Tom Carper and the Rise and Fall of the Delaware Way

An entire way of doing politics is under the microscope in a Delaware Democratic primary.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 03:  U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) participates in a reenacted swearing-in with his wife Martha Ann Stacy and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in the Old Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol  January 3, 2013 in Washington, DC. Biden swore in the newly-elected and re-elected senators earlier in the day on the floor of the current Senate chamber.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 03: U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) participates in a reenacted swearing-in with his wife Martha Ann Stacy and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in the Old Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol January 3, 2013 in Washington, DC. Biden swore in the newly-elected and re-elected senators earlier in the day on the floor of the current Senate chamber. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It was 1792 in Paris, and an angry crowd had surrounded Tuileries Palace, demanding the surrender of King Louis XVI. Economic adviser to the king Pierre du Pont and members of his family held the crowd at bay until the king could flee. The monarch’s day would come soon.

For du Pont’s son, Éleuthère Irénée du Pont, it was time to find refuge in the United States. When the Frenchman laid his eyes on the banks of the Brandywine River near Wilmington, Delaware, he knew that he had found the perfect place for his own gunpowder mill. He founded E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company in 1802, growing it to become the largest producer of the stuff in the world.

Two du Ponts would go on to become U.S. senators, and a third would serve as Delaware governor. Delaware’s elite social and political circle has largely remained intact for more than 200 years now.

The resulting amalgamation of corporate, political, and social interests worked — and works — cooperatively, in what would become known as the “Delaware Way.” There’s even a ceremony for it that dates back to pre-revolutionary days. Two days after each election, Delaware politicians meet in Georgetown, in the southern part of the state, and ride in a parade together, often the victor seated next to the vanquished, culminating the day’s affair by burying a literal hatchet in sand.

The Delaware Way is the idea that there is a synergy between the success of the state’s benevolent corporate monarchies — the chemical companies, debt collectors, and pharmaceuticals that call the First State home — and the well-being of the state’s people, all of it eased by compromise and good will among leaders of both parties. The Wilmington News Journal explains that the locally famous ethos is possible because the state is “so small, the line goes, that we can get all the right people in one room and get things done.” Like runoff from its chemical plants, the Delaware Way is in the water.

It’s a creed embraced not only by Republicans, but also by the state’s Democratic establishment — including, emphatically, its senior U.S. senator, Tom Carper, who is seeking his fourth Senate term this year.

Carper’s embrace of, and by, the Delaware Way is complete, despite his working-class upbringing in West Virginia and Ohio. His father was an auto mechanic who became an insurance claims adjuster without a college degree, and Carper put himself through school thanks to the GI Bill and his service in the military during the Vietnam War. Pursuit of an MBA brought Carper to Delaware.

Carper’s political career began in 1976, when he was elected state treasurer. That same year, voters elected Pierre du Pont IV to be governor, making Delaware the only state that can trace its contemporary political lineage directly to the ill-fated court of King Louis XVI.

Today, the Delaware Way is being challenged by a new, and much less violent, political revolution. After 12 consecutive statewide election victories for various offices over the past 42 years, Carper is caught in the most competitive primary of his political life. On Monday evening, Carper squared off against Air Force veteran and community activist Kerri Evelyn Harris in what appears to be the first live-streamed or televised debate between a Democratic incumbent for high office and a primary challenger in Delaware history. Primaries against established politicians — with a few important exceptions — are not the Delaware Way.

Though Carper has a war chest at least 30 times larger than Harris’s, and nearly universal name recognition among primary voters, the race has become serious. Carper is up on the air and blanketing the internet with ads, and last Thursday he rolled out a rare endorsement in a Democratic primary by Delaware’s iconic Joe Biden.

Kerri Evelyn Harris, Democratic candidate for the United States Senate from Delaware, stops to speak with residents while walking in a parade celebrating Delaware City Day in Delaware City, Delaware on Saturday, July 21, 2018. Harris, a former community organizer and Air Force veteran, is campaigning on issues such as Medicare-For-All, environmental justice, higher minimum wage, expanding LGBTQ rights, and pre-K for all. (Michelle Gustafson for The Intercept)

Kerri Evelyn Harris stops to speak with residents while walking in a parade celebrating Delaware City Day in Delaware City, Del., on July 21, 2018.

