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Races to Watch: 3 Democrats seek to be New Castle County Council President

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New Castle County Council President is a position once held by Sen. Chris Coons, as well as a current state lawmaker and a well-known local minister.

And the Democratic nomination for it is contested in this next week’s Delaware primary. Delaware Public Media's Mark Fowser introduces us to the candidates in our “Races to Watch" series.

A contested Democratic primary for New Castle County Council President features three candidates who approach their campaigns with varying viewpoints: an incumbent who says she’s managed to overcome political bickering, an elected row officer who has been encouraged by some sitting council members to run, and a resident of the fastest-growing region of the county who is making her second run for elected office.

Those candidates are, respectively, Karen Hartley-Nagle, Ciro Poppiti and Monique Johns.

Hartley-Nagle said she wants to serve another four years because she genuinely loves the job, and the aspects most people don’t see. She answers her own phone calls. She decided to work without an aide. Hartley-Nagle has also helped constituents with matters such as persistent yard flooding, driver’s license renewal during the pandemic, and someone who was concerned about a neighbor who had termites in a tree stump.

“I think what most people want is to be heard. They want to know that they matter and that you’re responsive when they call you,” Hartley-Nagle said. “Recently, not only am I in an election. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, an opioid crisis… we had two tropical storms come through, four tornadoes. And what people wanted is to know that you’re there and available,” Hartley-Nagle said.

Early in her term, Hartley-Nagle battled with other council members, the majority of voted in favor of a resolution calling for her resignation.

“My God, they were attacking each other, they were attacking the employees that came in, they were attacking the constituents. You can hear all that – if you don’t believe me you can go listen to those tapes from the County Council meetings when I first got there.  But, that happened before me. That was the culture I came in to,” Hartley-Nagle said. “I had to decide, how are you going to handle that?”

Hartley-Nagle maintained after speaking with others who previously held the position such as current State Senator Stephanie Hansen and former State Senator Karen Peterson, she believes she faced something similar to what they went through – council members exerting themselves upon a new president. Saying now it’s like a switch was flipped, Hartley-Nagle said council now has authentic and deep discussions on matters, without personal attacks.

While Hartley-Nagle said the relationship has improved on County Council, one of her challengers, New Castle County Register of Wills Ciro Poppiti, said some of Hartley-Nagle's colleagues approached him about running.

“Right now, we’re sort of rudderless in the position of Council President,” Poppiti said. “Members of Council came to me and said ‘listen, we have a lot of confidence in you, we have a lot of trust in you to run for Council President because we’ve worked with you for ten years or more as the Register of Wills.”

Poppiti added that his leadership could provide stability as well as expertise, as the county deals with the uncertainty of a court-ordered property re-evaluation tied to school funding and equal education concerns.

“Remember that as the Register of Wills, my office audits more than $150 million a year in estate assets. As the Register of Wills, by going back and re-looking at old estates, I generated $2.5 million in essentially found money for New Castle County – found money, not savings, but real money coming into the coffers,” Poppiti said.

Poppiti also hopes to expand a senior Bill of Rights he drafted for his office out to a countywide initiative to address such matters as senior meals programs. Also, as a former teen actor and lifelong advocate of the arts, he wants to see more art go up in county spaces.

Monique Johns of Middletown chose not to address the current state of County Council leadership. Instead, the Middletown resident and former State House of Representatives candidate in the 9th District highlighted what she believes she would bring to the position.

“I think it’s important to have a person in the position that is honest, has integrity, that people trust, is a good listener and cares about the issues,” Johns said.

According to Johns, her background is in communications, leadership, and strategic planning. Johns is also founder of a prison ministry known as LOW, Living Outside the Walls.

“We need a Council President that’s committed, consistent, connected and compassionate,” Johns said in a social media video. “I’m running for New Castle County Council President because I have a heart and an innate desire to be the voice for the people.”

Johns cites economic development, public safety - including a competitive salary package and ethics training - human services and smart growth form the basics of her platform. She also hopes to create a complete and interactive circle of communication between the citizens and County Council.

“That’s the big thing, communication. You want to feel a part of the decision-making in our community,” Johns said. “There’s always, always room for more communication.”

Johns highlights a few citizen endorsements in her campaign. Hartley-Nagle cites endorsements from AFSCME and the FOP. Poppiti has the support of the International Longshoremen’s Association, as well as sitting Council members who have gone public.

Hartley-Nagle claims on her campaign signs and website that “experience matters.” One experience she is proud of is voting against two tax increases.

“I have been a fiscal watchdog. I have been for openness, transparency and accountability,” Hartley-Nagle said.

Poppiti, meanwhile, is hopeful that his experience matters to voters. He adds that while the race for County Council President may not have the “sexiness” of Trump v. Biden, races like this one down the ballot also deserve attention.

“Even though this position is down ballot, it’s still awfully important to day-to-day life.”