Races to Watch: House District 22
All 41 of Delaware’s House seats are up for election this November - and in 15 of those races the incumbent faces a challenge. And Delaware Public Media's Kelli Steele reports on one such race in New Castle County.
Delaware’s District 22 State Representative race features a matchup between first-term incumbent Republican Michael Smith and Democratic newcomer Luann D’Agostino.
The district is almost evenly split between Democrats, Republicans and Independents. And Smith won the seat in 2018 - defeating Guillermina Gonzalez by just 140 votes in the race to replace retiring State Rep Joe Miro - a Republican.
Smith says he’s worked across the aisle to get things done during his first term
"I’d say my greatest accomplishments were working across the aisle to get things done locally and through policy," said Smith. "I was able to sponsor a bill with the Majority leader to get mental health providers into the schools; that’s something that we were locked in to do before COVID and I think that will be locked in to continue to push forward in the 151st General Assembly. And then really leading the charge with my colleagues from across the aisle to keep the Polly Drummond Yard Waste Facility open. Locally, that’s one of the most important issues of a service that everyone seems to enjoy.”
D’Agostino is making her first run for office.
“I was always very involved with community activity and homeowners associations and always up-to-date with what was going on in our State and in our area," said D'Agostino. "And then I went through a divorce and got very involved in kind of a law and legal systems and saw that there was a lot of us out there who were not being represented and wanted to make a change in that and so I decided to step up and run for office.”
COVID-19 and its impact are front and center this election cycle. And both candidates agree the economic fallout from it is particularly challenging, and will remain so even after the pandemic ends.
Smith says that is especially true for small businesses.
“If you look at Delaware - 57% of Delaware is now small business, which means our largest employer of Delaware is small business," said Smith. "And small business is who’s getting hit the hardest during these trying times.”
D’Agostino once owned a small business, a dance studio in Pike Creek, before selling it in 2016 and says she believes the pandemic will have far-reaching consequences.
“How it affects the economy and how it affects healthcare," saidf D'Agostino. "I mean right now we have - we were lucky that our Legislature was able to pass a bill that kept the ACA (Affordable Care Act) protections for those of us who have healthcare coverage through Delaware.”
She adds the pandemic’s impact requires offering small businesses wide-ranging assistance.
“I think it’s going to be very important to - unlike my opponent who just wanted to make sure all businesses were re-opened right away back in April - I think we need to do the responsible thing from a healthcare perspective," said D'Agostino. "But we need to make sure we’re supporting those small businesses, making sure they have alternative streams of income and maybe incentivize that going forward.”
Smith says helping small businesses isn’t the only challenge lawmakers face when they return to Dover in January.
“One’s going to be the economy. I mean we’re going to have to see exactly where we’re at in the next DEFAC (Delaware Financial Advisory Council) meeting and be able to adapt along the way. Our nonprofits are hurting so they’re going to need more money. And those are folks that do services for the people of Delaware and so we’re going to need to see where that is,," said Smith. "Unemployment is still going to be very high and something that we’re still getting inquiries about. So we’re going to have to figure out how we can work with that without federal funds attached to that.”
Issues surrounding racial inequality are also on the minds of many voters and Smith believes a dialogue is needed.
“I think the one thing you have to do though is start with communication. You have to get people and stakeholders around the table to actually talk," said Smith. "And at that point you have to get to the root cause of some of these issues and dive in. They put me on the Economic Empowerment Committee to try to help people of color go through the process in the State on State contracts. I’ve gone to the prisons and was named on the Delaware Prison Innovation Network to really get to the whole point of what is the accountability measure, what is the punishment measure - but more importantly - what is the rehabilitation measure to get to the root cause of how people are being treated and where the inequity is.”
D’Agostino also seeks to address the root cause of racial inequality.
“I think education, reforming the education system, is going to be a big part of it. I think looking at increasing the minimum wage is going to be part of it," said D'Agostino. "Looking at policing and what we’re doing - although we don’t have big problems in Delaware - I think there can be improvements.”
D’Agostino says if voters in the Pike Creek Valley and parts of Hockessin and Newark opt to send her to Dover, there's one thing she wants them to know.
“I just really want to be the voice of every person in the community. I am 100% for transparency,” said D'Agostino.
Smith says if voters give him another term he will continue to work with his fellow legislators to get things done for allDelawareans.
“We’ve gotten things done together because we focus on the policy and we focus on the issues that are most important to people by looking at what the actual impact will be," said Smith. "And if you take the politics out of it and you make it about the policy, then it becomes about the impact for the people. And I think that’s a brand that I’m certainly trying to echo and tell here in Delaware again.”
Another close race is likely in House District 22. The district’s registration totals this year are very similar to both 2016 and 2018, though Democrats have picked up about 600 registered voters since 2016 while Republicans have lost about 300.