Photo: Michelle Gustafson for The Intercept

Harris is trying to mobilize a small army of grassroots supporters, many of them veterans of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s House run this year, to let voters know she’s on the ballot. Ocasio-Cortez herself plans to come to Delaware to help get out the vote in September, the Harris campaign said.

Delaware is indeed small, not much bigger than a single congressional district. A few weeks ago, one of Harris’s volunteers, James Rubin, was canvassing in a Wilmington neighborhood when he came across Carper.

“You know, I’ve knocked all these doors,” Carper told him, Rubin recalled.

“I have, too,” Rubin, a young canvasser with a mane of unruly curls, responded, “for two great candidates, Tizzy Lockman” — a state Senate candidate — “and Kerri Evelyn Harris for U.S. Senate.”

The exchange stayed cordial, and Carper agreed to take a photo with two young volunteers who were with Rubin. Then they all went to their next doors.

“I was talking to people after he talked to them. They would think I’m there for him, but then I’d say, ‘We’re here for his opponent. You just talked to Senator Carper right? As you can see, he’s a nice guy, but are you aware he thinks the minimum wage should be $9 nationally, and thinks health care should be dictated by the free market?’ I was able to swipe votes from him like seconds after he talked to them,” Rubin said. “It was a good day.”

The Carper and Harris voter files must have largely matched that day, because about two hours later, Rubin bumped into Carper again, this time as Rubin was talking to two voters on the sidewalk. “This is our opponent, Senator Carper,” Rubin said, as Carper’s aides offered the voters yard signs.

“Let me tell you something about Kerri,” Rubin cut in. “She takes zero corporate donations whatsoever, unlike some other senators.”

Carper shot back, “Corporations can’t donate to me. You should know that.”

Rubin did a double-take. “What?”

“Corporations cannot donate to me. You should know that,” Carper reiterated, beginning to walk away.

“Senator Carper, your fourth largest donor is AstraZeneca. I can literally prove this to you right now with Google because it exists in 2018,” Rubin told him.

At the debate between Carper and Harris Monday night, Carper made the same argument. “Let me be clear on one point,” he said. “It’s legal in this state for corporations to donate to state and local campaigns — if you’re running for governor or state legislature or county office — it’s legal for corporations to donate to you. It is not legal for corporations to donate to the candidacy of people running for U.S. House or U.S. Senate. That. Is. Illegal.”

Carper’s sensitivity to the charge points to a major cleavage in a Democratic primary, set for September 6, that has begun to attract national attention.

Harris is running to be what she calls “the people’s senator,” refuses corporate political action committee money — not that it’s necessarily on offer — and argues that while the state’s economy may be dominated by major corporations, that doesn’t mean its politicians need to be as well. She’s running on her visceral experience struggling in Delaware’s economy, talking during the debate about times her young daughter has had to offer to pay for things, a searing experience for a parent.

Carper is well-known and well-liked throughout the state, even by Harris and people in her campaign, but charm and chumminess might no longer cut it. Carper comes about his bond with major corporations honestly, Kirsten Walther, Harris’s volunteer coordinator, told The Intercept. “When it comes to rolling back regulations, I do think that in his head he thinks that’s the right thing to do,” she said. “I don’t know if that makes it better or worse.”

Last week, a coalition of progressive groups sponsored an in-depth survey of the race. The results haven’t been made public, but three sources with knowledge of the findings say it found Carper, like his colleague in the Senate, Democrat Chris Coons, to have approval ratings as high as 80 percent among Democratic primary voters, and with Carper holding a very wide lead in the head-to-head matchup against Harris. But that support was extraordinarily soft, and fell dramatically when voters were presented with some background about his record.

The most damaging hit was his vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the federal bench in 2006. Kavanaugh is now before the Senate as Donald Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court. The racial dynamic in the survey was apparent, the sources said. Roughly a third of the Democratic primary turnout is expected to be African-American, and they made up his strongest base of support. But once Black voters learned of his criminal justice record and his links with the banking industry, support flipped to Harris, a wider swing than among white voters. Harris, meanwhile, led among voters under 40, but was losing badly among those who are older, which tend to make up most of the primary electorate.

