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Races to Watch: State Senator Colin Bonini faces two challengers in 16th Senate District GOP primary

 Colin Bonini, Eric Buckson, and Kim Petters
Delaware Public Media
Colin Bonini, Eric Buckson, and Kim Petters

Delaware Public Media is highlighting a series of “Races to Watch” with races in the upcoming September primary, as part of the station’s 2022 election coverage.

In Kent County, incumbent Republican Senator Colin Bonini faces not one, but two primary challengers for the state’s 16th Senate District.

Delaware Public Media’s Paul Kiefer takes a closer look at the three-way race this week and what you need to know about the candidates.

Delaware Public Media's Paul Kiefer breaks down the 16th Senate District GOP primary

State Senator Colin Bonini leans into incumbency. Over nearly three decades in the General Assembly – and two runs for governor – the Kent County Republican has staked out a clear role for himself as one of Delaware’s most vocal conservatives.

He isn’t shy about claiming that title for himself.

“If you say, ‘Who's the spokesperson for the right side of the political spectrum in Delaware politics,’” he told Delaware Public Media, “I would argue that's been me for 25 years.”

On and off the Senate floor, he speaks at breakneck speed. He will use arcane procedural rules to stall a vote on a bill he opposes until midnight, only to invite an exhausted colleague on the other side of the aisle to visit his 10-acre horse farm. He votes against the annual budget bill every year. More than practically anyone else in the legislature, Bonini is a known quantity.

But despite – or possibly because of – his longstanding and well-defined role in Delaware’s Senate, Bonini is not running unopposed in the upcoming 16th district Republican primary.

Eric Buckson, a longtime Kent County Levy Court Commissioner and the son of former Lt. Gov and state Attorney General David Buckson, is a familiar figure in the 16th district. Kim Petters, an air force veteran and the co-founder of the gun rights-focused Women’s Defense Coalition of Delaware, is a first-time candidate. If elected, she would be the only Republican woman serving in Delaware’s Senate at this time.

“If you say, ‘Who's the spokesperson for the right side of the political spectrum in Delaware politics,' I would argue that's been me for 25 years.”
Republican Senator Colin Bonini

Both challengers take issue with some aspect of Bonini’s long tenure. For Petters, that issue is face-to-face voter outreach and organizing, which she says needs to be done more consistently across the district. “Most of the doors I've knocked, I'm being told I'm the first person to ever show up at their door,” she said. “So, you know, there seems to be a breakdown in communication between our representation or Senate representation and constituents.”

For Buckson, the issue is Bonini’s nearly three-decade long run in the Senate itself. Buckson has made term limits for lawmakers a central talking point in his campaign; he has also promised to give up his seat on the Levy Court regardless of how he fares in the Senate primary. “Democracy was not designed around career politicians, no matter how well intended I am, we are, or they are,” he said. “I just don't think that's the way this system was designed to work. I would argue that we need to change – we need the messengers to change. I have a very strong conservative background, and I am not going to flip over and change my stripes when I get there. But I believe if we want to better convey our positions and have a better chance to win arguments, I know it'll be difficult, but I want my turn. I want a chance. I want to be able to represent the folks in my district and get in that fight.”

But in conversations with the three candidates, a more fundamental difference between the incumbent and his challengers becomes clear.

When asked about his record as a lawmaker, Bonini says assessing his time in the legislature through the bills he’s supported misses the point. “You’re going to say, ‘well, what specifically are you doing?’” he said. “But I don't really see that as my role, right? If you're the minority, you're not going to say, ‘Well, I did this bill and I did that bill.’ That's just not who I am.”

Bonini sees himself as a bulwark against perceived government overreach, and he’s generally skeptical of the capacity of new legislation or government programs to offer any value to Delaware residents.

Instead, he asks to focus on his role as the kind of Senator who stops or challenges legislation and state spending he finds objectionable.

“I personally stopped the first statewide ever property tax in Delaware,” he said. Bonini is referring to a statewide outreach campaign he launched in 2019 to raise opposition to a bill before the state Senate that would have created a property tax to fund Delaware Technical Community College. In his view, though the initial proposed tax was low, the bill opened the door for tax increases in the future.

As a longtime member of the Senate’s capital improvement committee, Bonini casts himself as the Senate’s resident fiscal watchdog, steering public infrastructure dollars to where he believes they will be best-spent – bread-and-butter transportation projects like highway overpasses – while remaining vocally skeptical of the size of the state’s budget and the value of government interventions.

Neither of his primary challengers are as quick to focus attention on what legislation and spending they would oppose.

In fact, Petters says she could leverage her experience as a gun rights organizer to help bills sponsored by Senate Republicans fare better in the General Assembly.

