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Former Del. Senate leader Richard Cordrey dies at 88

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Former Senate President Pro Tempore Richard Cordrey, who set the record for longest tenure in the role upon his retirement in 1996, died Saturday at age 88. | PHOTO COURTESY OF GOVERNOR’S OFFICE

MILLSBORO – Richard Cordrey, a Democratic state legislator who spent decades in the State House and set the record for the longest term as leader of the State Senate, died Saturday at age 88.

A cause of death has not been publicly shared, but he reportedly passed peacefully at his home, according to an obituary.

A Millsboro native, Cordrey was a lifelong grain and poultry farmer in Sussex County prior to winning his first elected state post in the House of Representatives in 1970. Two years later, he would be elected to State Senate in District 20 and go on to become the lion of Delaware’s upper legislative chamber.

Early into his Senate career, Cordrey showed a propensity for dealing with financial challenges, a trait that would characterize much of his public life.

“In 1974, when someone declared the state bankrupt, Sen. Cordrey worked with Gov. [Sherman] Tribbitt to get us through,” longtime friend and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Sharp recalled to the Cape Gazette in 2012.

Cordrey took the gavel as the Senate’s president pro tempore in 1977 and held it until his retirement from elected office in 1996, a 19-year run that has not been surpassed. Cordrey led during an integral period for Delaware, serving amid four different governors beginning with Pete du Pont and ending with Tom Carper.

Early in his leadership tenure, Cordrey negotiated with Republican Gov. du Pont over aggressive measures to balance the state’s budget. He helped shepherd the state constitutional amendment that limits spending to 98% of projected revenue in a fiscal year, saving 2% annually to build a “Rainy Day Fund.” He also worked with du Pont on the landmark 1981 Financial Center Development Act that established Wilmington as a banking center of the world, largely by loosening regulations on credit operations.

Mark Brainard, who served as chief of staff to Senate Democrats from 1984 to 1987 under Cordrey, recalled the kind and respectful approach that Cordrey brought to legislating.

“I really don’t know anyone that ever interacted with him who had a negative thing to say about his approach to his work,” he told Delaware Business Times on Tuesday. “That really is unheard of in politics, especially when you’re a leader.”

Brainard said that Cordrey embraced working with the Republican governors of du Pont and Castle, and it wasn’t just a performance. For many years, he had breakfast with fellow Millsboro resident John J. Williams, who was a Republican U.S. senator for Delaware for nearly 24 years.

“I think that was so much of what he brought to Dover. The bottom line is we need to sit down and talk about how we all arrive at consensus and compromise so that the final solution is for the greater good of the state,” Brainard recalled.

Cordrey’s departure from Legislative Hall was not the end of his public service though, as he was tapped by Gov. Ruth Ann Minner to be her second-term finance secretary from 2005 to 2009. In that role, he oversaw state revenue and expenditures to ensure efficient annual budgeting.

Brainard would reunite with his old friend, serving as chief of staff to Minner, and recalled that it wasn’t a hard sell to recruit Cordrey back into service. His time heading the Department of Finance would not be the most notable, due primarily to the lean financial times that Minner inherited, having closed budget deficits and holding spending throughout her eight years.

“It was Gov. Minner’s philosophy that you surround yourself with the most talented leaders that you can find,” Brainard said of recruiting Cordrey. “I remember when Senator Cordrey came back as secretary there was a collective comfort level and satisfaction that there was an experienced hand on the wheel.”

Current Gov. John Carney, who served with Cordrey as Minner’s lieutenant governor, said he was saddened to learn of the passing of “one-of-a-kind leader in the Delaware General Assembly.” He ordered the state’s flags to be flown at half-staff until Aug. 27 in Cordrey’s honor.

“He was the ultimate southern Delaware gentleman who was well liked and respected by Delawareans across our state. He brought a certain grace to his work as a leader in the State Senate and as Finance Secretary for Governor Minner. His influence on Delaware’s economy – especially his efforts on financial stability – will have a lasting impact on our state,” Carney said in a statement.

Current Senate President Pro Tem David Sokola (D-Newark) called Cordrey a “giant of the General Assembly by every imaginable standard.”

“Hailing from Millsboro, Senator Cordrey was fiercely proud of the agrarian Sussex County community he called home, yet worked hard for the betterment of our entire state,” Sokola said in a statement.

In 2012, the state honored Cordrey’s public service and longtime farming roots by renaming the headquarters of the Delaware Department of Agriculture in Dover in his honor.

“I have thoroughly enjoyed being a farmer and legislator. If I could have chosen any building in the state for my name to be associated with, it would have been this one,” Cordrey said at the ribbon cutting.

Today, Cordrey’s once Democratic senatorial district has swung decidedly Republican and is represented by Senate Minority Leader Gerald Hocker (R-Ocean View). Even the opposing aisle recognized Cordrey’s importance to the state though.

“We thank Senator Cordrey for his service to our state and to the constituents he represented. His legacy of service is one that will be long remembered by those whom he served. His family is in our thoughts and prayers during this difficult time,” the Delaware State Senate Republican Caucus said in a statement.

Cordrey was predeceased by his wife of more than 60 years, Mary Jane. He has two sons, Richard and Stephen.

A viewing will be held from 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 27, at Watson Funeral Home, located at 211 S. Washington St. in Millsboro, followed by a service also at the funeral home. Interment will follow with a police procession to St. Mark’s Episcopal Church Cemetery in Millsboro. A luncheon will follow at the St. Mark’s Church Hall.

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