The stark contrast was on display Monday night. Asked how to deal with the student lending crisis, Harris urged canceling the debt and starting fresh. “I don’t have a magic wand that would enable us to do that. It would cost a pretty penny,” Carper said.

“When we talk about not having a magic wand, we found a way, again, to bail out the banks that were too big to fail,” Harris responded. Later, she suggested to the audience that they look up where Carper gets most of his campaign funding, and where she gets hers.

Drew Serres, Harris’s campaign manager, said that Carper is bothered by the charge that he is corporate-friendly “because he doesn’t even view it as being a bad thing. He’s like, this is the Delaware Way. This is how you help people.”

During his opening statement at the debate Monday, he highlighted his record as governor. “We created a darn good, I would say, nurturing environment for job creation and job preservation,” he said.

But the debate, and its lack of distribution, is also a window into how Carper has remained so popular. It was the first time his record was publicly challenged by a fellow Democrat in a serious way, and while it was a packed auditorium, it was not broadcast anywhere on television, instead relegated to streaming on the News Journal website. Delaware is not its own TV market, and Philadelphia stations have little interest in what happens down there. Carper’s legislative career has not been covered in any real way by the local media, which instead highlight only his major achievements or attendance at parades. The past several days featured headlines touting Carper, in the wake of the passing of John McCain, as the lone remaining Vietnam veteran in the Senate — a record of service he proudly noted in his opening statement.

UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 26:  A view of the front entrance to the Astra Zeneca facility in Fairfax, near Wilmington, Delaware, on Thursday, October 26, 2006. GlaxoSmithKline Plc and AstraZeneca Plc, the U.K.'s two largest drugmakers, suffered setbacks with their most-advanced experimental treatments.  (Photo by Tim Shaffer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The front entrance to the AstraZeneca facility near Wilmington, Del., on Oct. 26, 2006.

Photo: Tim Shaffer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Delaware Way Of Politics

Carper’s reliable service on behalf of home-state interests privileges no one sector. From bankers to drug manufacturers to polluters, if they have a stake in Delaware, Carper has a nurturing hand for them.

Take, for example, Carper’s two terms as Delaware’s governor. His glide path to the governor’s mansion was smoothed by the Delaware Way, with a move that became known in local lore as “the Swap”: Outgoing Republican Gov. Mike Castle took Carper’s House seat, with neither facing serious opposition from the other party.

One of Carper’s crowning achievements as governor was to persuade AstraZeneca to locate its U.S. headquarters in Delaware. The uneven results give a hint as to why Delaware voters may be souring on the Delaware Way.

Carper put together a package of grants and tax credits of record size, forking over $41 million in incentives to AstraZeneca, plus another $70 million spent on roads and infrastructure upgrades for the campus.

In exchange, the pharmaceutical giant promised to boost its local workforce from 2,400 to 4,000 by 2004. It hit that target, hiring 5,000 people by 2005, but things have gone south since, with layoffs leaving just 1,500 workers — fewer than were employed before the eye-popping corporate giveaway. Last year, the company sold its campus, leasing back a portion of the space for its remaining crew. “Ultimately, that deal made a whole lot of sense,” Carper told the News Journal at the time. “Do I wish they still had 4,500 employees? You bet. But I’m glad they still have 1,500. Not a lot of employers in Delaware have that many.”

Indeed, they don’t. Delaware’s gamble that its generous treatment of corporate interests would trickle down has not often paid off and has left the state with soaring inequality and a polluted ecosystem. “People in the state of Delaware understand that corporations don’t actually trickle down,” said Vanessa Clifford, political director for the Working Families Party, which is backing Harris.

“A corporation is not a human being. I can tell. We all took biology,” Harris said at the debate.

Similarly, when the Trump tax cut went through, and Delaware companies had a chance to choose between giving workers a raise and expanding hiring, or giving dividends to shareholders and executives, the choice was easy.  “They did not utilize that money to be employing more people in Delaware,” Clifford said. “They even had layoffs. That hasn’t trickled down to the folks who aren’t getting a $15 minimum wage, who can’t afford health coverage.” (While Carper didn’t vote for this round of tax cuts, he was one of a few Democrats to vote against partially repealing George W. Bush’s tax cuts.)

