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Races to Watch: Four Democrats running for 32nd House District seat

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Delaware Public Media
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Lamont Pierce, Phil McGinnis, Kerri Evelyn Harris, and LaVaughn McCutchen

In Kent County, the 32nd House District seat is open, with Democratic State Representative Andria Bennett not running for re-election.

A total of four Democrats are competing to take her place.

Delaware Public Media’s Rachel Sawicki spoke with each candidate to get their positions on key issues and their plans if elected.

Delaware Public Media’s Rachel Sawicki on the primary race for the 32nd House District opening

The 32nd district stretches from Rodney Village to Kitts Hummock and includes Dover Park on the north end, Jonathan’s Landing on the south, and the Dover Air Force Base right in the middle.

The first to file was Dover native Phil McGinnis, owner of McGinnis Commercial Real Estate company, life-long democrat, and son of James McGinnis, who served alternating terms in the Delaware House of Representatives and Senate from 1964-1976 before becoming Lt. Governor for a term.

McGinnis is past president of the Kent County and Delaware Associations of Realtors and the Dover Housing Authority, where he now serves as treasurer. He previously chaired the Caesar Rodney Referendum Citizen Advisory Committee in the mid 2000’s and the National Association of Realtors Public Education Finance Workgroup.

“I’ve been a public advocate for over 40 years, battling for private property rights, home ownership opportunities, safe and clean environment, reducing regulations to stimulate entrepreneurship and attainable housing stock,” McGinnis said. “I see at this moment the biggest obstacle to attainable home ownership is a 4% realty transfer tax which needs to be cut.”

As a self-proclaimed SOB, son of a broker, and now a broker himself, McGinnis says he has been battling the 4% tax since it increased from 3% in 2017. If elected, he’ll prioritize housing.

“I have found over the years when you say ‘affordable housing’ people automatically conjure up this idea of section 8, low income, low market rent sort of population, and ghettos in the making, and we’ve always thought of that as being unfair,” McGinnis said. “So I think ‘attainable housing’ is going to have to be an immediate focus because we have a shortage of housing, we’ve got an aging supply of housing, we have an identifying lack of new construction, and we have to identify and address the regulatory constraints for new housing construction.”

He also emphasizes constituent services, something he says he has been working on without being elected.

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Phil McGinnis

“We have crime complaints, we have traffic mitigation issues on South State Street, we have the need for neighborhood cleanups,” he said.

On the campaign trail, he says he mostly hears frustration about a lack of accomplishment and cruel partisanship in the state legislature.

A few days after McGinnis filed, former U.S. Senate contender Kerri Evelyn Harris threw her hat in the ring. In 2018, she primaried Sen. Tom Carper, garnering about 35% of the vote.

“We went from a place where there was the ‘Delaware Way’ where we just do what we do and we don’t ask questions, to then, as a result of the 2018 run, people were saying, you know what, are my folks that I’m electing actually signing laws that I need to improve the quality of my life?” Harris said. “Yes they’re a kind person, yes I’ve seen them in many places, but do they remember me when it counts?”

Harris joined the Air Force in 2001, just before 9/11, in order to pay for college. At the height of the Afghanistan war, she says people looked to the United States as a beacon of hope, of what could be.

“And yet we were leaving people behind and broken,” Harris said. “We left broken communities because war is ugly, and we left broken service members. There were people who were serving, while elected officials were saying ‘we support our troops’ but we’d just put on flak vests without armor in them because it looked good for the cameras, for journalists. I saw people literally try to take their lives because they couldn’t serve another tour overseas. I saw brokenness at home and even for myself, I became sick and was medically retired and it took me four years to find a full time job.”

Coming back to civilian life in the middle of the 2008 Great Recession, Harris says she had to make decisions that impacted her and her family’s health because they couldn’t afford doctor visits, and a place she called home was now void of opportunities. At her body-shop job, a chance encounter with someone who worked in the State Human Relations Commission changed the trajectory of her life.

