’s premiere employer, allowed employees to take up to 20 percent of their paid work time for civic endeavors.

Even with 15 DuPont-connected members, that 125th General Assembly was genuinely diverse  – one senator was a du Pont and another was a meat cutter at Food Fair. The House members included a bank teller, a bridge operator, a business owner, an attorney, a dry cleaner, a well driller, a vegetable farmer, two homemakers and the owner of an equipment company.

Only four of them were public employees or public retirees. By 1997, there would be 20 public employees. In 2016, there are 24. Almost one in four current legislators has received a government paycheck.

Ten are current State of Delaware employees.

Dual employment, or “double dipping,” is legal in Delaware. It is illegal in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia, according to the National Council of State Legislators.

As businesses trim staff, legislators say, they are less willing to allow employees leave for legislative duties. That means more public employees and more business owners are running for office. The current legislature includes 14 small-business owners.

“It’s hard to work in the private sector and serve in the legislature because of the time commitment,” Sen. Petersen said. “DuPont was a company that gave employees time. Most private companies would not do that. I think that makes it difficult for anyone from the private sector.”

Even “Uncle Dupie” made it less comfortable to take time off as the years went on, three DuPonters said.

Will the sway of state workers and state pensioners tip the vote when legislator drill down on state employee health insurance costs this session? Or when they decide whether state retirees should get a 1 percent raise in their pensions as they did last year?

“The public is always concerned whenever there’s a vote on something that could benefit legislators,” said A. Richard Heffron, president of the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s got to affect it,” said Bob Byrd, a veteran lobbyist who served two terms as a Democrat House member in the mid-’70s. “The public employees, and the teachers, in particular, are very strong in this state. They support people and those people get elected. Then you’re looking at it two ways – No. 1, you’re looking at it from their supporters are the public-employee unions.  And there’s also the fact that they come out of the public-employee mold themselves. I mean, you’re not going to get a really good business look at things.”

Sen. Sokola, a Democrat, disagreed: “I think the public is perfectly capable of weighing who they want to represent them. They ran for office as state employees. I think it’s nice to have diversity in the legislature, but who am I to tell a district we already have enough teachers or people from the Department of Labor? Let the voters decide.

“I do have heartburn about somebody getting elected and then taking a public job.” 

Sen. Petersen, a Democrat, also disagreed: “I have seen the legislature change over the years in terms of the makeup, but I think it’s still pretty well balanced. You’ll find people coming from different segments of government, but that’s not to say we’re all singing from the same song sheet, especially when it comes to public employees. We have very different views, usually along party lines.”

Former Rep. Joseph G. DiPinto, a Republican who served in the legislature for 33 years, said legislators who are state employees should recuse themselves from votes that affect them. “When you have to vote on the budget and it doesn’t include a raise for you – or it does – I think you should walk away and not vote on it,” DiPinto said.

He said lack of diversity within the legislature leads to fewer solutions to the problems the state faces: “We have too many police. We have too many teachers. We have too many state employees in the legislature. Without question, the lack of diversity has diminished the ability within the legislature to solve problems, and I don’t mean just professionals from DuPont or wherever. You don’t have to be a professional to think logically and reason and accept new information.”

“It’s absolutely wrong to be ruled by an elite,” said Di Pinto, a chemical engineer. “When the government was set up, it was intended that legislators would be citizen legislators. You went to the legislature and, when the session, was over, you went home and did your work. If you don’t have diversity within these bodies, you lose contact with real people and you lose contact with what the real issues are.”

“If I were to sit back and look at a legislative body should look like,” DiPinto said, “You might have an attorney or two, not too many. A teacher -or several. A plumber and an electrician, a car mechanic, a C.P.A. I don’t want to rule out the traditional professional, but you don’t want to have a preponderance of any one group. I learned a lot by having a mix of people to work with in the legislature. You just don’t have a rich exchange of thought unless you have a rich assortment of age and experience. There aren’t too many young people down there right now.”

When Delaware Sen. David P. Sokola was excessed from his job as a senior laboratory technician at DuPont last May, politicos were surprised DuPont would lay off a state representative. The senator now works as a fitness instructor. // Photo by Luigi Ciuffetelli

When Delaware Sen. David P. Sokola was excessed from his job as a senior laboratory technician at DuPont last May, politicos were surprised DuPont would lay off a state representative. The senator now works as a fitness instructor. // Photo by Luigi Ciuffetelli

Byrd compared the current legislative session with the ’70s when transformative legislation bubbled up: “If you go back and look at the mid-’70s and you look at the number of bills introduced, in a two-year session in both houses, it approaches 2,000,” Byrd said. “We’re in the second year of a two-year session now. We’re not at 500. They’re not being as creative about coming up with ideas and putting in bills.”

Circling back to the 1913 legislature, what happened in that secret meeting of the House’s Miscellaneous Committee?

Although the meeting was held in secret, the New York Times reported the boy’s attorney protested vigorously and presented school reports as proof of the child’s intelligence.

The bill died in committee, although Rep. Edward G. Bradford was said to have favored it.

He was the brother of du Pont’s second wife Mary Alica Heyward Bradford DuPont.

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