Political stars collide in race Incumbent Demn faces rising GOP upstart
by Doug Denison — The News Journal
Delaware’s lieutenant governor didn’t receive significant powers in the state’s Constitution, but that hasn’t stopped the two candidates for the office from making big promises regarding education and jobs if elected Democratic incumbent Matt Denn said he wants to continue focusing on education improvement and economic development, while Republican challenger Sher Valenzuela promotes her business experience, arguing she has the background of a real-world job creator.
Both candidates are ambitious in their goals for the office, which has only three defined purposes in the Delaware Constitution of 1897: preside over the state Senate and vote only in the case of a tie; lead the Board of Pardons; and serve out the term of a governor who leaves office.
Denn, who won a term as insurance commissioner in 2004 after a stint as chief legal counsel to Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, is running on a record of improving services to children and public education reforms. He has also indicated he wants to sit in the governor’s chair in 2016, hopefully to succeed Gov. Jack Markell, provided both men win second terms next week.
During his campaign, Denn has focused on the education issues he has spent most of his first term advancing, but he never forgets to connect them to the economic issues dominating this election.
“ I believe those two issues are actually closely related,” Denn said. “Me and the governor, when we are talking to business people and asking them what we should be doing, public schools is inevitably one of the first issues that comes up.”
Denn talks most frequently about the efforts he led to move teacher hiring from fall to spring, so that Delaware schools have a better shot at recruiting good candidates out of college, and advocating for education money for schools with students who make the most progress on yearly standardized tests.
The corporate attorney has chosen to shy away from direct criticisms of his Republican opponent, save one notable exception.
In a recent debate, after Valenzuela brought up a troubled federal weatherization program Denn once oversaw, the incumbent shot back and called her a right-wing tea party extremist.
Valenzuela’s campaign relies on sharp criticism of Denn and a greater emphasis on the economy, touting her experience as an entrepreneur who understands business owners
Presented with Denn’s focus on schools and children, Valenzuela consistently pivots in the direction of business, often citing a CNBC report from earlier this year that ranks Delaware 43rd on a list of the most business friendly states – a figure quoted repeatedly by Republican candidates up and down the state this campaign season.
“Business growth is on the minds of every taxpayer. Oh, by the way, they want a good education system,” Valenzuela said. “If there’s not an environment that’s friendly to business, they’re not going to come just because they think there are good schools.”
Valenzuela’s campaign also has sought to paint Denn as an out-of-touch career officeholder.
“His motive is to achieve a higher role, that seems evident,” she said. “That’s the stark contrast. I’m not running as a politician, I don’t aspire to higher office…I have a business and I can see the way we are moving as a state, and we need help.”
Valenzuela’s personal narrative and the story of her Milford textile business, First State Manufacturing, sits at the center of her campaign.
On every stage before voters, she describes how she and her husband, Eli, started an upholstery business in their garage 15 years ago with skills he acquired through a correspondence course, and how today that business employs dozens of people and sews goods for private clients, government agencies and the military.
It’s a message that caught the attention of Republican leaders earlier this year.
Valenzuela was one of a small group of local Republican women who met privately with GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney at an April campaign stop in Wilmington.
In July, she joined Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus for a press conference in Philadelphia to criticize the awarding of federal subsidies to electric carmaker Fisker.
In late August, Valenzuela was handed a prime speaking slot at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. Her remarks fell under the convention’s theme “We Built It,” an unsubtle reference to a quote from President Barack Obama that Republicans took as a slight to private enterprise and entrepreneurship.
After the convention, Valenzuela was invited to a conference organized by the Republican State Leadership Committee, the party’s apparatus for recruiting and supporting candidatesfor state-level offices. The group made her part of its “Right Women, Right Now” program and called the Delaware lieutenant governor’s race one of its top priorities this election season.
Denn is also likely to benefit from his close campaigning with de facto running mate Markell, and the spotlight he has often shared with the popular governor over the course of their terms.
Valenzuela is making an effort to connect herself to Markell. When she talks about her governmental experience, she mentions how the Democratic governor appointed her to the state’s Workforce Investment Board and how she had the governor’s support in helpin to establish “business accelerator” program that helps entrepreneurs get off the ground.
“Aligning herself with Jack, I don’t know that it’s going to work,” Wilmington lobbyist Rhett Ruggerio said. “She’s trying to ride his coattails…It’s a little awkward.”
Others have noted Valenzuela’s lack of arm-in-arm campaigning with the Republican candidate for governor, Jeff Cragg.
Former lieutenant governor Mike Castle, who went on to become a two-term governor and nine-term congressman, said a candidate’s association with the gubernatorial tickets can be delicate, particularly since the two offices are elected independently.
“The lieutenant governor, in this case Matt, takes the position that he can help the governor, work with the governor,” he said.
“The person in the opposing party has to say she is more than willing to work with the governor, but that she also represents the loyal opposition,” Castle added.
Castle, a Republican, served his first term as governor with a Democratic lieutenant governor, Shien Biau Woo.