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Races to Watch: 4th Senate District

Ted Kittila and Laura Sturgeon
Ted Kittila and Laura Sturgeon

As part of our 2022 Election coverage, Delaware Public Media is highlighting a series of “Races to Watch” in November’s general election.

The race for the 4th Senate district seat pits an incumbent Democrat who spent 25 years in the Delaware education system against a Republican challenger banking on his legal expertise and a strong belief in bipartisanship to win over voters.

Delaware Public Media’s Mark Arehart breaks down this race.

State Senator Laura Sturgeon and challenger Ted Kittila are running in a district that has a history of flipping from Democrat to Republican and back again.

Once held by Democrat Michael Katz, Greg Lavelle flipped the seat in 2012 for Republicans and held onto it for two terms until 2018 when Sturgeon, a Democrat, won the seat by six percentage points.

For Sturgeon, a former high school Spanish teacher, education policy has been a key issue throughout her first term.

“Something that is often said, is a bit of a cliche, but I think is a very, very true and accurate one, is that teacher’s working conditions are students learning conditions. So, I’m always looking at policy through the lens of how will this play out in the classroom?” Sturgeon said.

Sturgeon sponsored or cosponsored a trio of education reform bills passed by the legislature that she said will improve declining literacy scores in Delaware schools.

"People have been responding to that at the doorway. They want to know: am I willing to engage in bipartisan discussion about things? Absolutely, I’m going to have to. The state is definitely, the General Assembly is definitely much more blue than red."
Ted Kittila, Republican candidate

SB-133 implements a literacy plan for Delaware’s teachers. Surgeon says it will essentially teach teachers best practices when it comes to literacy education.

And SB-4 requires schools to use evidence-based learning in the classroom for grades K-3.

“It’s based on phonics which all the neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience is showing that the brain learns how to read by learning to make the association between symbols and the sounds that they make,” she said.

Rounding out the bill package is HB 304, which requires schools to screen young students for potential reading impairments three times per year.

“(The bills) should change the landscape of reading instruction for Delaware and we’ll start to see those gains down the road when our students are able to read on level by the end of third grade,” Sturgeon said.

Kittila, a lawyer with more than two decades of experience, is confident he can win the seat back for Republicans, though he said he won’t play partisan politics.

“People have been responding to that at the doorway. They want to know: am I willing to engage in bipartisan discussion about things? Absolutely, I’m going to have to. The state is definitely, the General Assembly is definitely much more blue than red,” said Kittila.

He said his campaign has knocked on thousands of doors this election cycle.

“By and large, and I’m going to say 99%, are people that are friendly, greet you, thank you for stopping by, we appreciate it. They may not agree with me, but they want to have that sort of level of discussion and friendliness. And I can bring that,” he said.

Kittila wants to make sure Delaware schools are well funded, increase teacher pay and expand support for career counseling.

He also wants to expand mental health services in Delaware schools, an issue on which he and Sturgeon seem to align.

She said she’s proud to be a co-sponsor of HB-100, which established mental health services units in Delaware elementary schools.

“Students cannot focus on their academics, and learn optimally at least, if they’re struggling with anxiety, with depression, with unprocessed trauma,” Sturgeon said.

But Kittila thinks not enough is being done in Dover on the whole. He said he’s running for the Senate because voters are concerned about their state.

“I’m not ready to give up on Delaware. When I go around, and I talk to a lot of people, a lot of people are disappointed with our school system. People are concerned about the economy. People are concerned about jobs here in the state of Delaware. We’re definitely going through some difficult times right now,” he said.

For Kitilla, how the state chooses to spend its billion-dollar surplus is a key issue.

“That’s a lot of money. And unfortunately what we’ve seen that being spent on is various pet projects around the state.”

Kitilla said he would like to see the state set up a more defined fiscal plan for the surplus.

When it comes to inflation and the economy, both candidates say the government plays a key role.

“One of the things we can do and have done is help people who are on fixed incomes,” Sturgeon said.

That includes reinstating a $500 school property tax credit for seniors.

In 2017 Gov. John Carney cut that credit to a maximum of $400.

Sturgeon said wages need to keep up. She says she wants to make sure state workers receive annual pay raises to account for inflation.

“We don’t have a lot of power over what happens in the private sector, but we do have power over how we treat employees who work for the state, of which there are many."
Laura Sturgeon, Democratic State Senator

When it comes to private workers, Sturgeon hopes the labor shortage will incentivize employers to pay their workers more.

Kitilla said he wants to see the state help fight inflation and high fuel costs by instituting a state gas tax holiday.

“That makes a difference for somebody who’s commuting say 30 minutes to work both ways,” he said.

This is not Kittila’s first race for public office. In 2014, he was the Republican nominee for Delaware Attorney General and lost to Democrat Matt Denn. Earlier this year, he was the Republican candidate to fill the 4th House District seat vacated by Gerald Brady - but was defeated by Democrat Bud Freel in that March special election.

Sturgeon is the first Latina to serve in the Delaware General Assembly. Her win in 2018 against party stalwart Greg Lavelle was seen as a major blow to state Republicans.

There are about 3,500 more registered Democrats than Republicans in the district, but it also has just over 10,000 voters not affiliated with the two major parties, potentially making it one of the state’s more competitive election battlegrounds this November.

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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Mark Arehart is an award-winning reporter/producer. Before returning to Delaware, Arehart was a reporter for WKSU and Ideastream Public Media in Northeast Ohio. He previously hosted Morning Edition and covered the arts scene for Delaware Public Media. He has worked for KNKX in Seattle, Kansas Public Radio, and KYUK in Bethel, Alaska.