Senate candidate Delaware Gov. Tom Carper celebrates his victory over Sen. William Roth, R-Del., in Wilmington, Del., Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2000. (AP Photo/Roberto Borea)

Senate candidate Delaware Gov. Tom Carper celebrates his victory over Sen. William Roth, R-Del., in Wilmington, Del., on Nov. 7, 2000.

Photo: Roberto Borea/AP

In 2000, Carper was elected senator for the first time. He quickly went to work for the credit card industry, which has a dominant presence in the state, becoming a leading advocate of bankruptcy reform, the battle that first brought Elizabeth Warren into national politics. “The Bankruptcy Reform Act injects a measure of fairness into the current law. It reduces credit abuse by ensuring those who can repay a portion of their debts, do,” Carper said at the time. By “credit abuse,” Carper was referring to bankruptcy laws that allowed “struggling families” to discharge their debts. The goal of the bill — which was successful — was to make it far more difficult for people in debt to file for bankruptcy.

Warren warned that it would be devastating for people facing hardship, and indeed it has been. It’s part of Carper’s 40-year love affair with home-state banking interests in Delaware.

He was re-elected easily in 2006, and when Barack Obama was elected two years later, Carper co-founded a Senate version of the Blue Dog Coalition, urging Obama to moderate his economic agenda, even as the country was losing millions of jobs at the height of the Great Recession. That included rejecting the inclusion of a public health insurance option in the Affordable Care Act, and rejecting an effort by former Sen. Ted Kaufman, appointed to replace Biden in the Senate, to cap the size of the largest banks in Dodd-Frank. Both of these moves benefited corporate benefactors.

Carper also routinely sides with the drug industry, another Delaware stalwart. This includes an issue critical to the opioid epidemic: whether to punish a pharmaceutical company caught engaged in deceptive marketing by stripping its patent rights. (Carper opposed such a penalty.)

Without compromise, a pluralistic political system can’t function. But Carper sometimes takes it to absurdity. In 2014, Carper hailed Obama’s agreement with China on tackling climate change. “Yesterday’s climate change agreement with China is yet another example that when the United States takes a leadership role in addressing our greatest global environmental challenges – other countries will follow,” he said.

Later that same day, he announced he’d be supporting the Keystone XL pipeline for a rather extraordinary reason. “Enough already,” he said. “Let’s clear the decks.”

His spokesperson clarified that he hoped giving into Republicans on the pipeline would pave the way for future bipartisan cooperation.  “He is hopeful that moving forward with this bipartisan bill will pave the way for Congress to work together on other measures to increase our energy independence while also addressing the real environmental and public health threats we face from greenhouse gas pollution,” a Carper spokesperson said.

Bill McKibben, the head of the environmental group, was appalled. “If you want to understand why the Democratic Party is such an annoying institution, meet Tom Carper, Democratic senator from Delaware,” McKibben offered.

The story continues under Trump. In 2018, Carper has voted for at least 12 Trump nominees to the federal bench or to his administration, including a crucial vote to make Big Pharma executive Alex Azar the secretary of health and human services. He was also one of a handful of Democrats to join with Republicans to roll back parts of Dodd-Frank’s Wall Street reform.

Carper’s centrist mindset is so ingrained that it strays from purely transactional assistance to corporate interests and into knee-jerk frustration with liberal values. In 2002, Carper voted to authorize the war in Iraq, which Harris has made a part of her campaign. In 2006, he cast a vote that was controversial at the time, to confirm Kavanaugh, now a Supreme Court nominee, to the federal bench. Carper said he will oppose him this time, and said Monday night, “I voted my hopes over my fears”.

Harris put the blame for those votes not on his hopes but on a closed-off political culture that needs to be broken up and diversified. “If everybody’s viewing the world through the same lens, you get things happening like Kavanaugh, because you spoke to other people in your network and they said, ‘He’s a good guy.’ You get people like Alex Azar, who was a drug company CEO, who made it so prescriptions were so high we couldn’t afford it, and then you make comments like, ‘Well another senator said he was a good guy at Yale.’”

