A look back at the ups and downs 2015 brought to Delaware.
It was a trying year for Delaware. We present the top stories of 2015 through the pages of NewsWorks.org/Delaware. We’ll also look at some of the challenges this year presents for the next.
The death of Beau Biden after lengthy treatment of brain cancer left a hole in the state.
Biden’s passing left a hole in the hearts of many Delawareans who followed Beau’s career since a car accident in 1972 that claimed the life of his mother and baby sister. Beau’s hospital bed was the backdrop as his father was sworn in for his first term of a Senate career that would lead to the Vice Presidency.
Biden’s passing also left a hole in the political landscape. In April of 2014, Beau announced his intentions to run for governor. It’s likely no Democrat would have challenged the son of the VP in a primary. In such a Democratic-leaning state, it’s likely Beau would have easily won in November 2016. His death caused a chain reaction in the Delaware political machine, especially for Democrats. John Carney, Delaware’s lone member of the U.S. House, is now running for governor. A wide field of Dems has announced their plans to replace him in Washington.
Beau’s life was remembered during a moving service attended by Pres. Obama and other dignitaries in Wilmington in early June.
“He did in 46 years what most of us couldn’t do in 146,” Obama said.
“He left nothing in the tank. He was a man who led a life where the means were as important as the ends. And the example he set made you want to be a better dad, or a better son, or a better brother or sister, better at your job, the better soldier. He made you want to be a better person. Isn’t that finally the measure of a man – the way he lives, how he treats others, no matter what life may throw at him?”
Beau Biden was 46.
DowDuPont The biggest business news of 2015 came near the end of the year when major Delaware employer DuPont announced that it had agreed to combine with Dow Chemical in what was dubbed “a merger of equals.”
The December 11 announcement was preceded by DuPont’s declaration that it would cut 10 percent of its global workforce and trim $700 million in cuts before the merger was finalized.
After the merger, the company that was founded in Delaware more than 200 years ago will be known as DowDuPont. The merged company plans to divide into three separate entities focused on agriculture, material science and specialty products.
Many see the merger as the end of the line for DuPont’s impact in Delaware and the start of a job hunt for many Delaware workers. The Head of the Delaware GOP and grandson of the last Du Pont family member to run the company, Charlie Copeland, called the news “catastrophic” for Delaware.
Governor Markell said his office was working to make sure Delaware jobs could be preserved. “Obviously my interest is in making sure that we do all we can so that Delaware has an important part of the combined entity,” Markell said.
Just before the end of the year, DuPont CEO Ed Breen announced that the company would cut 1,700 workers in Delaware by March. Delaware Congressman John Carney best summed up that news, describing it as “a punch to the gut as we’re closing out the year.”
The return of MurderTownWilmington violence has been a regular topic on year-end-reviews for years now, and this 2015 recap is no different.
More than 25 people have been killed in Wilmington gun violence while there have been more than 125 shootings in the city. In 2014, FBI statistics reveled that Wilmington’s rate of violence is 1,625 per 100,000 residents. That’s more than quadruple the national average.
The level of violence for a city the size of Wilmington has drawn plenty of negative attention within the city and state, but the issue got national attention in 2015 and even more scrutiny is sure to follow in 2016 as ABC launches a new crime drama set in Wilmington. The show, called Murder Town, will star and be produced by Jada Pinkett Smith. According to the trade publication Variety, Pinkett will portray the fictitious first African American district attorney in Delaware who will work on “a polarizing, racially-charged case that threatens to burn her and her city to the ground.”
The name stems from the “Murdertown, USA” headline of a Newsweek article in 2014 that highlighted Wilmington’s violence.
Reaction in the city was swift and predictably negative. “I think this is ridiculous,” said Mayor Dennis Williams, D-Wilmington. He said he’d consider charging the show’s producers $100,000 for every block they use to make the show in the city. (There’s no indication any of the filming would actually happen in Wilmington.) “Every time we get a knock back we have to pick ourselves up and run a little bit faster, and I’m not going to be deterred by what people say about this city,” Williams said.
Williams also sparred with state lawmakers over how the city was spending funds sent from the state to help fight crime in Wilmington. Willimas urged lawmakers to “treat Wilmington fairly” after they complained that the city had not implemented all of the recommendations from the Wilmington Public Safety Strategies Commission report.
Despite another year with a high rate of shooting incidents and homicides, Williams pointed to successes police have had in fighting crime, including a cooperative effort with various police agencies and the FBI which led to a 91 count indictment against 13 gang members involved in six homicides and other crimes.
Not ridin’ with Biden“We’re out of time.”
