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Races to Watch: 14th Senate District

Kyra Hoffner and Mark Pugh
Kyra Hoffner and Mark Pugh

The next race we’re focusing on as part of Delaware Public Media’s 2022 Election coverage is the 14th Senate District.

The seat is currently held by Democrat Bruce Ennis, who is retiring after serving in the General Assembly for nearly four decades.

Delaware Public Media’s Paul Keifer reports on how the two candidates running here both cast themselves as the right choice to fill Ennis’ shoes.

Kyra Hoffner affectionately refers to Bruce Ennis as “Santa.” Mark Pugh boasts about visiting the retiring Senator at his Smyrna home to talk shop.

The reverence shown for Ennis in the 14th Senate District places Hoffner and Pugh in a challenging position: both candidates are trying to model themselves after him without becoming indistinguishable from one another.

Hoffner, a lobbyist for Delaware’s League of Women Voters, is already a familiar face at Leg Hall; during the most recent General Assembly, she was an omnipresent voice of support for a bill of rights for people experiencing homelessness, for example. But if she makes it to the Senate, Hoffner says she will adopt Ennis’ approach to law-making: voting based on her constituents’ input, not based on her past advocacy.

“When you go from being an advocate, where you’re fighting for everything you believe in, to serving the community,” she said, “you have to serve the community.”

Pugh, the former Mayor of Leipsic and the current owner of a auto repair business in Dover, operates in other influential political spheres: the worlds of Rotary Clubs and volunteer fire brigades. He cites his deep roots in the 14th District – he lives in a home passed down by his grandparents – as a qualification for office and as his key bond with Ennis.

“We know this area and we know the people, and so while our viewpoints might be a little different, our morals are the same,” he said.

Hoffner and Pugh’s efforts to align themselves with Ennis often lead them to similar priorities.

“When you go from being an advocate, where you’re fighting for everything you believe in, to serving the community, you have to serve the community.”
Kyra Hoffner, Democratic candidate and lobbyist for Delaware’s League of Women Voters

One example is their positions on land use: like much of Delaware, the 14th Senate District has seen exurban subdivisions sprawl onto former farmland, sparking complaints from new and old residents alike.

Like Ennis, both Hoffner and Pugh are quick to bring up the need for savvier land use policies to mitigate sprawl. Pugh – a member of the Leipsic volunteer fire brigade – underscores that developments on former farmland overburden rural roads and are difficult for first responders to reach.

He also points out ballooning costs of maintaining road, sewer and water connections to sprawling developments create a revenue problem for growing towns.

“One of the things that a local municipality always deal with is how we raise taxes on the new people,” he said, “and not just the new people, but the township we already have.”

For her part, Hoffner notes expensive, low-density subdivisions far from basic amenities do little to bring down the cost of living for Delawareans.

“You’re building neighborhoods way out there, so people who can’t afford a home – now they have to be able to afford a car,” she said.

But their proposed fixes reveal the partisan divides that make this race notable: ultimately, voters will choose between a progressive and a conservative to replace a Senator who built a reputation by falling neatly between the two.

Hoffner sees room for the General Assembly to have a hand in the zoning changes needed to simultaneously improve land use and provide adequate affordable housing.

She floats the idea of state-level interventions to promote denser housing development closer to existing town centers, paired with the possible adoption of statewide inclusionary zoning: a policy that requires developers to set aside a portion of their new units as affordable housing.

Similar efforts are already underway on a local and county level, but Hoffner says that Delaware needs to coordinate efforts to promote density and affordability statewide.

“Why can’t we have something like that around the state – look at Middletown, look at Smyrna starting to overdevelop,” she said.

The value of state-level interventions in land use and zoning, Hoffner adds, is the state is more capable of tracking compliance; if a developer accepts a tax break in exchange for increasing density, for instance, the state government may be more effective at ensuring the developer follows through on the agreement.

In contrast, while Pugh says he sees the value of affordability requirements in new developments, he thinks zoning decisions should remain the purview of municipal governments.

“What one municipality would like to see and what another one would like to see are, many times, completely different,” he said. “You never want an upstate Senator deciding what’s going on downstate.”

Hoffner’s policy proposals often revolve around housing affordability; she names a handful of stalled tenant protection bills – including a bill providing tenants the right to legal representation during evictions – as top priorities.

