‘Trying to get 1 vote, 2 votes’: Delaware gubernatorial candidates woo fellow Democrats, 1 small group at a time

Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long, New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer, and former state environmental chief Collin O’Mara face off in the Sept. 10 primary.

Bethany Hall-Long, Collin O'Mara and Matt Meyer sit at a table.

From left, Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long, former state environmental chief Collin O'Mara, and New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer, at Thursday night's forum. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

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It’s a weeknight in northern Delaware’s working-class suburbs, and the three Democrats running for governor politely take turns sharing their platforms and answering the questions of barely three dozen party loyalists.

Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long, New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer, and former state environmental chief Collin O’Mara want to govern the state’s one million residents, but to get there, the first step is winning the Sept. 10 Democratic primary.

So for two hours Thursday, that meant angling for votes, perhaps volunteers and campaign funds too, by offering their views on education, gun violence, and other issues to members of the  17th District Democratic Committee, located in the New Castle area. It’s one of 41 such groups up and down the state that correlate with state House of Representatives districts.

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Bethany Hall-Long speaks to the crowd
Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long makes a point. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

And all three know that beyond the home mail solicitations and advertising on television, radio and social media that will be coming this summer, these small-scale forums give them a chance to connect face-to-face with Democrats who will likely be among 80,000 expected to vote in the primary.

That’s how it’s done at the grassroots level in Delaware, the sixth-least populated state.

Statewide candidates attend meet-and-greets with civic and advocacy groups, their nights a blur of firehouses, stranger’s homes, banquet rooms, and office spaces.

Thursday’s setting was the state Democratic Party headquarters, where the candidates spoke in a room filled with photos, posters, and banners of the party’s torchbearers — Delaware luminaries like President Biden, U.S. Sen. Tom Carper,  late former Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, and current Gov. John Carney.

O’Mara, a first-time candidate and the last to enter the race to succeed Carney, said he hoped his pledge to be a bold and progressive governor would resonate with attendees who would spread the word about him.

“If the people here today tell two people each, all of a sudden that begins to multiply, and in a race that’s likely only gonna have 80,000 turn out, each one of these little events matter,’’ O’Mara said.

Collin O'Mara speaks to the crowd
Collin O’Mara addresses the party faithful. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Meyer agreed, and differentiated his state from bigger ones.

“This is Delaware. I’m trying to get one vote, two votes,’’ the two-term county executive said. “When you run for governor In Maryland, you don’t have to go to talk to 15-20-25 persons. You’re not expected to go to every firehouse and talk. In Delaware, you are. It’s one of the things that’s great. It’s local government at its best.”

Matt Meyer speaks to the crowd
New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer answers a question. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Hall-Long, a University of Delaware nursing professor who spent 14 years in the state legislature before being elected lieutenant governor alongside Carney in 2016, said she has always enjoyed being able to “share my vision” with residents in small settings.

“I love being in the community,” Hall-Long said. “People care about the issues.”

The 17th House District in the New Castle area south of Wilmington has 10,600 Democrats, who far outnumber Republicans in the area of modest neighborhoods and apartment complexes. Mary Jones, who chairs the committee, said that with three strong candidates for governor, it’s important for residents to see them up close.

“We wanted to be able to host an event where people could come out, hear from candidates, so they can make a wise or a good decision when it comes to voting in September,’’ Jones said.

“It’s vital because people need to hear from each one and see how they will fit into what we’re looking for.”

The Democratic primary winner will face the victor of the Republican primary — either House Minority Leader Mike Ramone or former New York City and Rehoboth Beach officer Jerry Price  — in the Nov. 5 general election.

But on this evening, the Democratic trio sat together, chatted amiably with each other, and took turns addressing issues.

Here’s a sampling of each candidate’s remarks when asked about a recent spate of gun violence: a fatal shooting during a carnival at Concord Mall; several episodes in Wilmington, and a murder-suicide in Kent County.

“Never, never did I ever envision that the number one cause of childhood deaths would be guns …  So whether it’s domestic, whether it’s suicide prevention, we have to lean into root causes. And root causes are things such as having wraparound services and resources. I marched with some of you on the streets with Stop the Violence programs, and it has to start sooner with trauma and prevention, and that’s why universal birth to 5 [preschool] will help us all.”

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“We need to continue to be on the forefront in gun control legislation and regulation. … We need to make sure that [police] officers who put on uniforms every day have every tool available to make sure guns are being taken off the street. … We need to start in elementary schools across our state but particularly in those highest violence areas to make sure we have the most extensive and comprehensive conflict resolution curriculum, to make sure we’re using it so that even if they can get hands on the guns, they don’t want to.”

“We’re a drop zone along the I-95 corridor for guns that are being run from New York to D.C. and Baltimore. And so I think we need to do more to stop the importation of illegal guns. … Our red flag law hasn’t really been put into practice in a real way in this state … If a household’s going to have a gun with kids, we should either have the biometric sensors on them or the safety measures to make sure the kids can’t get them. We’ve seen too many kids either commit suicide if they are a little older, or [if they are] younger have the guns go off unintentionally.”

In their closing remarks, each staked their claim to the governorship.

O’Mara, who currently heads the National Wildlife Federation, applauded Meyer and Hall-Long for their government service but said, “going along to get along isn’t getting it done right now. … You’re going to need a governor who is willing to break some eggs and again not always just play nice. The Delaware way is not serving us right now when we have 75,000 kids that can’t read at grade level. We have 39,000 kids right now that are living in poverty.”

“We have a budget that has ballooned from $4 billion to $6 billion without any kind of major reprioritization outside of a few small initiatives here. … Let’s try something different because the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

Bethany Hall-Long, Collin O'Mara and Matt Meyer sit at a table.
The candidates moved closer to the small audience midway through the forum. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Meyer, a lawyer and former public school teacher, said that electing a local government leader to run the state government will benefit both residents and county and municipal leaders because he’s dealt with day-to-day needs like public safety, homelessness and providing vital services.

He pointed out that during the coronavirus pandemic, he led the way in procuring testing for county residents. He cited the Hope Center, a converted hotel that has served as a transition center for hundreds of unhoused people, as an example of his ingenuity and forward-thinking management style.

“We like to say there are a lot of promises, particularly during election time,’’ Meyer told the audience. “We don’t make promises, we make plans. We’re going to develop plans, roll up our sleeves and get real things done for you.”

Hall-Long, who had referred several times to her “competitive’’ nature, reiterated her desire to be the state’s second woman governor and first nurse nationwide to hold a governorship. She touted her work with other political and community leaders to address the behavioral health issues and opioid overdose deaths, and also to preserve health care benefits for retired state employees.

Noting that she had the endorsement of organized labor and other political leaders such as Carney, who is running for mayor of Wilmington, Hall-Long said her focus was on individual voters like those in the room Thursday night.

“Those who have known me throughout the years know that I have a bold and innovative plan around education and economics, really have that collaborative leadership style,’’ she said. “That’s what made me very successful, and all the races here in the state up through the years. But it’s also what’s going to make me successful as your next governor, whether it’s the police, whether it’s education, whether it’s health care.”

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