op-ed

Fiscal conservatism is alive and well in Delaware

Joanne Butler Contributor
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Despite what you may have heard from Christine O’Donnell, fiscal conservatism is alive and well in Delaware. Yesterday, we had a special election (due to Chris Coons’ Senate election in November) for president of the New Castle County Council, and Tom Kovach, the winner, is a Republican who ran on a platform of accountability and tough fiscal responsibility.

Kovach’s win is especially sweet as he got 57% of the vote against a high-ranking union official in a county with over 94,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. The lesson here is that a credible candidate whose solid fiscal conservative policies also address local concerns (combined with a robust get-out-the-vote effort) can carry the day.

This election matters because New Castle County (locally known as NCCo) has 60% of Delaware’s population, and is home to the state’s major business operations, such as DuPont and Astra Zeneca. Over the past few years, NCCo also experienced the closing of two major auto plants (Saturn and Chrysler), but a strong union presence remains.

Last November, Coons trounced O’Donnell by 66,000 votes in NCCo, overwhelming her modest gains in the much less-populated lower two counties, Kent and Sussex. Back then, voter distaste for O’Donnell caused a lot of collateral damage for down-ticket Republicans, including Kovach, who lost his seat in the state legislature. Fortunately, he didn’t let that defeat stop him from making the most of a special election opportunity.

Kovach employed a few simple themes — bringing accountability to county government, controlling spending, and not raising taxes. He successfully painted his opponent (a longtime council member) as a latecomer to the need for sunlight on the council’s business, especially when it involves real estate deals. It helped that Kovach’s opponent was hand-picked by the Democratic politician and NCCo county executive Paul Clark, who seems to be a bit ethically challenged in that area. Just last month, the NCCo ethics commission rebuked Clark for not recusing himself on a real estate matter involving a client of his wife’s law firm, which represents a developer.

More help came when Kovach’s opponent claimed the dubious achievement of nobody on the council having gone to jail during his six-year tenure.

On fiscal issues, Kovach spoke out against the 50% rise in property taxes over the past five years and the doubling of the county debt, and has pledged to carefully review the county’s finances, with a view to making government smaller and more efficient, with administrative procedures and tax polices that will grow jobs. All sensible stuff here in Pete DuPont’s home county.

But the right message isn’t enough to win, and I’m pleased to report that Kovach was an energetic, utterly upbeat campaigner — where other candidates might do five events in an entire day, he would work five events in one night. Plus the state party financed an extensive, sophisticated series of get-out-the-vote calls.

It was refreshing to watch a campaign that focused on voters’ checkbook issues, instead of personalities. Finally, northern Delaware could exhale from last year’s celebrity politics (where winning is about getting a book deal and national media attention, not votes). Now comes the hard part — changing our tax-and-spend, buddy-buddy culture. Here’s hoping Tom Kovach will show the rest of the First State how to get it done.

Joanne Butler is a senior economics fellow at the Caesar Rodney Institute of Delaware. You can email her at joanne-butler@comcast.net.