But Hoffner’s focus often lays on creating paths to homeownership for low- and middle-income renters – a focus she says is necessary to spur residents to be civically engaged.

For example, Hoffner suggests the General Assembly could push mortgage lenders to consider so-called “alternative credit,” meaning that consistent payment of rent or utilities bills could stand in for a high credit score when applying for a mortgage.

“If somebody is paying $2500 a month in rent, they can surely afford $1100 of mortgage,” she said. “They’ve proven they can pay on time over an extended period of time. That would be alternative credit, and it would get more people as homeowners who want to invest in the community. Renters don’t always want to invest in the community because they’re struggling to meet rent.”

Pugh is likewise generally supportive of simplifying the path to homeownership: He presents himself as a middle-of-the-road conservative, willing to consider regulatory tweaks to encourage business growth or homeownership while remaining skeptical of increasing the state’s revenue streams. He is, for instance, a critic of the state’s gross receipts tax, which collects a fraction of a percent of all businesses’ revenues in lieu of a sales tax on Delaware consumers.

“What happens in Delaware is that we present ourselves as a no-sales-tax state, but the reality is that we have a gross receipts tax and a business ends up paying that tax,” he said. “And many times as business people, we take the hit.

But the core of Pugh’s campaign is a sweeping plan for expanding Delaware’s school choice system that he refers to as “Educational Freedom.”

He proposes the state transfer its contribution to each student’s education – roughly 60 percent of total spending per student – to accounts managed by students’ families. While Delaware’s current school choice program allows families to send their children to any public, charter, or vocational school in the state, Pugh argues handing education funding directly to parents would enable families to spend that money on private schools, homeschooling, tutoring, or afterschool care.

Delaware’s existing school choice program, he says, simply doesn’t deliver on its core promise.

“We do have school choice, but not really,” he said. “We have it by law, but not by practice – because of the overcrowding. Even the schools that are not doing well are still overcrowded.”

“What one municipality would like to see and what another one would like to see are, many times, completely different. You never want an upstate Senator deciding what’s going on downstate.”
Mark Pugh, Republican candidate and former Mayor of Leipsic

The goal of such a substantial overhaul, Pugh says, is to remake Delaware’s education system in the image of the free market.

“What educational freedom is designed to do is to develop new schools,” he said. “Schools that are in demand. It adds a level of competition and commerce, and just like in regular commerce, if there’s a need for it, it will be developed.”

Pugh’s plan isn’t entirely novel: The conservative media site PragerU released a video promoting the same basic approach to education funding in April – a video Pugh posted on Facebook.

Some details of Pugh’s plan remain unresolved; for instance, he says he has yet to decide whether the state should offer larger education accounts for students with learning disabilities or English language learners.

But Hoffner argues Pugh’s plan has a more fundamental flaw: in her view, simply diverting some education funding to private schools or tutoring programs will only exacerbate staffing shortages and unresolved maintenance problems in the public school system.

“We can’t have healthy schools if the buildings are crumbling,” she noted.

Hoffner adds instead of encouraging struggling schools to develop a specialty to compete in an educational marketplace, Pugh’s plan would leave many public schools to wither – without adequate funding to hire bilingual instructors or add new chemistry labs, for instance, Hoffner says already struggling schools would enter the new marketplace at a serious disadvantage.

But both candidates converge again on the subject of educator pay: like Hoffner, Pugh says his plan is only viable if Delaware schools are able to offer competitive wages. To achieve that end, he says, the state will need to find opportunities to trim elsewhere in its budget.

Hoffner has the backing of the Delaware State Education Association – the labor organization representing teachers statewide – and a host of other unions and progressive advocacy groups. While corrections officers have generally supported Hoffner, Pugh has drawn support from the State Troopers’ Association: a union that bears some symbolic significance in the race, given Ennis’ past as a state police officer.

However, given the shadow Ennis casts on the race, the absence of a public endorsement from the retiring Senator allows both candidates to tie themselves to his legacy as election day looms. But only a week before the primary election in September, a new donor made a quiet appearance on Hoffner’s campaign finance reports: Ennis’ Senate Campaign Committee.

Delaware Public Media's Election Coverage is supported in part by a grant from Delaware Humanities, a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities and NEH’s special initiative “A More Perfect Union." The “A More Perfect Union” initiative supports projects that explore, reflect on, and tell the stories of our quest for a more just, inclusive, and sustainable society throughout our history.

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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.