Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf gets primary challenge

Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf gets primary challenge

Don Peterson, a progressive Democrat from Rehoboth Beach, filed papers Wednesday to dislodge perhaps the most powerful Democrat in the Delaware House, Pete Schwartzkopf, from his elected perch.

Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth, has not faced a Democratic primary opponent since being elected in 2002. He was picked to hold the powerful caucus role of House speaker by his colleagues in 2012. But Peterson, 63, a civil-service retiree, said the 14th District is now a different kind of community — namely, more liberal — than it was when Schwartzkopf, a longtime Sussex resident, was first elected.

In an interview shortly after filing candidacy papers, Peterson said he disagreed with Schwartzkopf on key, big-picture issues. Schwartzkopf opposes full death penalty repeal for Delaware; Peterson supports it. Peterson also said he was dismayed that the legislature swiftly passed the Delaware Competes Act, a package of corporate tax reductions meant to preserve jobs, at the start of the session. Schwartzkopf, along with all but three House Democrats, voted for it.

“I would not have voted for the Delaware Competes Act. There hasn’t been any evidence that that kind of thing really works,” Peterson said.

Moreover, Peterson said, the responsibilities of being speaker lead Schwartzkopf to have less time for constituent care.

“Everybody’s only got so much time and energy. Speaker of the House is a big job. That means there’s less time to focus on people in the district,” Peterson said. “And this district has changed a lot in the last 14 years. A lot of us are like me: transplants. I started to get the sense that Pete was out of touch with that.”

Schwartzkopf, a retired Delaware State Police troop commander, is a linchpin figure in Delaware’s Democratically-controlled General Assembly. He is the only Democrat representing any part of Sussex County in the legislature; his district includes liberal-for-Sussex areas like Rehoboth Beach, Dewey Beach and greater Lewes.

As the speaker of the House of Representatives, he has an outsize role in setting the legislative agenda and decides which committees Democratic representatives will serve on.

Even before Peterson announced his primary challenge, Schwartzkopf has raised sizable campaign funds and racked up endorsements from more than one regional party committee, and he filed to run for re-election much earlier than is common.

“I welcome him [Peterson] into the race,” Schwartzkopf said Wednesday. “The people have elected me to represent them in this district. I owe them nothing less than my best effort.”

Peterson said he called Schwartzkopf weeks ago to give him notice of his run, and Schwartzkopf confirmed that.

“I’ve had several conversations with [Peterson] about the death penalty,” Schwartzkopf said. “He’s very strong in his support for repeal of the death penalty, and I’m not.” Still, Schwartzkopf noted, as speaker he agreed to lift a death penalty bill stuck in committee on to the full House for a vote earlier this year. It failed to win passage.

And the speaker said he does keep up with his district’s needs just as much as he would if he weren’t speaker. “That’s the advantage of being a full-time legislator and not having another job. I have the time,” Schwartzkopf said. “The responsibility to my district comes first. Always has, always will.”

Peterson is a former employee of the federal Food and Drug Administration. He has owned a beach home in Rehoboth since 2000, he said; in 2013, he and his husband, Jeff, became full-time residents there. Peterson is the chair of a social justice committee in the Unitarian Universalists of Southern Delaware, a member of the NAACP and a member of the Southern Delaware Coalition for Racial Justice.

“I think Pete has done a great job for the people in this district. He’s done some things I’m extremely grateful for, such as supporting LGBT equality and marriage,” Peterson said.

At the same time, Peterson’s campaign website makes pointed promises that he’ll be unentangled by links to donors with vested interests in what the legislature does.

“I will not govern via secret meetings and backroom deals. And I will not take donations from the NRA, police PACs, or big developers,” Peterson’s site says.

Schwartzkopf said groups and individuals that donate to his campaign committee get no special favors: “That’s not the way it works, at least not with me.”

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