Vanquished Simpler, victorious Davis embody Delaware’s unique Return Day

Officials bury the hatchet at Return Day in Georgetown, Delaware. The ceremony symbolizes the end of political hostilities in the First State. (Chuck Snyder/for WHYY)

Officials bury the hatchet at Return Day in Georgetown, Delaware. The ceremony symbolizes the end of political hostilities in the First State. (Chuck Snyder/for WHYY)

Ken Simpler, Delaware’s first-term treasurer, was viewed by many in political circles as a possible Republican challenger to Democratic Gov. John Carney in 2020.

But Simpler’s trajectory was short-circuited Tuesday when Delaware’s continuing “blue wave” of voters elected Democratic political novice Colleen Davis as treasurer. Democrats now hold all nine of Delaware’s statewide elected offices.

But there Simpler was Thursday morning, conversing with Davis and preaching harmony at a breakfast in Georgetown to kick off Return Day festivities.

Then Simpler and Davis rode together in a horse-drawn carriage in parade of politicians down the Sussex County town’s main boulevard, which was lined with hundreds of residents.

Along with several other campaign opponents, Simpler and Davis figuratively buried the hatchet in a bucket of sand from the nearby beach community of Lewes.

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Simpler said he and his staff will work closely with Davis, a physician’s assistant and health care consultant, to get her up to speed in an office that manages and invests billions of taxpayer dollars.

Riding together on Return Day, he said, is just the first step. The biennial event is a uniquely Delaware happening that, according to local lore, could have begun as early as 1792.

“It’s cathartic for all of just to be able to see your elected official who ran tough races but come together and say, ‘Now is the time to come together and put politics behind us as best we can and govern,’” Simpler said.

Davis agreed.

“I think it’s a fabulous tradition that we have in Delaware. The fact that we are the only state that does it is absolutely unique and I’m proud of it.”

Tradition belongs solely to Delaware

Return Day began at a time when the seat of the Sussex County government had been moved from Lewes on the coast to a centrally-located site that later became Georgetown. That’s where voters had to go to cast their ballots on Election Day.

The practice began because the county’s voters would return to the same place two days after the election to hear the final tally announced in the political races.

The event became a carnival of sorts, where members of the crowd enjoyed meats and treats. In the 19th century, ox roast sandwiches were provided. (Ox roast is a kind of finely-sliced beef, not from an ox.) Today there’s an open pit barbecue and all attendees who want are given sandwiches. Many attendees and participants dress in fashions from the 18th and 19th centuries.

The event also includes the horse-drawn carriages and antique cars shared by contestants for the same seat. Thursday also featured politicians in military vehicles and modern convertibles.

At parade’s end, there’s the ceremonial burial of the hatchet and a return to what many in Delaware’s political set like to call their civility even amid differences.

In that spirit, several statewide candidates did just as Simpler and Davis did Thursday.

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Three-term incumbent U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, a Democrat, walked the route with defeated GOP challenger Rob Arlett and their wives. There was none of the occasional rancor of the campaign, which saw the Republican anger Carper in one October debate by questioning his fitness for office because Carper had slapped his then-wife about 40 years ago.

U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester rode with her father, former Wilmington City Council President Ted Blunt. Her GOP foe Scott Walker attended the festivities, but did not ride with his opponent.

Walker was an unusual candidate who didn’t raise money, campaigned alone in a battered old Toyota station wagon and admitted he was an alcoholic who drank up to a six pack a day. Reached Wednesday night by phone, Walker said he would he was planning to challenge U.S. Sen. Chris Coons in 2020.

The competing candidates for state auditor, winner Kathy McGuiness and the GOP’s James Spadola, also rode together. They were joined by outgoing auditor Tom Wagner, who held the post for nearly three decades but did not seek re-election because of health reasons.

Incoming state lawmaker Sherry Dorsey Walker, who was uncontested in the general election for a Wilmington-area House seat, said she was delighted to attend Return Day.

“It’s interesting to see everybody coming together in unity and love and putting aside partisan politics,’’ she said. “When you run for an office you just stay positive. No need to sling mud, mistreat people. The goal is whoever wins you work together for the betterment of the community.”

Carper, who has been attending since 1974, two years before he first ran for state treasurer and began his winning streak, said the event is a model the rest of the nation should emulate.

At his first Return Day, he initially thought it odd that the winners and losers rode together.

“But by the end of the day I thought, ‘We’ve got something good here and hopefully we can preserve it,” he  said.

“I think our country could use Return Day right now,’’ he added, noting his disappointment that President Trump said Wednesday that he might go on a “war footing’’ with the U.S. House now that it’s controlled by Democrats.

“Hopefully we can send a good signal from Delaware that we can work across party lines and still get things done.”

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