WILMINGTON – Many have eulogized former Gov. Pierre S. “Pete” du Pont IV in the days and weeks following his passing earlier this month.
[caption id="attachment_203722" align="alignright" width="277"] Jacob Owens Editor Delaware Business Times[/caption]
I can’t claim to have met the man who so many have recalled fondly as a leader with an insatiable interest, an impulse to tackle the tough work and a desire to keep others joyful. In falling down the late-night wormhole of newspaper articles, history textbooks, YouTube videos and long-forgotten podcasts, I can appreciate how du Pont changed for the better the Delaware in which I’ve lived the majority of my life.Du Pont may have been born a son of Delaware’s most-famous family, but he never took that stature in life for granted.“He was very comfortable in his own skin. He knew who he was and knew that came with responsibility, and he was willing to step up and take that responsibility,” recalled Bob Perkins, one of the chiefs of staff during du Pont’s time in the governor’s mansion.
[caption id="attachment_211442" align="aligncenter" width="480"] Former Gov. Pete du Pont died Saturday after a long illness. He is widely credited with the growth of financial services in Delaware. | PHOTO COURTESY OF PETE DUPONT FREEDOM FOUNDATION[/caption]
Although du Pont could have accepted fate’s hand and worked his way through the upper echelons of the DuPont company, he chose a different path that came with considerably more headaches: public service.Du Pont took the helm of a Delaware that was in a fiscal and political mess, having not passed a balanced budget in years and failing to produce a two-term governor in two decades. Partisan rancor was par for the course, and it was up to the 41-year-old governor to chart a new course for the state.During his time in Dover, du Pont won over a bipartisan coalition of legislators to help get his agenda passed, including two income tax cuts – the first in Delaware’s history. This era of collaboration and cooperation would bear out the standard of “The Delaware Way,” referring to the ability of the small state with only a few dozen elected lawmakers to reach compromises amicably through discussion.His major legislative achievements, the 1981 Financial Center Development Act and state constitutional amendments to rein in state spending, had produced eight consecutive balanced budgets and begun to create tens of thousands of new jobs spurred by the arrival of the credit card industry in downtown Wilmington.He easily won re-election in 1980 with more than 70% of the vote and concluded his second term in January 1985 riding high on a public approval rating pushing 90%. Du Pont’s lieutenant governor, Mike Castle, would continue their work, having been elected governor with more than 55% of the vote just a few months prior.“The story of Pete du Pont is one of bringing Delaware out of the doldrums and into success,” Castle told me this month.With a resume that was already being compared to the best governors in the state’s long history, it was clear that du Pont quite literally had the ability to pick his future. Many in the state's political apparatus urged him to run in 1984 for the U.S. Senate seat then held by a young Joe Biden. He had already been forced to sit out a run in 1972 when Biden upset Sen. J. Caleb Boggs, a fateful move orchestrated by President Richard Nixon who thought Boggs was the better candidate.
[caption id="attachment_207894" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] President Joe Biden, seen here on Nov. 7 after being declared winner of the presidency, has appointed numerous former Obama administration officials to his federal government, but some have First State ties. | PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVID LIENEMANN/ BIDEN CAMPAIGN[/caption]
In many ways it would have made sense. Du Pont had already served three terms as Delaware’s lone congressman but chafed at the inability to move much of an agenda as only one of more than 400 House representatives. A Senate seat is often the landing place for popular state governors.But once again du Pont would have a different card up his sleeve, unveiling a run for the 1988 Republican presidential nomination as the first candidate out of the gate in 1986.His campaign was one of grand ideas that were perhaps too ahead of their time – the eventual nominee and eventual President George H.W. Bush would call du Pont’s suggestion of creating a new Social Security offering modeled on private IRA accounts “nutty.” Today, privatizing Social Security investment is a pretty mainstream Republican position.Ultimately, voters stuck with Bush, then running as popular President Ronald Reagan’s vice president. Du Pont would drop out after the New Hampshire primary and support Bush as the nominee.As circumstance would have it, the 1988 race would be the rare occasion when Delaware had two presidential aspirants on the campaign trail. Biden, having easily secured six more years in the Senate with a 1984 campaign win, sought the Democratic nomination.Biden, sidetracked by controversy over alleged plagiarism of campaign speeches, also failed to connect with voters and the nomination was ultimately won by Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.In the end, du Pont’s streak of defying the convention may have paved the path of Biden to the White House. A loss in 1984 to du Pont would likely have ended any higher political aspirations. Instead, Biden would go on to serve decades in the Senate and be tapped for the vice presidency by Barack Obama.With Biden winning the White House more than 20 years after their historic 1988 campaigns, the president recalled du Pont this month as "an iconic son of Delaware.""Though we often disagreed on the issues, I always admired his commitment and unwavering love for the home state we shared," the president said in a statement. "Pete embodied the idea that we can serve the people best when we come together, cross the divide, and treat each other with dignity and respect."It was through that approach that Pete became an indelible figure in the story of Delaware, a mentor to public servants of both parties, and a leader deeply admired by the people he served."I don’t think I could have summed up his legacy any better.
By Jacob Owens
Flash Sale! Subscribe to Delaware Business Times and save 50%.