That’s how Vice President Joe Biden announced that he would not run for president. Biden was accompanied by President Obama for the rare Rose Garden announcement in mid-October.
There had been an increasing push from supporters, including the Draft Biden PAC, urging Biden to challenge Hillary Clinton and other Democrats for the party’s nomination.But the death of his son Beau in May put an emotional weight on the family and my have sapped Biden’s energy for mounting what would likely have been a tough Democratic primary with Clinton.
In September, Biden made an emotional appearance on the Late Show on CBS. During his interview, Biden told host Stephen Colbert that he still experienced moments of uncontrollable grief that he deemed unacceptable for a presidential aspirant. “Sometimes it just overwhelms you,” Biden said.
The announcement also likely established January 2017 as the official end of Biden’s longstanding political career. He has suggested his future work may include starting a foundation, or maybe launching an institute at the University of Delaware.
Biden tried for the White House twice. His 1987 campaign ended in allegations of plagiarism, while his 2008 effort was derailed by a poor showing in the Iowa caucuses. Although that ’08 run eventually led Biden to the VP’s post, making him the highest elected Delawarean in American history.
Shot in his wheelchairIn September, a wheelchair-bound Wilmington man was shot and killed by police. While the incident sparked protests, they did not rise to the level seen elsewhere in 2015 following controversial police shootings.
Police were called to Tulip St. in Wilmington on Sept. 23 and found Jeremy McDole in his wheelchair holding a gun. He had apparently already shot himself before police arrived. What happened next was captured on video that was uploaded to YouTube.
Police ordered McDole to drop the weapon and put his hands up. Police opened fire after they say McDole reached for his gun. He was seen slumping out of his chair. McDole died at the scene.
The next day, Wilmington Police and Mayor Dennis Williams held a news conference promising that there would be transparency in the investigation. McDole’s mother Phyllis also spoke at that news conference. She claimed that McDole did not pull a weapon and called the shooting unjust.
A few days later, Phyllis McDole was arrested for allegedly assaulting a woman who she believed called 911 to report her son, Jeremy McDole, had shot himself. That arrest came just after police released the 911 call to the public. According to court documents, McDole went to the victim’s residence with three other women and two men. McDole allegedly punched the victim as the other intruders joined in the attack. McDole allegedly told the victim, “Bitch, you got my son killed. You are the one who called the cops. You got my son shot and you gonna die like my son died.”
In the next weeks and months, Phyllis McDole would be joined by other supporters in marches down the streets of Wilmington calling for justice. The McDole rallies also called for Wilmington Police Chief Bobby Cummings to resign in response to the shooting.
In response to those resignation calls, Mayor Williams said, “I continue to offer my condolences and support to the McDole family. I understand the sensitivity of this tragic incident and its lingering impact on the community…however, I remain confident in Chief Cummings as the leader of the Wilmington Police Department.”
As 2015 comes to an end, a pair of investigations by the Wilmington Police Department and the Delaware Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights and Public Trust are ongoing.
Another delicate budget balance It was just before 5 a.m. on the morning of July 1 when state lawmakers finalized the last spending bill for the Fiscal Year 2016. Lawmakers hammered out a deal to fund the state’s $3.9 billion operating budget and a $456 million capital bond bill.
“This has gone about as well as we could have hoped for,” said Governor Jack Markell, who called the 2015 legislative season the “craziest” of his gubernatorial tenure.
Lawmakers leaned heavily on the settlement money to close budget gaps and broker compromises. In all, the state used a little over half of the $61 million won through two settlements—one with the rating agency Standard and Poor’s and one with Bank of America and Citigroup.
That leaves little left over for the future, which worried some state politicians given the grim financial forecast that awaits Delaware next year.
“Delaware’s finances are rapidly heading for a cliff,” said Senator Colin Bonini, R-Dover. He added that his colleagues did well to maintain crucial government programs, but failed to confront structural overspending.
“At 4 o’clock in the morning you feel good just to get out of here,” Bonini said with a chuckle. “But we kicked the can down the road.”
December’s news that DuPont would be cutting 1,700 Delaware workers ahead of its planned merger with Dow Chemical added to the state’s economic concerns.
Turmoil in New Castle CountyA personal dispute between NCCo Executive Tom Gordon and his second in command, Chief Administrative Officer David Grimaldi led to a very public parting of ways.
In October, Gordon fired Grimaldi, apparently over the phone, according to comments Grimaldi made to the News Journal. “It was in the spur of the moment because I questioned him about his risk manager, who I think is his girlfriend,” Grimaldi said. “It was just, ‘[Expletive] you, David. You are fired.'” Said Grimaldi: “I put lipstick on that pig for three years, but it is a (expletive) pig.”
