Candidates face off in Lewes candidate forum

by Michael Short on September 30, 2010

By Michael Short

Several local candidates sparred Wednesday night during a League of Women Voters candidate forum at the Lewes Library.

It was a wide ranging forum which touched on immigration and other issues. But the major focus, as expected, was on the state and local economy and jobs.

Candidates taking part included: 14th District Representative Pete Schwartzkopf and his opponent Chris Weeks, 37th District Rep. Ruth Briggs King and Frank Shade, Sussex County Councilman George Cole and Russ Melrath and Register of Wills Greg Fuller and Cynthia Green

Other candidates were present, but League rules only allow candidates to take part in the forum if their opponent is also present. Candidates like Russ McCabe and John Brady were on hand to meet people and answer questions, but didn’t participate in the forum because of that restriction.

Both Councilman Cole and challenger Russ Melrath strongly  supported having Sussex County hire a county planner. “Yes, I think we need to hire a planner,” said Melrath.

There is currently money allocated in the county budget for a planner, but the position has not been filled.

Candidates were asked what one issue they care about most. Melrath said he wants to protect the inland bays and the environment for the future. “I want them in 10 or 15 years to be like they are today,” he said. Cole said that Sussex County has been able to weather the economic downturn while still still keeping taxes low and government small and that those practices need to continue.  Both Green and Fuller said they want to make it easier on grieving families. Briggs King said that she wants constituents to have a say in the issues and she promised to “be your voice.” Her opponent, Frank Shade, said it may be most important to “restore faith in government as it was years ago.”

Both Weeks and Schwartzkopf stressed jobs and growing the economy. “Jobs, jobs, jobs . . . We have got to put people back to work,” Schwartzkopf said. Weeks said he will be “focused on economic development.”

On the issue of immigration, no one thought Delaware needed to have a controversial law like that of Arizona. But opinons varied widely. Schwartzkopf said that as a former state policeman, the hardest thing he had to do was to separate parents and children because they were illegal aliens. He said there should be a policy setting illegal immigrants on “a path to citizenship.”

Weeks said it was an economic issue that puts a tremendous burden on the economy. “I am not for amnesty,” he said. Following comments about breaking up families, he said that “parents should have thought about that before they broke the law.”

Shade said that we should be focusing on dealing with the illegal immigrants who are posing a threat and breaking the law as drug dealers, rapists or other such crimes. “There are people here working and supporting their families and we need to work with them.”

Briggs King said that illegal immigrants are easily preyed upon and can easily become victims, for example, of crime. But she also said that illegal immigration is a problem. “There is a concern and we need to be looking at that.”

Candidates were asked about poverty, particularly for single mothers and children.

Weeks said that affordable housing is a key. While there may be jobs in the coastal area, he said that it is difficult to find affordable housing. He said public transportation would help because improving transit would mean people could live in more affordable areas like Western Sussex and still have transportation to jobs.

Schwartzkopf said every case is different, but said jobs are important and that the key is identifying individual needs and then solving problems.

Shade said creating jobs and providing safe day care are important factors.

Briggs King said transportation and jobs are important. She said many people in poverty “don’t want a handout, they want a hand up.”

She said that we need to support non-profit and volunteer agencies helping the needy. “They use their dollars much more wisely than the government.”

Both Shade and Briggs King said they do not favor expanding gambling to new venues. Briggs King said that she doesn’t support it because surveys show close to 70 percent of the people in the 37th District do not support it.

Shade said that “you can’t balance the budget on gambling.” He said he would only support an expansion of venues like Del Pointe if a full-scale project is built that would bring jobs to Sussex County. He explained that he wouldn’t support  just a building with slot machines, but a full-scale project with hotels, water parks or other attractions to bring lasting jobs might garner his support.

Weeks was asked what he would cut in state government to reduce state spending. He said the Department of Education would be one of the first that should be cut  because “we should spend less money on administration and more in classrooms.”

Schwartzkopf and Weeks were asked about Delaware’s budget increase of approximately six percent. Schwartzkopf said that the 2011 budget grew, but that it was still less than the 2009 budget. He said the six percent figure is actually closer to 3.1 percent because much of the spending increase was because of stimulus funding.

Weeks called the increase an example of short-sighted planning. “How can you grow a budget in these times?” he asked.

Cole and Melrath both said they would be willing to consider an Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance for Sussex County.

Both also said there are problems with the Sussex County Board of Adjustment. Cole said that the county now has an interview process which means potential board of adjustment candidates are interviewed before being appointed. The key is said is “to appoint good people when vacancies arise.”

Melrath said that the board approves too many variances and that there are classes in place which board of adjustment members should be required to take. He said the state offers course which could clear up some of the issues that have been raised.

Candidates were asked what industries they would promote to bring jobs to the Sussex County area. Melrath said he would stress construction becaue of the need for affordable housing. Cole said we have low taxes and need to do a better job of promoting and marketing the many benefits the county has to offer.

Shade said that we need to work to expand renewable energy industries like wind power.

Briggs King agreed that renewable energy is important and said that Sussex County has the resources to be a potential biotechnology center.

Schwartzkopf also supported renewable energy initiatives, saying that with a wind farm offshore, Delaware could become an energy hub for much of the coast. While there are many good economic initiatives like those aimed at the former Chrysler Plant in Newark, he said that more needs to be done for Sussex County.

Weeks said that supporting small business is a key. He also said that a proposal in recent years by the University of Delaware to develop a college downstate may need to be looked at closely to see if it can be made reality. “There would be all kinds of jobs,” he said.

Both Weeks and Schwartzkopf said they are very concerned about the environment. Weeks said the beaches and bays are “near and dear to my family.” Weeks said that we need to be thoughtful and do things in a better way so that we can protect the environment without stopping growth.

Schwartzkopf agreed that protecting the environment is very important and pointed to efforts to promote renewable energy and efforts to reduce pollution from the Indian River Power Plant as examples of good state efforts. “Our economy is based on tourism, which is based on that bay and that ocean.”

In closing, Weeks and Schwartzkopf focused on spending. Weeks said that he respected Schwartzkopf and his service to the community. But that he had a problem with Schwartzkopf the legislator because he was part of a failed system. “That is my problem. I don’t think the system is working.”

Weeks said “I believe in limited government . . . Get government out of the way, out of our pockets and out of our lives.”

Schwartzkopf said that he has had to make hard decisions and that government has made major spending cuts.  He said he supported Governor Jack Markell in part because of Markell’s plans to run the state like a business.

While there have been some tax increases, he said they are designed to sunset and only last until things improve. “When times are tough, state government gets bogged down,” he said.

“(We have had) hard times, hard decisions,” he said. “I would not change very many of my votes.. . We have tried to do the best that we could.”

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