Newest candidate shakes up Delaware’s Democratic primary race for governor

The former state environmental protection chief has never run for office. He’ll face two prominent politicians also vying to replace Gov. Carney.

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Collin O'Mara poses for a photo

Former Delaware environmental protection chief Collin O'Mara is running in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. (Courtesy of Collin O'Mara)

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For six months, the rivalry  for the Democratic nomination to replace Gov. John Carney has blazed between two prominent politicians — Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long and New Castle Castle County Executive Matt Meyer.

In the wings, however, was Collin O’Mara, a former state cabinet secretary who has never run for office. O’Mara, who heads the National Wildlife Federation, raised money while assessing whether he’d have a chance should he enter the race.

And now O’Mara has joined the race, filing his candidacy this week for the Sept. 10 primary.

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O’Mara led the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control from 2009 to 2014; he told WHYY News he is running for governor because Delaware needs a true progressive in the governor’s office, and he’s the best  candidate for the job.

“It’s clear that folks want an alternative that’s more progressive, that’s got a bolder, kind of a bigger agenda that’s really focused on some of the biggest challenges we’re facing, whether that’s our public schools, the future of the economy, the future of working families, the future of confronting climate change, and addressing some of these fundamental rights,’’ O’Mara said. “I think we can provide that and hopefully folks will take a look.”

O’Mara pointed out that  his children are enrolled in public schools and that as governor he could “help lead the conversation” about improving the historically low academic performance of Delaware K-12 students. He said the public school system needs more funding and a stronger focus on having kids ready to learn when they start kindergarten.

“We’ve been dancing around the education conversation for upwards of 35 years now, and we need additional investment,’’ O’Mara said. “We need a focus on universal pre-K for 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds. We need to make sure we’re providing free breakfast and lunch for students, so they’re ready to learn.

“There’s the new report that just came out looking at how we’re underfunding students that are multilingual learners or are experiencing poverty. There’s just a massive conversation that we’ve docked for decades on education.”

Meyer responded to O’Mara’s candidacy by saying he would continue focusing on the needs of all Delaware’s 1 million residents, citing achievements since 2017. He singled out his creation of the Hope Center for people experiencing homelessness, training teens in computer programming and lowering property taxes.

Matt Meyer
New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer says transparency is paramount. (New Castle County)

“The race isn’t about me, Collin or Bethany. It’s about hardworking families in Delaware,’’ the two-term county executive said in an interview. “We have a vision to move the state forward. We have a proven track record of getting things done, We know Delawareans want more, not more of the same.”

Meyer also dismissed the notion that O’Mara could claim the mantle of most progressive among the candidates.

“We’ve accomplished more in less time than previous [New Castle County] administrations,’’ Meyer said. “There’s gonna be a lot of talk about who the progressive candidate is. The root word of progressive is progress, and if you ask people who’ve gone through the Hope  Center, if you ask people who’ve had a chance to experience a thousand kids coding and a number of other programs that we introduced at the county, that’s progress. And real progress for Delawareans.”

Hall-Long, a two-term lieutenant governor who was elected in 2017 after spending 15 years in the state House and Senate, did not agree to an interview.

Bethany Hall-Long is seen in a headshot
Bethany Hall-Long, Delaware’s lieutenant governor. (State of Delaware)

Instead, the University of Delaware nursing professor who lives in a Middletown-area golf course community issued a statement that targeted the affluence of her opponents.

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“I will welcome anyone into the race that wants to move Delaware forward and cares about the future for all Delawareans,’’ her statement said. “Voters have the choice between two millionaire self-funders and someone who has had boots on the ground and a proven track record of getting things done.

“I understand the rising cost of living and struggles Delawareans face. I’ve spent my entire life helping the people of Delaware and am committed to making our state the best place to live, work, and raise a family.”

Hall-Long has refused extended interviews about her candidacy, and has not spoken at all with WHYY News since her fledgling campaign was thrown into disarray within days of her September launch. Her candidacy kicked off with her staffers and volunteers starting to revolt and some resigning over her explanations for $207,000 in undisclosed campaign payments made since 2017 to her husband and campaign treasurer, Dana Long.

Hall-Long suspended fundraising for several weeks and later issued statements saying the checks to her husband were repayments for loans the couple had made to the campaign. She blamed the “errors and confusion’’ on the couple’s sloppy financial practices, and amended her reports to reflect that she — not her husband —had loaned $308,000 to the campaign. State law requires that all loans be disclosed on campaign finance reports.

O’Mara disclosed $750,000 he loaned to his campaign, and Meyer listed $580,000 in loans he made, when they filed their campaign finance reports for 2023 in January. Those reports showed that Meyer had $1.7 million in his campaign account — far more than both Hall-Long and O’Mara.

The winner of the primary advances to the Nov. 5 general election. Jerrold Price, a retired New York City and Rehoboth Police officer who has never run for elected office, is currently the only Republican candidate.

Delaware Democrats hold a nearly 2-1 voter registration advantage over Republicans, and hold all nine statewide elective posts.

O’Mara has ‘outsider or challenger status’ in three-candidate race

So what impact could O’Mara have on the contest?

Samuel B. Hoff, professor emeritus of political science at Delaware State University, said O’Mara is an attractive addition to the ballot and gives Delaware’s Democratic voters a solid third choice.

While many political insiders have said privately that O’Mara could hurt Meyer because the race is now two men against one woman in a contest where Hall-Long has trumpeted the fact that she would be Delaware’s second female governor, Hoff has a different view.

Professor Hoff in a photo
Professor Hoff says O’Mara will now inherit the “challenger” status against Meyer and Hall-Long. (Delaware State University)

He thinks O’Mara will draw votes from Meyer because he’s seen as the outsider in the race. The professor said Meyer previously held that role because he’s not part of the entrenched state Democratic establishment, unlike Hall-Long, who has been in office for more than two decades and counts  endorsements from Gov. Carney, House Speaker Valerie Longhurst and a host of additional legislators. Carney is barred by state law from seeking a third term, but is mulling a run for mayor of Wilmington.

O’Mara’s “entry is most challenging or damaging, if you will, to Mr. Meyer,’’ Hoff said. O’Mara now has the “outside or challenger status and although he certainly was an insider, he’s been in an independent position for a number of years.’’

Hoff said the bottom line is that O’Mara could appeal to a wide range of voters.

At age 44, he’s the youngest in the race, which could make him the favorite of Gen Zers,, Hoff said. Meyer is 52, and Hall-Long is 60.

The professor also cited O’Mara’s leadership roles with the state and the wildlife group, saying his work in those posts show he has administrative experience and should also play well with environmentalists.

In addition, O’Mara can claim a nationwide financial network through his contacts with the wildlife group, which he could tap for donations, as well as his own resources.

The bottom line, Hoff said, is that O’Mara is “in the race to stay.”

Asked about Hoff’s analysis, Meyer said he expects his achievements as county executive will matter when fellow Democrats go to the polls in six months.

“When you go to the ballot box, you want to vote for someone who they can trust to actually do the job, someone with a proven track record of delivering for families right here in Delaware,” Meyer said. “We’ve delivered real results for eight years. We’re proud of that.”

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