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Money problems, party divisions: Carney's next term will deal with much more than COVID-19

Sarah Gamard
Delaware News Journal

Gov. John Carney won reelection, indicating Delaware's mostly Democratic electorate preferred his science-based COVID-19 response, despite sacrifices made by citizens and businesses.

While the virus and his response to it will bleed into Carney's second term and define much of his legacy, it's not the only challenge he'll have in the coming four years.

The moderate Democrat inherits a more left-leaning legislature that could rub up against his hesitancy toward policies such as legalizing marijuana and certain versions of gun control as the drumbeat for progressive policies grows louder in the First State.

Carney and the newly elected lawmakers who marketed themselves on those law changes expect to have a good working relationship, but the dynamic won't play out in practice until early next year when the General Assembly reconvenes and starts drafting bills.

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 His top finance official says it is unclear just how much state revenues will end up suffering from the virus' toll on the economy, but Carney's fiscal strategy so far has saved the state from making drastic cuts. 

Gov. John Carney, left, speaks with a voter in front of the Elsmere Fire Hall polling location Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

And the school system will also undergo changes next session because of a lawsuit settlement that forces the state to increase funding for certain disadvantaged students, and to make that money permanent.

Some of the new lawmakers see the settlement as just a start to the needed drastic changes to the school system, and will likely push Carney even further.

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Two Democrats unseated Senate Republicans on Tuesday night, on top of the handful of progressives who unseated longtime moderate Democratic incumbents in the September primary. Democrats now outnumber Republicans 2-1 in the upper chamber, and the House has replaced some of its longtime moderates with younger, aggressive newcomers with progressive ideas.

The growing faction of more liberal Democrats doesn't always agree with Carney's moderate ways, though the governor did not seem concerned when election results came in.

"We have a really good group of new members," Carney said Tuesday night after he was declared the victor. "Young, more enthusiastic. They have a lot to learn."

Carney said that his priorities and those new Democratic lawmakers' priorities are the same "in terms of promoting an environment where businesses can be successful and create good jobs."

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"We just, we both need to come to an agreement over what it is that creates that environment, and I expect to have a healthy discussion and debate about those things," Carney said. "Some of the other things are obviously, they’re accommodations that will have to be made on both sides.”

While many people in Delaware want moderate policies, incoming Democrats point to their constituents wanting something more progressive — especially after the coronavirus pandemic has made residents more aware of their relationship with the state government with issues such as unemployment, schools and coronavirus testing.

That includes Democrat Marie Pinkney, who unseated moderate Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, D-Hawk's Nest, in the September primary. She hopes that Carney and other moderates will come to see eye-to-eye with progressives like herself.

Progressive Democrat Marie Pinkney defeated Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, D-Hawk's Nest, in the September primary in Delaware.

"Our races should set a precedent that our state is looking for something different," Pinkney said. "I’ve had the chance to speak with Gov. Carney, and I think he’s heard that and I think he sees that. ... I don’t anticipate every single bill that we try to pass being vetoed. I think he’s more reasonable than that."

Madinah Wilson-Anton, who unseated moderate Rep. John Viola, D-Newark, in the primary, said it's time for the Democratic Party to "catch up" with the general population as more people begin to favor progressive policies.

A cold and blustery morning does not deter voters from turning out at Cape Henlopen High School in Lewes on Tuesday. U.S. Sen. Chris Coons and Gov. John Carney, along with House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, were on hand to greet voters.

Polls in recent years from the University of Delaware Center for Political Communication help make that case. In 2018, a UD poll found that a majority of Delawareans support legal weed, which the governor does not.

In 2016, another UD poll found that a majority of Delawareans favor raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour. Carney supports raising the state minimum wage, currently at $9.25 an hour, to $15 an hour.

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"I'm not really worried that, if we were to pass legislation on some of these policies, that the governor would veto them," Wilson-Anton said, adding that vetoes are rare for Carney. "He'd have to make the case to people of Delaware why he doesn't support something that the majority of legislators support. I don't really see that happening."

Progressive Democrat Madinah Wilson-Anton, who was elected to the General Assembly on Tuesday, Nov. 3, greets members of the public on Election Day at Thurgood Marshall elementary school in Newark, DE.

Wilson-Anton added that, while tension is "inevitable" in politics, progressives like herself have gotten support from incumbents after winning, which gives her hope that they can pass new policies.

Eric Morrison, who unseated Rep. Earl Jaques, D-Glasgow, said potential disagreements with the governor are "a bridge we cross when we come to it," and hopes that the governor will sit down with legislators and "have an open dialogue."

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Some of the progressives ran on the promise to do away with the so-called Delaware Way, the bipartisan tradition in which First State politicians make decisions and work out tensions behind closed doors. While a push for more transparency in government could be on the horizon, so could more compromise between progressive and moderate Democrats.

"I would expect the two sides to work together rather than fall into an adversarial relationship, but I certainly do see a potential for the Legislature to kind of push the governor further than he would choose to go on his own," said Paul Brewer, research director at the University of Delaware's Center for Political Communication. "They’re all Democrats and I think they both have an interest in getting things through, so there’s going to be an incentive to compromise."

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But some policies, such as legal weed, could see a “clash” because Carney "seems to have dug his heels in on that issue and probably gone about as far as he’s willing to go."

"On other issues, stuff to do with climate change or voting or transgender student protections, there it seems like there’s probably more room for compromise," Brewer said.

Voters wait in line to vote on a cold blustery morning Tuesday at Cape Henlopen High School in Lewes. Gov. John Carney greets voters in line.

The governor also inherits the continuation of an economic crisis that could swallow up the entirety of his second term. Carney's fiscal prudence could come in handy these next four years and even save the state from making cuts or raise taxes, according to Finance Secretary Rick Geisenberger.

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"At this point, we look to be in good shape to be able to possibly add to our reserves … even with the downturn," Geisenberger said, adding that the revenue forecast could change enough to result in cuts or taxes during Carney's term, depending on the ruthlessness of the virus.

“If there’s a sharp downward turn, we’re going to have some tough decisions to make," Geisenberger said. "But that’s been true forever.”

Gov. John Carney, left, and Finance Secretary Rick Geisenberger

Education policy will also be a key piece of Carney’s upcoming term.

As part of a major education settlement reached in October, Carney must ask the General Assembly to increase a pot of funding for English language learners and low-income students, and the money must be made permanent. The settlement also dictates changes to special education funding, universal pre-kindergarten and a deeper look at how Delaware funds its schools — all of which must be approved by the General Assembly.

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But a small and growing contingent of lawmakers feel the settlement is only a starting point, and that more drastic changes to school funding, teacher retention and districting are needed. Many of the Democratic newcomers also campaigned on platforms calling for a more equitable school system.

Voters wait in line to vote on a cold blustery morning Tuesday at Cape Henlopen High School in Lewes. House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf and Gov. John Carney showed up to greet voters.

In the past, the General Assembly has struggled to pass education reforms, such as changing the way the state funds schools or giving school boards more power when it comes to raising property taxes.

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Carney said on Tuesday night that the settlement will challenge his administration when crafting a budget, especially as the virus is expected to take a toll on revenues. He said the settlement will "set the high bar for us with respect to probably our highest priority, which is making sure that every child has an opportunity to be successful and get a sound educational foundation."

Reporter Natalia Alamdari contributed to this story.

Sarah Gamard covers government and politics for Delaware Online/The News Journal. You can reach her at (302) 324-2281 or sgamard@delawareonline.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @SarahGamard.