After Monday’s debate, an Intercept reporter asked Carper if he felt like the Delaware Way itself was under the microscope in this primary. “I don’t know how it is in New York City or places like that,” he said. “Here in Delaware, people want us to do what’s right, but at the end of the day they want us to work toward principled compromises. I had a meeting with Ted Kennedy early in my time in the Senate, and I asked him, why do so many Republicans want to work with you? He said, ‘I’m willing to compromise on policy; I’m never willing to compromise on principle.’ And I’ve just taken that to heart.”

A Washington Post reporter followed up to ask if he regretted voting to confirm Trump administration officials now that he’s being criticized for it.

“I think the jury’s out,” he said. “Azar’s been there for several months. Perry’s been there for a little bit longer. One of the things people liked about Perry was the explosion of renewable energy in Texas when he was governor.”

But mistakes do happen. “When you cast thousands of votes, do we find that we make some mistakes? Sure we do,” he said.

The Delaware Way For Politicians

Carper was first elected to Congress in 1982, and his financial disclosure reports from the time show no investments in stocks or bonds. But soon, his personal life began to change.

After a divorce from his first wife, Carper remarried two years later, this time to Martha Ann Stacy Carper, an executive at the most powerful corporation in Delaware — DuPont. In 1986, real wealth begins to appear on Carper’s financial disclosures, in the form of his wife’s holdings in DuPont and other companies.

That same decade, Carper wrestled with the old-school bosses who ran the Delaware Democratic Party, successfully ousting a union leader who’d long been a party honcho in New Castle County, helping to replace him with a DuPont chemist. The transformation of the party paved the way for Carper’s rise.

As Carper has risen, his net worth has grown well into the millions, though he has made pains to show that he’s still the same old country boy from West Virginia. He’s lived in the same home for decades, rides the train home from Washington nearly every night, and is quick to let you know how many miles he has on his Chrysler Town & Country. (Scooting to various Fourth of July parades took him to 480,000 miles this year.)

Yet his soaring net worth, which interlocks his finances with the fortunes of Delaware’s largest companies, is the ugly underbelly of the Delaware Way, one overlooked for years thanks to Biden’s effective lunch-pail persona, backed up by his paltry financial disclosure reports. The relative poverty Biden jokes about is not a problem for Carper, and much of that wealth comes from the corporation that gave birth to the Delaware Way: DuPont.

Beginning in at least 2013, Martha Carper, an executive at the company for nearly 30 years, began transferring between $50,000 and $100,000 worth of DuPont stock from her own account to Tom Carper’s, according to disclosures, and she has continued to do so each year since.

In her own account, she continued to trade it regularly. Those trades were later disclosed as a result of the STOCK Act, which was passed, with Tom Carper’s support, in the wake of public outrage at members of Congress appearing to profit from knowledge about companies that they picked up through their legislative work.

In 2015, for instance, she made a series of trades throughout the year. For much of that year, DuPont was locked in a battle with activist investor Nelson Peltz, who was pushing the company in a strategic direction opposed by CEO and Chair Ella Kullman.

On February 12 of that year, Martha Carper sold shares in DuPont for roughly $72 each. The stock soon began diving, bottoming out in the summer as the struggle between Peltz and Kullman dragged on.

Senator Tom Carper, a Democrat from Delaware, center, and Martha Carper speak to the media as they arrive at a state dinner hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama and U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama in honor of Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, April 28, 2015. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe goes before the U.S. Congress on Wednesday to present Japan as a stalwart ally that's willing to play a bigger military role in Asia, a message likely to be embraced in Washington and greeted with suspicion in Seoul and Beijing. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Sen. Tom Carper and wife Martha speak to the media as they arrive at a state dinner hosted by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in honor of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the White House in Washington, D.C., on April 28, 2015.

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In September, Martha Carper decided to jump back in, buying somewhere between $15,000 and $50,000 worth of the company’s stock on September 11 for $48 a share. On September 17, she added to her holdings at roughly the same price, this time at a range between $1,000 and $15,000, according to financial disclosure reports filed with the Senate.

On October 5, the stalemate ended when Kullman agreed to step down. The share price surged after hours and opened more than 10 percent up, continuing to climb throughout the next day to $57. That same day, Martha Carper sold somewhere between $1,000 and $15,000 worth of her shares.

