A nervous business community is weighing the impact of Tom Gordon’s stunning win over Paul Clark in the race for New Castle County Executive.
By taking the Democratic nomination, Gordon emerges as a strong favorite to win a four-year term in a deep blue county.
It marks a remarkable comeback for a former county police chief, whose two-term administration was the target of a federal investigation. Gordon, in a comeback attempt, then suffered a lopsided loss when he tried to take the top county post away from Chris Coons.
Gordon got another chance, thanks, in part, to the upset victory in the 2010 U.S. Senate race by Republican Christine O’Donnell over favored Cong. Mike Castle. The race drew national attention as O’Donnell’s hard right positions and flirtation with witchcraft became fodder for late night talk show hosts. Coons easily won that race, leaving far less popular County Council President Clark to serve out Coons’ term as county executive.
This time around, Gordon was able to capitalize on unhappiness over the Stoltz redevelopment plan for the former DuPont Barley Mill Plaza complex and questions about Clark’s ties to developers. Clark’s wife, Pamela Scott, a prominent real estate attorney, stepped away from her law firm when Clark became executive.
During his previous stint as county executive, Gordon pushed through the Unified Development Code, a massive, complex document that according to critics left the county “closed for business.” The code has been tweaked, but remains unpopular with the business community and to a lesser extend among residents unhappy with the process that led to the approval of Barley Mill.
At the time, Gordon strongly denied he was anti-business. Still, it can’t be disputed that the complexity and increased costs of the code shifted new development toward Middletown and Smyrna. Critics went on to claim that the code’s lack of flexibility led to long delays and stifled creativity.
That led developers to do the bare minimum to meet its requirements. Expanses of parking and minimal landscaping remain commonplace in projects built under the new code. Gordon went on to slash funding for economic development in the county in overcoming a budget gap he faced when taking over as county executive the first time around.
Thanks to a strong economy and trimming top management personnel ranks at county departments, the Gordon administration was able to balance the budget and ramp up spending for police, libraries and parks. All are popular with taxpayers. It did not hurt that a wave of real estate refinancing poured money into county coffers in the form of transfer taxes.
If Gordon, as widely expected, takes office, he will face a far more bleak economic landscape with ew of the issues that led to the Unified Development Code. Gordon will also deal with the county’s dependence on the property tax in an era of falling home prices while ending up on the other side of difficult labor negotiations.
It would not be surprising to see a more pro-business Tom Gordon this time around, given the state of the county’s economy. Building ties with Gov. Jack Markell, who has worked hard on the jobs front, would pay dividends and could add to the county’s property tax base. Like Gordon, Markell, a Democrat, is a heavy favorite in November.
Then again, the former county executive did not win the primary by cozying up to business.