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Races to Watch: 9th House District

Delaware Public Media/State of Delaware/Harrington Campaign

Republican State Rep. Kevin Hensley faces a Democratic challenger for the third election in a row. The Democratic registration advantage in the 9th House District has only grown since he was elected. 

In the last twenty years, the 9th State House district, which covers the eastern half of southern New Castle County, has been red, and blue, and red again. 

When longtime Republican Rep. Richard Cathcart retired in 2010, Democrat Rebecca Walker—who tried twice to unseat him—took over. When Walker retired in 2014, Republican Kevin Henlsey won a three-way race for the open seat, despite the fact that Democrats already held a registration advantage. 

Since then Democrat Monqiue Johns has tried twice, unsuccessfully to unseat him. 

Now a new face is challenging Hensley in the fast-growing and increasingly blue district. 

Debbie Harrington is a retired Army veteran who has worked in non-profit management and at the state’s Division for the Visually Impaired. She sits on Delaware State University’s Board of Directors.

Harrington has been endorsed by Gov. John Carney, the Delaware Stonewall PAC, Moms Demand Action and several labor unions. 

Harrington shares a focus on education with Hensley, a moderate Republican, real estate broker and small business owner. Hensley is a former member of the Appoquinimink School Board and founding board member of the MOT Charter School. 

Both candidates want change to the way public education is funded in the First State.  

Harrington says she wants to make it more equitable. 

Hensley says the primary problem is the unit count, which determines how much state funding each school district gets. 

“Districts have to provide a September 30 unit count,” he said. “Then any students that come into the district, from September 30 to the end of the school year, are educated with no additional funding coming to the district.” 

Hensley argues this disadvantages the fast-growing Appoquinimink School District, which gained more than 300 students after the unit count last school year. 

Both candidates also support universal public pre-K. 

Harrington says this is also an issue of equity.

“It's a matter of making sure that every kid, no matter where they live, no matter what their circumstances are, they have access to education,” she said. “By the time they get to that third grade, we’ve got them. Now they are reading, they are doing their math, and they’re on grade level.” 

“The key to less crime, to health issues, to everything, social issues—it's education,” she added. 

Hensley agrees early education is critical, but notes funding universal pre-K may be difficult with state revenue taking a hit from the pandemic.

Both candidates believe state assistance to small businesses affected by COVID-19 should be a priority of the next legislative session. 

Hensley says the 9th House district has already lost some small businesses to the pandemic. 

“We as a legislative body need to provide the relief necessary,” he said. “Whether it be from a tax credit perspective or something in order to give these mom-and-pop businesses and others the means to continue to weather through the storm.”

Bigger differences between the candidates come through on other issues. 

Harrington supports a $15 minimum wage. She sees it as key to recovery from the pandemic recession. 

“So many people lost their jobs,” she said. “They're out of work. And when they come back, trying to recover from that, I just think where we are in terms of the minimum wage will not be enough.”

But Hensley is against the idea. He says it would hurt small businesses, especially now.

“$15 an hour minimum wage is clearly going to result in the pass-through to the consumer,” he said. “Because with all due respect, these businesses, these mom-and-pop businesses, can't afford to absorb that.”

Harrington thinks the fast-growing MOT area needs more—and more accessible—public transportation. She says it’d be good for the environment and job growth.

“People with disabilities, they need to get to places,” she said. “I've discovered that more with my daughter. … She’s totally blind. … She uses paratransit, but let's say she wanted to use regular public transportation—we just don't have that access here.”

Hensley prioritizes maintenance of infrastructure like roads and bridges. 

Both candidates are open to gun restrictions, but Harrington goes farther.

Hensley wants to see assault rifles banned. 

“There are firearms that are appropriate for personal use, and there are those that are not,” he said. 

Harrington also supports an assault rifle ban, and wants to see restrictions on magazine capacity and 3d-printed guns. 

“As a veteran, obviously, I understand the power of having guns, and what you can do with those guns,” she said. “For people who are not trained on the guns or using weapons—we just have to be careful.”

Harrington believes police reform is needed, but she’s not looking to reduce police funding. She supports a statewide civilian-police review board with subpoena power. And she wants to see specific use of force policies codified in state law. 

“It really boils down to accountability,” Harrington said. 

Hensley says he does not know enough yet to take a stance on specific police reforms.

“But I do think that as we look at quote unquote, police reform, we need to be mindful of the fact that the majority of the police officers that I know in our community and other communities are good, upstanding folks that are just trying to do the best they can to protect the public,” he said. 

Several incidents have revealed racial tension in and around the 9th District. 

Floats in last year’s annual Hummers Parade in Middletown were criticized as racist. And last month a church in Middletown found its LGBTQ pride and Black Lives Matter flags stolen and burned. 

Hensley calls the church incident inexcusable. But he’s hopeful the issue can be resolved. 

“There are currently efforts underway between the police department, the Mayor and [Town] Council, as well as the local NAACP, to come together and to brainstorm as to, okay, how can we ... defuse any tensions that may be maybe in the community?” he said. 

Harrington is directly involved with that effort. She was on the NAACP committee that worked with the town and police department to create the police advisory council. 

Harrington thinks the outcry that followed the 2019 Hummers Parade led to progress in the community. And she’s confident the police advisory council will lead to more.

“They’re saying, ‘Listen, we're not going to accept not treating people the way they should be treated anymore. We're going to do that together as a town’,” she said. “Having the Mayor, the Council and having the NAACP, having the churches and the businesses all in this together—that's extraordinary, from where we were.”

When Hensley was elected in 2014, there were fewer than 16,000 registered voters in his district. About 42 percent of them were Democrats. 

Over the past six years, the District has gained more than 7,500 registered voters. Democrats have gained two percent of the voting pool. 

Hensley says he’s been “laser focused” on reaching out to these new Democrats. 

“I've been very blessed to have a great deal of independent support, as well as Democrat support,” he said. “I have spent my last six years being extraordinarily visible and accessible. And I'd like to think that that plays a big part.”

If Harrington can capture the Democrats and just a third of the independent voters, she could take the seat. She expects national races and issues to bring a high turnout. And she thinks this will help her.

“COVID-19,” she said. “Police reform, racial disparities—all the things that are going on that are affecting people’s lives tremendously—they are coming out to let their vote speak for them.”

Incumbent state Rep. Kevin Hensley and Democratic challenger Debbie Harrington face off in the General Election Nov. 3.


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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