In late 2015, DuPont announced it would be merging with Dow Chemical, sending shudders through Delaware, where people feared the new company would cut costs with major layoffs. But instead of criticizing the merger, or urging the Obama administration to block it, Carper argued that Delaware’s political class should work to find “the opportunity within this perceived adversity.”

DuPont has been a Delaware company for over two hundred years, carrying with it a centuries-old tradition of success. It should come as no surprise that Dow has reportedly long been motivated to pursue a merger with DuPont. While the news certainly feels like a warning sign for turbulence ahead, I believe that in adversity lies opportunity. We can sit around, wring our hands and bemoan the hand that Delaware has been dealt – or we can roll up our sleeves, join hands and get to work finding the opportunity within this perceived adversity.

I’ve always believed that one of the major roles of government is to create a nurturing environment for job creation and job preservation. Now, perhaps more than ever, our Congressional Delegation must immediately get to work with Governor Markell, the Delaware legislature, and business and community leaders across the First State to do all that we can to make the best out of this situation. Working together, Delaware can prove that if DuPont and Dow do merge, it’s the smart decision to locate a significant portion of their business here.

It’s not the time to sit back and accept our fate. It’s time to seize the day. Carpe Diem!

On January 15, 2016, Martha Carper added to her holdings by buying another chunk of $1,000-$15,000 in stock, and did the same again on January 25. By then it was trading between $52 and $54. On July 14, 2016, she sold more than $50,000 worth at around $67 a share.

Graphic: Soohee Cho/The Intercept

DuPont Co. completed the merger with Dow Chemical in 2017, creating one of the world’s largest companies, DowDupont.

In November 2017, the new company announced it would be cutting costs, partly through layoffs, by $3 billion.

Austin Frerick, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Iowa this cycle on an anti-monopoly platform, wrote in Forbes that “despite the potential for disruption in Delaware, the state’s senior U.S. senator, Tom Carper, has not opposed the merger.”

Frerick, now a fellow at the antitrust think tank Open Markets, linked Tom Carper’s wealth and campaign contributions to his unwillingness to challenge the company.

In a February 2016 op-ed in The Wilmington News Journal before the merger closed, Carper acknowledged that it “brings with it real adversity for a lot of people” and that it will likely lead to layoffs that are “painful for the DuPont workers and their families.” Nevertheless, he pointedly refused to oppose the merger, instead calling it an “important first step in [a] journey.” He has since failed to take any action to prevent the merger from moving forward.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that DuPont has been Carper’s third-largest campaign contributor since 2013. Moreover, his most recent Senator Financial Disclosure report revealed that Senator Carper and his wife own investments in Dow and DuPont valued between $315,000 and $650,000. These conflicts of interest may explain why Carper has done little to oppose a merger that will have such deleterious impacts on his constituents.

Martha Carper and Kullman were two of the highest-ranking women at the company, overlapping there for 16 years. In the last few years, Carper took over fundraising for the struggling Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware. As chair of the board, she led a $10 million drive, with DuPont at the head of it. At an event in February 2014, Kullman herself, chair of the Capital Campaign Committee, presented a $1 million check to the organization, proudly posing for a photo with Martha Carper.

“Efforts to cast a shadow on his finances are ridiculous,” said Christine Brennan, a spokesperson for Tom Carper, who said she was also speaking for Martha Carper. “In stark contrast to President Trump and many in the Trump Administration, Senator Carper has fully complied with all financial disclosure requirements throughout his career in public service.”

The Delaware Way For Delaware’s People

The series of trades underscore a fundamental difference between the Carpers and the vast majority of Delaware’s voters. They also present a stark contrast with Tom Carper’s opponent, Harris, whose net worth fluctuates above and below zero.

The bottom half of all families in the U.S. own an average of $54,000 in stocks, which includes 401k retirement accounts. That’s roughly the amount Martha Carper traded in a single day. The bottom 80 percent of all families own just 8 percent of all stocks.

For the bottom in Delaware, the way they get treated is much different. “We have provided for very harsh sentences of those who commit crimes with weapons, violent crimes. In the state of Delaware, 89 percent of them are serving their maximum term, which is the highest of any state in the country. We’re also undertaking the largest prison construction in the history of the state,” Carper said during a 1996 debate, when he was running for re-election as governor.

