By: Wade Malcolm, Doug Denison and Jonathan Starkey
The News Journal

A political newcomer promising to provide better constituent services and a progressive voice in Dover defeated the highest-ranking state senator, whose tenure was marked by challenges to his ethics.

Incumbent state Senate Pro Tempore Anthony DeLuca lost his Democratic primary race to first-time candidate Bryan Townsend, 1,441 to 1,054, with all precincts reporting.

DeLuca, D-Varlano, was first elected in 1998 and has led the Senate since 2009. He came under fire by some of his legislative colleagues for what they view as abuse of his power.

He took a state job with the Department of Labor that pays $68,913 in addition to the $62,643 annual wages he earned as a Senate leader. And without consulting other lawmakers, he ordered a $46,000 renovation to a doorway to restrict access to his office and loaned his executive assistant, who is on the Legislative Hall payroll, to his Department of Labor office

Townsend said those issues alone would not have defeated DeLuca. He said he won the 11th district nomination by spending months knocking on doors and meeting voters.

“The individual voter attention that we gave people to listen to their individual issues is what really resonated,” said Townsend, an attorney. “I think it was won at the doorsteps.”

DeLuca congratulated Townsend and did not offer much explanation for the surprise defeat.

“The voters made a choice. I respect the choice the voters made; I always have,” DeLuca said. “It’s truly been an honor and a privilege to serve the voters for 14 years and I wish [Townsend] well.”

DeLuca would not comment on the reasons why Democtratic voters ousted him, or say how much it had to do with the criticisms of a leadership tenure a senator in his caucus once described as a “dictatorship.”

“In leadership you make decisions, and by the time they get to your desk they’re tough decisions,” he said. “Sometimes the way they’re portrayed is accurate, sometimes the way they’re portrayed is very inaccurate… No analysis tonight, I’m with my family.”

DeLuca’s dual employment situation – essentially getting a paycheck from both the legislative and executive branches of government – caused administrative difficulties within his Department of Labor office, which oversaw federal funds. DeLuca was investigated for alleged violations of the Hatch Act, which makes it illegal for state lawmakers to oversee federal funds, but he was ultimately cleared and his job responsibilities were changed to avoid future conflicts.

While reviled by progressives in his party, DeLuca held significant respect with other Democrats, said Rhett Ruggerio, who manages a Dover lobbying firm. He was known as a man of his word who efficiently moved Gov. Jack Markell’s legislative agenda through the Senate.

“This loss is a big, big deal,” Ruggerio said. “It will send shock waves through the party establishment. … I think it was the classic progressives versus the old guard.”

The result also opens up the most powerful leadership position in the state Legislature. DeLuca critic Karen Peterson, D-Stanton, said Tuesday she would try to seek the Pro Tem position.

“I know what the job entails. I’m retired so I have time to do a good job,” she said. “And there are changes I would like to see in the Senate. I’d like to see us start on time. It’s so rude for the Senate to make people sit around for hours on end while the president is just sitting in their office chatting with lobbyists.”

DeLuca’s decisive style for operating the Senate also attracted controversy at times. In 2010, DeLuca unilaterally thwarted an extremely popular bill that would have given scholarships to Delaware State University students because it hadn’t gone through the proper hearing process.

Tuesday was not the first time DeLuca’s power was challenged in recent years. A group of Senate Democrats led a failed effort to oust DeLuca from his Pro Tem seat after the 2010 elections in favor of Centreville Democrat Michael Katz, which culminated in a floor motion that went DeLuca’s way by just one vote.

The state Senator who gave DeLuca the deciding vote, Dover-area Republican Colin Bonini, later received a powerful committee seat, replacing another Republican who opposed DeLuca. Bonini said Tuesday night he thinks the heavy public scrutiny of DeLuca decided the primary.

“I think the media piling on over the years had an impact,” Bonini said. “Tony is who Tony is, but I do think the negative publicity, whether you think it was legitimate or not, was very difficult to overcome.”

DeLuca spent close to $100,000 defending his office, a huge sum for a state Senate seat in Delaware. He had the backing of the state’s major labor union groups, the party establishment and Markell. Townsend spent less than $25,000 on his campaign. DeLuca’s campaign spending and strong support from the party led some observers to speculate he might feel vulnerable.

“We really weren’t sure what was going to happen,” Townsend said. “We put a lot of heart and shoe leather into this campaign. We’re very happy many voters in the 11th are willing to move in a different direction.”

Townsend will now face Republican Evan Queitsch in November’s general election. The district’s large Democratic registration advantage will favor him over Queitsch, a conservative tea party supporter. But the GOP sees DeLuca’s defeat as an opportunity that puts “public integrity squarely at the forefront of this campaign,” said John Sigler, chair of the state Republican party.

“We’re going to take the same exact approach that we took all along,” Townsend said. “We’re not going to take it for granted that a heavily Democratic district is going to vote for me just because I’m a Democrat.”

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