House Speaker Schwartzkopf steps down, Longhurst elected
DOVER – Delaware House Speaker Peter Schwartzkopf announced Friday that he was stepping down after leading the state’s lower legislative chamber for a decade.
The Rehoboth Beach-area Democrat and retired police officer has led the larger chamber in the Delaware General Assembly with a strong hand, wielding the authority to marshal bills along or confine them to committee floors. The 68-year-old has increasingly come at odds with a growing progressive wing of younger Democrats though, and he’s been more frequently on the minority side of some high-profile votes.
Pausing during the legislative affairs of the House on the last day of the 2023 session, Schwartzkopf announced that he would step back from the role, citing a desire to spend more time with his family, especially after a health scare with his wife last year.
He recommended that House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst take over his role, and House Democrats elected her to the post Friday night.
It’s a historic transition, as Longhurst is the first woman to lead the Delaware House of Representatives.
Longhurst, who was first elected in 2004, was elected majority whip in 2008 and became majority leader in 2012.
“Today is a historic day and I am truly humbled by the faith my caucus has placed in me to serve as the first female Speaker of the House,” Longhurst (D-Bear) said in a statement, “It is an extraordinary privilege to be part of a groundbreaking, all-female leadership team and I’m looking forward to working with them to create a future where every voice is heard, every individual is valued and every community thrives.”
In addition to electing Longhurst as speaker, Democratic caucus members also elected Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown as House Majority Leader and Rep. Kerri Evelyn Harris as House Majority Whip. This is the first time in Delaware history that a person of color has been elected as majority leader, and the first time an open member of the LGBTQ+ community has been elected to leadership in either chamber.
The speaker of the House has the power to decide what committee receives a bill, as well as the membership of the committees.
With that power, however, Schwartzkopf found times where he was at odds with some fellow House Democrats.
Last year, his longtime opposition to legalization of recreational marijuana helped to stymie the effort’s push in Delaware. He voted against the legalization bill and told business leaders that he would fight an effort to overturn Gov. John Carney’s veto on the measure.
His opposition helped to sink efforts last year, but a veto-proof majority passing it this year led Schwartzkopf to support creating a regulatory framework for marijuana sales but again opposing legalization again.
He was also criticized for his uneven punishments of House members accused of crimes and inaction on the removal of indicted former State Auditor Kathy McGuiness.
Yet the retired Delaware State Police captain and troop commander with 25 years of service was supportive of some police reform efforts. This year, he helped pass a slate of reforms to Delaware’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBOR), marking the first changes to the state’s police oversight rules in decades.
Schwartzkopf also oversaw the passage of a minimum wage hike, protections of abortion and LGBTQ+ rights, gun control measures and new environmental protections.
He also helped lead lawmakers through the COVID-19 pandemic, moving the state house to remote operations and then bringing them fully back to in-person debates in 2022.
“It’s been a tremendous honor to serve in this position and to see how our state and many of my colleagues have grown through the years. I often joke that we’re a lot like a family – we fight, we argue, but we ultimately care about each other and the people we represent,” Schwartzkopf said in a statement. “I’m proud of what we have accomplished, and I know that under Valerie’s leadership, this caucus and chamber will continue to achieve great things for all the people of Delaware.”
Schwartzkopf was first elected in 2002 to represent Rehoboth Beach, Lewes and Dewey Beach, He served as House Majority Leader from 2009 to 2013 before being elected by fellow Democrats to serve as speaker.
“Speaker Schwartzkopf is not just a great colleague, but a good friend. He’s also provided tremendous service to our state … Pete guided the Delaware House during some of the most challenging times in recent history. I know he is very much looking forward to having more time to spend with his wife and grandchildren — and he deserves it. I look forward to working with Pete as he continues to represent his district the rest of this session,” Gov. John Carney said in a statement.
Thanking his service to the state, Delaware State Chamber of Commerce President Michael Quaranta said in a statement, “Every now and again, the public is quite fortunate to have lifelong servant leaders in their midst. Pete Schwarzkopf — the lifeguard, police officer, spouse, father, friend, and so much more — served with distinction as Speaker of this historic body. His professionalism and willingness to consider a wide array of viewpoints has served Delawareans well.”