She also points out that the handful of bills sponsored by Bonini in the most recent legislative session – including a proposal to roll back recent reforms to Delaware’s bail system – never made it to the Governor’s desk.

“Right now there are no women, Republican senators. There are no women senators standing up explaining why women's rights, why gun rights are women's rights.”
Kim Petters, air force veteran and the co-founder of Women’s Defense Coalition of Delaware

“Because we're the minority party, more has to be done than just drafting legislation that ultimately will fail,” she said. “Eight pieces of legislation that he drafted – that he was the prime sponsor for – did fail. And the reason is because there was no campaign launched behind the issue ahead of time. There was no rallying the community.”

Petters argues that even as an activist, she’s been able to rally enough support behind faltering bills to get them to the finish line. She points to the so-called Bravery Bill: a 2017 proposal that expanded medical marijuana access for veterans with PTSD.

That legislation died on the Senate floor, but I didn't take that as an answer,” she said. “So I went up and down the state, talking to all the different veteran organizations I could possibly talk to. I went into the VFW, the American Legion, the women veteran groups. Together, by rallying the community – the veteran community – we were able to bring that bill back and get it to pass unanimously.”

Petters also believes the presence of a woman in the Senate’s Republican caucus could give a boost to conservative causes – particularly when the General Assembly is debating gun access.

“Right now there are no women, Republican senators,” she said. “There are no women senators standing up explaining why women's rights, why gun rights are women's rights.”

Meanwhile, Buckson points to a decades-old battle over the construction of exurban housing developments on converted farmland as a key reason for his involvement in Kent County politics. As Buckson tells it, he stepped in to advocate for additional regulations on rural housing development.

“What happened around that time – it was 2006 or 2007 – we were just at the end, or some could say still in the middle, of the growth phase in the development of the county,” he said. “Residential growth was being left unchecked. It was under codes and laws that, as I reviewed them, were not in balance with the communities. They were more tilted towards just… build and go. And that was evidenced by the lack of infrastructure that was required in some of these approvals. And I faced pushback from the existing Levy Court when I presented those concerns.”

Specifically, Buckson took issue with developments on lots that weren’t already outfitted with the water, sewage or road infrastructure to support a new exurban neighborhood. “The reason you're having these pop-up developments in the middle of our best farmland is because that's where it's the least expensive to build,” he said. “The problem with that is it's most expensive to service.”

He led a successful push to add additional infrastructure requirements for rural housing developments – restrictions he says may not yet be fully apparent, because many of the newly constructed housing developments on former farmland were given permits before the new rules took effect.

Today, Buckson sees another opportunity for intervention in the housing market: this time to mitigate the damage of rising housing costs. “I think the biggest, the biggest problem we have right now is that the rent market is out of control,” he said. “There’s nowhere for people to turn. I understand the free market. I also understand that we don't have to build affordable housing. What we need to do is try to make housing affordable by assisting qualified homeowners, and even renters, in getting into a home, and one of the biggest obstacles is down payment.”

"Democracy was not designed around career politicians, no matter how well intended I am, we are, or they are. I just don't think that's the way this system was designed to work. I would argue that we need to change – we need the messengers to change."
Eric Buckson, longtime Kent County Levy Court Commissioner

On the Levy Court, Buckson advocated for the county to use American Rescue Plan Act dollars to assist qualified homeowners and renters in covering down payments or rental deposits; that effort was not successful. Like nearly all other conservative elected officials in Delaware, he opposes additional tenant protections – including recently failed proposals to provide legal representation to tenants facing eviction – but sees financial assistance for renters and homebuyers as an appropriate government intervention in the housing crisis.

Bonini’s proposal for remedying Delaware’s housing crisis is consistent with his skepticism towards the state government in general. “I do think the government has… I think government is quite frankly, partially to blame for why we have such a housing crisis,” he said. “The market is telling us one thing when the government is trying to shape that market, and it doesn't work.”

But his general willingness to criticize zoning and building code rules he calls ‘Byzantine’ doesn’t necessarily mean he supports more radical measures like eliminating single-family home zoning statewide. Instead, he thinks Delaware’s state government should leave building regulations to municipalities – though much of the support for the kinds of zoning restrictions he criticizes appears on a local level as well.

In a race challenging a long-standing Republican voice at Leg Hall, these granular differences between candidates over the role they believe the state government should play in problem-solving may be an afterthought. The candidates in the 16th district Republican primary would likely cast identical votes when the partisan battle lines are clearly drawn. Perhaps more than any other primary, the race is a referendum on whether the Senate’s most recognizable conservative has become too comfortable in that role.

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Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.