“For the first time I was looking at a way of actually changing the system outside of saying ‘hey there’s a problem, can you fix it for me?’ And I was moved,” she said. “I was moved and I wanted everybody to know that they also had that opportunity. So here I am, three kids later now. I have an incredibly supportive wife who allows me to be out and about and in community, often participating in my community service, along with our children, but understanding that there’s something bigger than us.”

Harris says she doesn’t run on particular issues, but on a collection of values – centered on families, strengthening the community, and standing with and for the individual voter, and she believes she can make an impact on that at the state level.

“The federal level is so broken right now and very little is being pushed through,” Harris said. “We need to hold the line at the state level, we need people who are going to fight, stand up, draw attention, to the fact that there is the ability to preserve the democracy that we all believe in at the state level.”

It may seem broad, but that’s because Harris says all of our struggles are connected. But what sticks out to her is increasing access to family sustaining jobs, stabilizing healthcare costs, and addressing known causes of crime and addiction.

“Change only comes if we step up and demand it,” she said.

Another Dover native joined the race in mid-May, and says he aims to take and carry the torch for the younger generation. 30-year-old LaVaughn McCutchen is a teaching assistant in the Capital School District, who also ran for an at-large Dover City Council seat last year, receiving 14% of the vote. McCutchen says he learned alot from his city council run.

“I want to see things change,” McCutchen said. “It’s a new generation now, things aren’t how they once were and I think it’s time to pass the torch to the younger generation. The general age population of adults in Dover is 35, I just turned 30, I fall into that age range, I feel like I know what the city wants and needs.”

McCutchen talks a lot about homelessness, and says Dover needs more shelters to get people off the streets. But education is at the forefront of his mind. He says schools need more funding along with faculty and staff.

“As much as we’ve been doing, especially through the pandemic and going on through now, we’re not just educators,” he said. “We don’t just go in there and teach kids and tell them to go on about their business. We are actually, they speak to us. We are guidance counselors, we’re nurses, we’re a shoulder to cry on, they come vent to us. This is more than just teaching kids, and I feel as though it’s about time that we get paid as such.”

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Kerri Evelyn Harris (center)

He is also aiming for equity between school districts, making sure that every student, no matter where they live, has the same resources and education as the next. This includes before- and after-school care.

“They can get help on homework, they can get a snack, things like that,” McCutchen said. “And how I said I’d like to partner with Del-State Downtown, maybe kill two birds with one stone. Maybe if Dr. [Tony] Allen would be ok with it, if you’re taking education at Del-State you can go there and help the kids and you can maybe get some shadowing hours towards your curricular.”

Education is a leading issue for candidate number four too, Lamont Pierce.

Pierce says he waited until July to file because he was deciding whether he wanted to step into the political arena, or continue the work he’s already doing in his community.

Pierce moved from New Castle to the 32nd district in 2007, and became President of the Dover Civic Association a year later. He and his family started and ran a free after school program at the Capitol Park Community Center for about 4 years, but eventually finding funding and volunteers became too difficult.

“There is money out there that people could utilize and unfortunately they’re leaving it on the table, and that bothers me,” Pierce said. “And I really believe people are leaving it on the table because they don’t know. Because I was that person that left it on the table, I was that person that did not apply, I was that father that had three children and served in the community and did not know the resources that are out there. So the thing for me is, and I think what people would get a benefit from electing someone like myself is I’m a person of the people. I really am. I’ve been on the ground, on the pavement if you will, here in this 32nd district since 2008. Before that I was on the pavement in New Castle.”

Pierce now works for First State Community Action Agency and is the project coordinator and trainer for Delaware Fatherhood Family Coalition.

He says he is not political, but simply listens to what people want.

“Don’t talk about it, be about it,” Pierce says.

That’s his motto as he fights for education and better paying jobs. Pierce says he may not be the resource someone needs, but will be the connection to that resource.

