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Races to watch: 4th State Senate District

Delaware Public Media

Some key legislative races could have a serious impact on the look of the General Assembly, including the race for the state Senate seat in District 4.


Delaware Public Media’s Sophia Schmidt talked to incumbent Republican state senator Greg Lavelle and his challenger, Democrat Laura Sturgeon.


Lavelle has held a seat in the General Assembly since 2000. The Senate Minority Whip has been in that chamber since winning the District 4 seat in 2012.

His challenger, Laura Sturgeon, is running for the first time.

When asked what, other than his experience in the legislature, qualifies him for the position, Greg Lavelle cites his time on non-profit boards — like Westside Family Health Services, Girls, Inc. and Freshstart Scholarship Foundation— which center around healthcare, education and childcare.

“Why is that important? Because the state government’s involvement in childcare and all that goes with that, purchase of care reimbursement rates, how the rubber meets the road on all those things continues to serve me in the background and the education that I got from serving on those boards and other boards I’ve served on helps me be a better legislator,” said Lavelle.

Sturgeon says her career as an educator has prepared her for public office.

“I care,” she said. “And I think that what we are lacking sometimes in our elected officials is people who truly care and want to give back and want to serve. And people in fields in the public sector who serve others for a living clearly care and want to make the world a better place.”

Sturgeon says she was driven to run this year by how different her values are from those she says her state senator has.

She believes the biggest difference between her and her opponent is her views on social issues.

“We differ in our perspective on women’s reproductive freedom and rights, we differ on gun safety legislation,” she said. “We differ on equality especially LGBTQ equality and public education.”

Lavelle says he wants to continue the work he’s done in the state Senate. He considers helping Delaware’s economy his biggest priority.

“My primary concern for the state of Delaware is its economy. A strong economy creates a strong budget which allows priorities to be funded. Democrat priorities, Republican priorities, bipartisan priorities,” he said.

Sturgeon also hopes to work on boosting Delaware’s economy. She says one way to do so is by supporting unions.

“The quality of life and the standard of living for the middle class has gone down. And when we had strong, robust unions, that wasn’t the case,” she said.

On the state budget, Lavelle says he supports budget smoothing as way to ensure the state is fiscally responsible.

“We have got to get off this cycle of simply spending what we get in with no eye to the future. We had turned around … where we defeated a personal income tax increase, that turns out wasn’t needed. So more money is not the answer,” he said. “I think we need to budget smartly.”

Sturgeon says she hasn’t looked into budget smoothing enough to have a position at this point. Her biggest budget priority is strengthening public education.

“So if we’re going to be spending so many tax dollars on education, we need people down there who understand the way the system works, and who understand how the money would be best spent, where to put the money, where it’ll make the most difference,” said Sturgeon.

Both candidates say they would support legislation to fight student debt.

Lavelle recently authored an opinion piece proposing an idea for student loan relief legislation.

“Some people want to make college free,” he said. “There’s no such thing as free anything. This is simply a proposal modelled on some other states including Maryland to provide some common-sense debt relief, very limited.”

Sturgeon says she thinks community colleges in Delaware should be expanded— so that students can earn bachelor degrees without paying for what she calls the “bells and whistles” of most four-year colleges.

The candidates differ on some issues likely resurface this legislative session— like marijuana legalization.

“I do not support the legalization of marijuana,” he said. “We’ll see how some of these other states do with it in terms of practical implications. I hear different reports.”

Sturgeon says she’s for complete legalization, even for recreational use.

“Prohibition didn’t work with alcohol, I don’t think prohibition is working with marijuana,” she said. “And it’s creating a class of criminals who are not really doing anything any worse than someone who is enjoying a few drinks.”

Last legislative session, Lavelle co-sponsored a successful bill to make expungement for marijuana offenses before the drug was decriminalized in Delaware automatic.

Lavelle says he’s proud of having co-sponsored several bills related to criminal justice reform.

“Sentencing reform, with public safety first in mind,” said Lavelle.

Both campaigns have been the subject of controversy.

Lavelle attacked Sturgeon’s campaign for distributing materials which misstated how long she’s lived in the area— according to the News Journal. Sturgeon said it was a mistake made by a campaign volunteer.

The News Journal also reported the state Democratic party called Lavelle out for a mistake in his newsletter about the state of Delaware’s economy in August.

Earlier this month, the Delaware Democratic Party also filed a complaint against Lavelle, claiming he illegally coordinated with his PAC to produce advocacy ads rather than policy advertising.

But Elaine Manlove of the State Office of Elections ruled Lavelle did not violate the law - but added his campaign literature was not in line with the spirit of the law.

Sturgeon says she’s satisfied with the ruling.

“It sounds like it was technically within the bounds of legality, but it was very, very close to the edge, as she mentioned in her ruling,” she said.

In a Facebook post, Lavelle accused Manlove of being partisan. He wrote he “followed the law one hundred percent.”

And he chalks the contentiousness of the fourth senate district race up to forces outside of the state.

“Let’s be real. I mean, the nation is upset, right?” said Lavelle. “That’s why there’s more focus on this race.”

Registration in the district is evenly split, with 903 more Democrats in the 4th than Republicans and just over 9,300 people unaffiliated or registered with other parties.

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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