Races to Watch: 9th House District
The next race we’re focusing on as part of Delaware Public Media’s 2022 Election coverage is the 9th House District.
Incumbent Republican Kevin Hensley faces Democratic challenger, Terrell Williams. It's the fourth election in a row Hensley's faced a challenge.
Delaware Public Media’s Quinn Kirkpatrick takes a closer look this week at the candidates and the issues.
Incumbent Republican Kevin Hensley faces a Democrat Terrell Williams for this seat – which represents the region southeast of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, including areas of Middletown, Odessa, and Townsend.
Hensley first took office in 2014, and has yet to be unseated by a Democratic candidate in a district that has remained majority blue for decades.
He thinks it’s because of his community engagement.
“We get a good amount of Democratic crossover votes. A number of Democrats will say to me ‘Kevin you’re the only Republican I’ll ever vote for and it’s because I know you’re for me, I know you’re for the people, and I know your priority is to take care of us here in the district,’” said Hensley. “And it’s not typically a Democrat-Republican thing like it may be in other districts throughout the state, they vote for Kevin because they feel like Kevin is doing a good job of representing their interests.”
But not every Democrat agrees. His opponent, Terrell Williams, says he’s running because he doesn’t believe Hensley’s legislative record or objectives align with the majority of 9th district residents.
“My opponent represents about 10% of the 9th district. My political platform, my ideologies, my views, represent about 90% of the district. And when presented with that information, people gravitate toward my candidacy,” said Williams.
Neither Hensley nor Williams are Delaware natives, though both have lived in this district for over a decade. Hensley began his real estate career in Delaware in 1995. He serves as a founding member of MOT Charter school and is a former member of the Appoquinimink School Board.
Williams - an attorney - is also active in the community. He serves on the New Castle County Diversity Commission and is a member of the local branch of the NAACP.
“We get a good amount of Democratic crossover votes. A number of Democrats will say to me ‘Kevin you’re the only Republican I’ll ever vote for and it’s because I know you’re for me, I know you’re for the people, and I know your priority is to take care of us here in the district.’”Kevin Hensley, Republican State Representative of the 9th House District
Both candidates believe that locally, infrastructure is one of the most pressing issues faced by the fast-growing 9th district.
Williams says with only three main arteries connecting the area to northern New Castle County, traffic and development are pressing needs.
“Roadways in the 19th district are becoming congested by the day as development increases below the canal,” Williams said. “We’re up to almost daily congestive traffic going to and from work.”
Hensley says some infrastructure issues can be solved by improving the state’s land-use process. He says currently, the state can’t keep up with the infrastructure needed for developments approved by the county.
“There needs to be a collaborative effort in the development process that I don’t see today. And that needs to change,” explained Hensley. “And I’ve had a number of conversations with the state, as well as the county, about what we can do collectively to make sure that we’re ahead of the curve on the infrastructure along with the development, and we’re not playing catch up when the development’s here and then we’re scrambling to try to make the necessary infrastructure improvements.”
He cites the long-term widening of the 299 project as an example of this.
Williams says with a growing population in the 9th district and statewide, alternative public transportation options should also be considered.
“I believe a light rail system should be in the future for Delaware. When you have a population over a million people, you don’t want a million people on the roadways at any one time,” he said.
He adds many states around Delaware, including New Jersey, New York, and Washington D.C. already have existing light rail systems, so adding it here would make it easier for Delawareans to be more well-connected to the northeast corridor.
“So if we were to build a light rail system that connects either in Newark or in Wilmington with our neighboring states regional transportation systems we have an opportunity to unite the northeast corridor mid-atlantic region public transit systems.”
Both candidates also share an interest in education, though their views differ.
Williams is focused on educational content in the First State. He says covering race and LGBTQ+ history in schools is important, and should be encouraged.
“I think the more exposure kids have to different people, different cultures, different ideologies, the more accepting and more harmonious our society will be,” said Williams.
Hensley is more focused on school security, specifically securing more funding for Delaware’s School Safety and Security Fund. He sponsored HB 388 to do that.
“The purpose of the bill was to allow districts to spend money in this fund to enhance the safety of our schools,” he said. “You know we have a good number of newers schools here in the Middletown area, as a result of the growth, but we also have a lot of older schools. And, you know, my concern was that they didn’t have secure vestibules, and they didn’t have panic buttons and things of that nature.”
The bill was initially allotted $5 million toward this initiative, and Hensley wants to push that to $10 million.
Williams shares Hensley’s concerns around public safety, and says one of the first things he’d do if elected is strengthen Delaware’s gun laws.
“I believe in the 2nd Amendment. I’m a veteran. I’m a gun owner of multiple guns, me and my wife. But at some point we have to look at what’s going on in our society and look at the amount of gun violence we’re having and we have to think to ourselves ‘this all can’t be related to mental health,’” he said. “At some point we have to take accountability as a society. And I tell people all the time ‘my right to own a firearm does not trump your right to a secure and safe society.’”
Williams criticizes Hensley for not supporting more legislation that promotes gun safety. In 2020, Hensley said he wanted to see assault rifles banned, but in the most recent legislative session he voted against HB 450, which bans the sale of assault weapons in Delaware.
He also voted against 2 other bills in the gun safety package signed by Gov. Carney in June, including SS1 for SB 6 and SB 302.
The candidates also differ on voting access in the First State. In response to the Delaware Supreme Court’s decision to strike down mail-in voting, Hensley points to other voting options.
“My opponent represents about 10% of the 9th district. My political platform, my ideologies, my views, represent about 90% of the district. And when presented with that information, people gravitate toward my candidacy."Terrell Williams, Democratic candidate for the 9th House District
“People can request an absentee ballot up until the Saturday before the election. And so, to me, that is reasonable as an opportunity for folks to be able to cast their vote by mail if they feel that’s something that they want to do,” Hensley explained. “And again, if they’re not here by election day and they want to do that or they want to vote early, we have the option this year to vote early.”
But Williams believes mail-in voting is helpful for Delawareans who work untraditional hours or may not qualify for an absentee ballot. He calls striking down vote-by-mail a form of voter suppression.
“That is a measure that is grounded in Jim Crow-era tactics to prevent and ostracize people from voting,” said Williams. “I don’t want to marginalize our vote, I want our vote to be as inclusive as possible so that more people are able to participate.”
Williams claims Hensley represents a faction of Republicans who want to restrict voting rights across the country. Hensley was one of 3 representatives that did not vote on SB 320, the bill that initially allowed vote-by-mail in the state. He did, however, vote on the defeated HA 1 to SB 320, which attempted to move the mail-in-voting start date to January 1, 2023, rather than allowing it in the 2022 elections.
Voter turnout in the district has increased over the past 8 years, with 17,906 votes cast in 2020 compared to just 6,392 in 2014. Registered Democrats in the district still outweigh Republicans by nearly 4,000 voters, but there are also about 5,000 voters not affiliated with the two major parties for the two candidates to court.