Pierce, like McCutchen, notes schools are severely understaffed, and wants to find more ways to incentivize high-level professionals to teach in Delaware schools.

“That would be my main thrust, that is my main thrust for my campaign,” Pierce said. “And I think another thing that we struggle with in this district is pre-K within the schools. We have pre-K presently that are there for special needs children, but we need it for all children. Because the statistics show, data shows that, if a child has been engaged or enlisted in pre-K, their long-term success for education is better.”

Pierce says he has a unique view on police reform too. As the 2017 State Police Honorary Troop Commander he trained alongside law enforcement and learned the ins and outs of a deeply rooted system - such as officers are trained to shoot to kill.

“You don’t shoot one time,” Pierce said. “I used to always think ‘why do they always unload so many times?’ That’s part of the training. And I understand that a lot of times they’re in a life or death situation.”

But, Pierce says other people don’t have a good understanding of what police go through either.

“I said, ‘people, residents really don’t understand what it is that police officers go through.’ At that time there were a lot of killings, a lot of violence, things of that nature, and I just said ‘man, I believe that I have a realm of influence to be able to help residents not only understand police, but also help police officers understand residents,” he said.

Pierce supports the package of gun safety laws passed by the General Assembly in June, particularly the age limits on high level rifles and weapons, just like alcohol consumption and driving are age-restricted.

He admits he doesn’t know enough about the benefits and adverse effects of marijuana and legalizing recreational use, but says he is an advocate for drug abuse prevention.

“I was homeless for over 2 years so I understand what it is to be homeless,” Pierce said. “I was addicted to drugs for 10 years, so I understand what it is to be addicted to drugs. I’ve been a father for 30 years, so I understand being a father in addiction and a father not in addiction. I worked in labor fields as a production worker, so I understand working in that over 10 years. Being in a faith-based organization I understand the faith-based and what people believe, whether we have the same beliefs or not. I think what I bring to the table, or what’s missing at the table, is people that have a background of all of those different dynamics that I shared.”

Harris says she also understands the struggles of the average family, and knows from experience how to make hard decisions that fit a budget.

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Lamont Pierce (back right)

From her previous campaigns, Harris says she has relationships with local, state, and federal elected officials, so she can hit the ground running, emphasizing that those relationships are important to pass legislation.

If elected, she’ll support mental health services everywhere to destigmatize mental illness, adding she used to be embarrassed of her own PTSD from her time in service.

And as a veteran with experience with weapons of war, she says there are no reasonable circumstances why they would be needed in the average home.

“I am tired of excuses,” Harris said. “I am tired of repeatedly reminding my children how to survive if there’s a mass shooting in school. I am tired of people saying ‘good guys with guns will beat bad guys with guns.’ If you are not properly trained, if you have never been in a situation that is high pressure with your life at risk, you don’t know how you will react. You might be a good guy with a gun, but will you freeze? You might be a good guy with a gun, but will you shoot the wrong person? You might be a good guy with a gun but will law enforcement mistake you as the assailant? These are things we need to consider.”

For those who do want to obtain legal firearms, Harris emphasizes that the laws must be equitable so that everyone can afford the training and other requirements.

On reforming the criminal justice system, Harris says bad cops are a danger to society and to good cops, and Delaware needs a way of identifying and flushing them out.

“I often feel that the people who are the most in danger are the good police officers,” Harris said. “Because when they have to go into a community where people already fear them, that puts them in danger. And if they have to be worried if a fellow officer will harm them if they report out on something tey;ve seen, that is concerning also. As a veteran, we had a uniform code of military justice, and we were mandated to report out if anybody did not represent our armed forces properly. We were in a place where we were required to show why we showed force, to explain all of those things, and if we were not found to have followed the code, we risked imprisonment, removal from the military, and a tarnish on our names for the rest of our lives. This is for folks who are serving in combat zones. If you’re serving in our own community, I feel we should be held to the same standard. It protects the code of service.”