Grimaldi’s firing also shed light on an Elsmere traffic stop he was involved in. Grimaldi was accused of telling the officer “You know your mayor works for me.” Elsmere Mayor Steve Burg happens to also work as an executive assistant at the county. Burg admitted to getting a call from Grimaldi at the time of the stop, but said he didn’t answer the call.
Gordon appointed Timothy Mullaney Sr. as his new second-in-command. Mullaney served under Gordon during his first term as county executive in 2002-2004.
Gordon has remained tight-lipped about what precipitated Grimaldi’s termination.
From a new testing system to a new Secretary of Education, 2015 was a year of change for Delaware schools.
Testing has long been a hot button education issue, and this year was no different. Delaware students were given the Smarter Balanced tests. The new tests replaced the Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System.
As expected, Delaware’s youngsters did a whole lot worse in 2015. The Smarter Balanced was supposed to be a tougher test that attempted to measure deep thinking skills associated with the Common Core State Standards.
The debate still rages on over whether Smarter Balanced actually measured those thinking skills – or whether those skills are even worth measuring. But the test was indisputably tougher. Depending on the grade level and subject, students scored between 16 and 45 percentage points lower on the Smarter Balanced than they did on its predecessor, DCAS.
Delaware Education Secretary Mark Murphy announced in August that he would be stepping down. With little more than a year left in Governor Markell’s tenure, it’s not surprising to see cabinet members make their departure, but Murphy’s time as the leader of the Dept. of Education was turbulent.
The state’s teacher’s union voted “no confidence” in Murphy in March. Soon after, in June, the union representing the state’s administrators released a survey showing that 89 percent of its members had little or no confidence in the then-secretary.
Murphy was replaced by Steven Godowsky, former New Castle County Vo-Tech District superintendent.
Efforts to reform struggling schools in the Christina School District hit a snag in 2015. Dubbed “priority schools”, Bancroft Elementary School, Stubbs Elementary School, and Bayard Middle School were each slated by the for a major turnaround aided by state money. Christina, however, balked at the idea and never submitted formal turnaround plans. As a result, the schools have yet to undergo any major reforms and haven’t received the state money earmarked for the priority schools initiative.
Speaking of the Christina School District, the newly formed Wilmington Education Improvement Commission recommended that Christina leave Wilmington and turn over its share of city students to the Red Clay Consolidated School District. The commission also called for a new funding formula that would send more state money to low-income students, special education students, and English Language Learners.
In January, the State Board of Education will decide whether or not to endorse the commission’s plan.
Delaware couple’s role in gay marriage rulingWhen the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that states could no longer ban same sex marriages, the ruling hit close to home for one Delaware man.
David Michener was part of the Obergefell v. Hodges case that came before the high court.
Michener married his now deceased husband Bill Ives while in Delaware where they frequently vacationed. When Ives died, Ohio authorities would not allow Michener’s name on the death certificate, even though they had been legally married in Delaware. “I was shocked,” Michener said.
“It’s an insult that extends beyond death,” said Steve Shapiro, national legal director for the ACLU. “It is the state, in perpetuity, ‘We don’t recognize what you and your partner had. We don’t think it’s entitled to dignity.'”
Michener celebrated with his children when the Supreme Court ruled to require states to recognize same sex marriages. “Thank you Supreme Court Justices for doing the right thing for the entire country not just for myself,” Michener said following the ruling.
The death of Punkin Chunkin?For the second year in a row, Delaware’s seminal pumpkin tossing event was cancelled.
Despite a new venue (Dover International Speedway) and a new format that focused less on distance and more on accuracy, organizers couldn’t find an insurer willing to back the event.
Since its inception in 1986, Punkin Chunkin had been held on a Bridgeville farm until a volunteer was hurt at the 2013 event. The subsequent lawsuit, and the threat of future lawsuits, scared the farmer, forcing chunk organizers to find a new venue.
Dover International Speedway ended up being selected, but the last-minute change and logistical problems prevented pumpkins from flying at the racetrack last year.
Worried about Punkin Chunkin’s future in Delaware, state Senator Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, sponsored legislation to cap personal injury and wrongful death damages at $1 million for special events. Introduced earlier this year, the measure never made it out of committee.
“I was fearful that this might happen with no liability cap,” Pettyjohn said. “Because this legislation didn’t get out, this event has been cancelled once again.”Organizers say they are “actively seeking alternatives” to hold the event in the future.