Unprecedented primary intrigue in Delaware as convicted auditor faces newcomer

A woman on the left smiles in a headshot, and on the right another woman smiles in a headshot.

Lydia York (left) is challenging Kathy McGuiness (right) in the primary election for Delaware State Auditor. (Courtesy of Lydia York and Kathy McGuiness)

Delaware primary elections in years without a presidential race are generally ho-hum affairs.

The races usually feature incumbent state House or Senate members fending off newcomers seeking office, with little chance of an upset.

One notable exception was 2010, when conservative Republican Christine O’Donnell stunned the state political establishment by knocking off popular U.S. Rep. Mike Castle in the race for the U.S. Senate. Castle was a former two-term governor and considered a shoo-in to take Joe Biden’s old U.S. Senate seat which he vacated to become vice president.

This year, with mail-in balloting now the law, there are no congressional seats at stake in Tuesday’s primary. Only one statewide office is being contested, along with 20 legislative and local seats.

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But that one statewide race, for state auditor, has unprecedented intrigue.

That’s because the first-term incumbent, Democrat Kathy McGuiness, was convicted this summer of official misconduct and conflict of interest. The crimes centered around McGuiness hiring her college-age daughter to a part-time job. She’s the first sitting statewide office holder ever charged with a crime.

Gov. John Carney is poised to remove McGuiness from office in the coming weeks, once she’s sentenced at a date that has not yet been set. But her ultimate political future is in the hands of voters — not the governor. It’s conceivable that she gets banished but wins the primary and general election and retakes office in January.

But the first step is the primary, where McGuiness is facing Lydia York, a lawyer and certified public accountant from Pike Creek who has played a behind-the-scenes role in Delaware Democratic politics in recent years.

If elected, York would become the first Black person to hold the office and only the third Black person to hold a statewide elective post. The others: Lisa Blunt Rochester, the incumbent member of the U.S. House, and Chip Flowers, state treasurer from 2011 to 2015.

Party leaders persuaded York to take on McGuiness earlier this year, while her trial was pending.

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York says voters deserve an auditor with unquestioned integrity and reflected on July 1, when a Kent County jury convicted McGuiness.

“My honest-to-goodness initial reaction when the verdict came down was that this is a sad day, in Delaware politics as well as Delaware state government,’’ York told WHYY News. “That we’ve got a sitting statewide elected official that’s been convicted of misconduct in their office. It’s just a bad thing.”

York says her four-plus decades in the financial and legal arenas — she specializes in wills and trusts — qualifies her to lead the office that oversees spending by state agencies and school districts.

“I have an opportunity to bring both my training and experience, plus a desire to just see things done correctly,’’ she said.

She realizes she is hardly a household name in Delaware, but says she’s been meeting with groups of citizens up and down the state for the last few months and thinks Democrats will vote for change in Tuesday’s primary. York said she expected a good turnout, especially with voting by mail.

York said that if elected, she would prioritize annual reviews of school spending. Delaware has 19 separate districts, each operating independently, as well as more than two dozen charter schools.

“I think a lot of taxpayers would find those results interesting, to say the least,’’ she said. “But I think that it would also eventually serve to improve and enhance the trust that people have in their school districts.”

York also wants an office that operates out of the spotlight, and lets audits speak for themselves.

“Good government is boring,’’ she said. “It does it efficiently and effectively and very much like your light switch.”

‘Fighting for myself and my name and for the truth’

During the first two years and 10 months of her four-year term, that’s what McGuiness did, churning out report after report from audits and largely avoiding the spotlight except for promoting her work on social media.

McGuiness, a pharmacist, business owner, and former Rehoboth Beach commissioner, swept into office in 2018. McGuiness succeeded longtime Republican auditor Tom Wagner, who had stepped down because of health issues and appointed an aide to serve the final months of his tenure.

McGuiness was embraced by Carney and other Democratic leaders as the party cemented its dominance in Delaware, holding all nine statewide elective posts. Democrats hold a nearly two to one margin over Republicans in registration.

Everything changed in October 2021.

That’s when prosecutors charged her with abusing her office, with Attorney General Kathy Jennings holding a news conference outside the Wilmington courthouse to announce that McGuiness had been charged with felony theft and other offenses.

The grand jury indictment led to a continuing cascade of calls from fellow Democrats who control both chambers of the General Assembly to take a leave of absence or resign.

That chorus only grew once she was found guilty of three misdemeanors. Last month Superior Court Judge William C. Carpenter, Jr. acquitted her of the charge of structuring a contract for a campaign aide in violation of state procurement rules but upheld the conflict of interest and official misconduct verdicts.

Carney has said he will follow his constitutional duty and remove her from office after Carpenter sentences her. The Delaware Constitution stipulates that “the governor shall remove from office any public officer convicted of misbehavior in office.”

But with the party now excoriating her and essentially labeling her an outcast while lining up behind York, McGuiness says she isn’t deterred one iota.

With plans to appeal her convictions, McGuiness told WHYY News on Thursday that she hopes voters understand she is innocent and was unfairly targeted for prosecution.

She pointed out that her daughter Saylar, a student at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, continues to work part time for the office. And she’s hoping Carpenter sentences her to probation and community service for crimes that have no minimum prison time.

The bottom line, McGuiness asserted, is that she has earned a second term, notwithstanding her legal morass.

“I want to build on a foundation that we set in 2019,” she said. “We took over a broken office. Change is hard. We have respect from other states now. We are engaging with others, collaborating with other audit shops, looking at best practices and trying to bring that to Delaware for the taxpayer.”

She pointed to her efforts to audit the operation of the state’s Medicaid program, and how she has gone to court and won a battle to get records from the Department of Health and Social Services.

“We stood up and fought,’’ she said, noting that Medicaid spending accounts for a significant chunk of Delaware’s general fund budget. This year’s budget for Medicaid is $820 million — 16% of the $5.1 billion spending plan. In addition, the federal government will contribute more than $1 billion more to the state’s Medicaid program.

“So there is good work happening in the auditor’s office. The goal was to make it relevant again,’’ she said.

“My dad always told me growing up it didn’t matter what job you did, do it to the best of your ability. If you’re on the side of a trash truck, be the best trash person you can be. And that’s kind of always been ingrained in me. I was sent here to do a job and my job was to make that office good, make that office relevant, and make that office work for the people.”

As for the elephant in the room — her guilty verdict and pending sentencing and removal — McGuiness says she hopes voters won’t hold it against her.

McGuiness said some residents mention the criminal case, but most do not and some aren’t even aware the auditor is an elected post, she said. She said residents are voicing concerns about how taxpayer dollars are spent.

“I’m hearing at the door that the real issues are kitchen table issues, what people care about,” McGuiness said

“At the end of the day, what I’m hearing at the doors and what we’re gauging is very positive,’’ she said. “People want someone who’s going to stand up. Look how hard I’m fighting for myself and my name and for the truth.”

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