McCutchen voiced strong support for community review boards, which State Sen. Tizzy Lockman’s SB149 would have created, but was held up by wary GOP members and former law enforcement representatives.

“Some well known or higher up people in the city who aren’t on the police force need to hold committees, things need to be reviews, complaints against the officer need to be reviewed, how often there are complaints being filed and such, the citizens and constituents of the city should be able to have access to that,” McCutchen said. “And maybe we can come up with a voting system, if we should be able to vote them out. They need to be held accountable at the end of the day.”

He was clear that his answer to legalizing recreational marijuana, is yes, especially because it helps one of his main campaign focuses: jobs.

McCutchen also praised recent gun control legislation, but took issue with the mandatory buy-back/large capacity magazine surrender, which he says law-abiding citizens may follow, but others won’t. And, he thinks addressing school safety could help bring jobs to the community.

“These homeless veterans that’s on the street, make them constables in the schools, bring more constables to the school,” McCutchen said. “That kills two birds with one stone, you got somebody off the street and they’re employed. They’re no longer homeless.”

McCutchen says he has no issue voting across the aisle if he believes the GOP has a “better solution” proposed in a bill.

“This isn’t about Democrats, this isn’t about Republicans,” he said. “This is about the constituents of the state of Delaware. And I’m going to do what is best in my power to make sure the right decisions are made so that it's going to have an impact on everybody in this city and state.”

McGinnis wants to revisit the Delaware Landlord-Tenant code, which he helped to write the first draft of and update over the years. Evictions can be tricky on both sides. He says no one wants to throw people on the street for not paying rent, but there are already people on the streets that are waiting for a chance at a home too.

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LaVaughn McCutchen (right)

“We’ll work with it,” McGinnis said. “We always work with whoever communicates with us. But we also have tenants that beat up their houses, and don’t pay the rent, and refuse to cooperate and refuse to communicate, and so where is the balance? Where does compassion become anger and where does anger become desperation? At what point do you risk having your property foreclosed on because you can’t get the rent?”

He notes how some tenants do take advantage of the system, playing “games” and never intending to pay rent, but scrape together the security deposit to move in and see how long they can get by before being evicted.

On other issues, McGinnis says a lot of “knee jerk” legislation is the result of some legislators’ inability to communicate with each other.

On gun control, McGinnis says a lot of recent legislation addressed things that were “already illegal,” and were simply run because it’s an election year.

“When you get to the even years, and you’re on June 15th, on the even years a lot of stuff that comes through there is push piece material,” he said. “‘Look what I sponsored, look what I did.’”

If he were in office, McGinnis would approach the issue differently – like creating different levels of licensing, so obtaining a handgun versus an automatic weapon would require different licenses.

“You talk about gun licensing, it’s already difficult to own a gun legally,” he said. “Most of the gun violence is occuring from people who own guns illegally. And what’s the answer to that? I have no idea. All I know is, you hold your finger down and it keeps shooting bullets, and that’s a bad thing. Well it’s a bad thing in the hands of nerdowells, but it may not be a bad thing in the hands of a collector or a dealer or responsible gun owner.”

And, he disagrees with offering gun offenders bail, especially repeat offenders.

“You can stay in jail until your trial occurs,” McGinnis said. “And I would not allow plea bargaining of gun charges away. And then I would add a second layer of sentencing. You may do 3 to 5 years for the robbery, but let's do something, 10, 15, or 20 years on the gun charge.”

On police reform, McGinnis says recent incidents where unarmed individuals are shot are “sad” and make him “cringe.”

He remembers Reefer Madness as a “funny movie,” contrary to personal experiences with marijuana. He says it is no different than alcohol or tobacco, and supports recreational legalization, but would not “fall on his sword” to vote ‘yes’ on legislation. He also recognizes solutions to detect intoxication in the workplace and on the road are still needed.

The winner of this primary faces Republican Cheryl Precourt in November’s general election.

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Rachel Sawicki is Delaware Public Media's New Castle County Reporter. They are non-binary and use they/them pronouns.