Carper’s mass incarceration policy was coupled with a push to end welfare as it was known in Delaware, and across the nation. He began work on this a decade before President Bill Clinton came into office and ultimately signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act in 1996.

Ronald Reagan made a fetish of decrying “welfare queens,” pressuring Congress to end the horror of assisting the neediest people in society. In 1987 Congress took up the challenge, and Carper broke with the House Democratic majority, joining with moderates of both parties to author a welfare reform package that occupied the middle ground in the debate.

Carper’s bill required everyone on welfare to find work, or enroll in job programs or training programs, while offering a year’s worth of Medicaid and day care benefits to facilitate moving back into the workforce. For two-parent families, the Carper package authorized a year of public assistance, but required job training or employment after that. He paid for the bill by letting federal agencies garnish tax refunds to repay federal loans.

“My proposal says if there’s a minimum wage job out there, we expect you to take it,” Carper said during a December 1987 C-SPAN call-in program; at the time, the federal minimum wage was $3.35 an hour. Carper criticized his fellow Democrats for rallying behind a plan that allowed recipients to stay on welfare “five years, 10 years, 15 years,” and that would raise the deficit with overly generous payments.

“The long and short of it is we want people on welfare in training programs, and we want them out there looking for a job. If they refuse to do that, we’re not going to continue to carry them forever,” Carper said. “This is one of those issues that we need to be, Democrats and Republicans, we need to be what I call soft-hearted but hard-headed.”

Liberal Democrats called the Carper bill “the Republican bill with a different number.” Eventually the Family Support Act, passed in 1988, forced states to set up welfare-to-work programs within two years. But states never came up with the federal matching funds, and training programs languished.

That set the table for a new push for welfare in the Clinton years, led from the states by a familiar figure: Carper. He became the lead Democratic governor on welfare reform within the National Governors Association, working with then-Michigan Gov. John Engler on a policy that all governors eventually endorsed. It bore many resemblances to the legislation Clinton signed. Welfare reform turned the program into a block grant and limited families to five years of eligibility, adding work requirements as well.

President Bill Clinton adjusts his glasses as he listens to Gov. Tom Carper of Delaware prior to his speech before the National Governors Association in Boston on Tuesday, July 19, 1994. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

President Bill Clinton adjusts his glasses as he listens to Gov. Tom Carper of Delaware prior to his speech before the National Governors Association in Boston on July 19, 1994.

Photo: Elise Amendola/AP

Carper turned to implementing welfare reform in Delaware, one of the first states to do so. Called “A Better Chance” or ABC, within the first year it generated such precise requirements that “fully half of all welfare families in Delaware had suffered significant cuts in their welfare grants.” Welfare recipients had to attend parenting classes, obtain family planning information, and ensure that their children showed up to school, with sanctions for any failures. This had the effect of hassling people out of the program. Delaware’s welfare beneficiaries fell by 22 percent in the first five years. Despite this, the employment and earnings impact of the changes was described as modest.

Slashing payments may not have helped the former beneficiaries, but it did shrink Delaware’s spending, which enabled Carper, as governor, to put it to other uses, such as eliminating the state’s inheritance tax or raining welfare on large companies. The tough love for the poor contrasts sharply with the unrequited longing for AstraZeneca.

The jobs boom of the late 1990s masked the real impact of this drive to cut the welfare rolls. But recessions and soaring inequality have increased the need for cash assistance even as the benefits eroded. Delaware’s welfare benefit is now a paltry 20 percent of the federal poverty level; even adding food stamps gets you to barely 50 percent. “The block grant has eroded for all states over time,” wrote the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in a report last week. “An unacceptable number of families are living in very deep poverty.”

For many poor families, the Delaware Way hasn’t felt benevolent at all.

But Carper’s warm relationship with Delaware voters might just be enough to smooth his way through the primary. “In Delaware we like to be very nice,” Harris said after the debate.

“He does show up, and he’ll give you a nice witty story for everything. You’ll be like, ‘Man, it’s cold out here,'” she said, before moving into an impersonation of Carper: “‘Yeah, one time, I was in Korea, and it was like zero degrees,’ and you’re like, ‘Oh, God, you’re so nice! But you sign these horrible bills.’ He’s a nice guy, but people are ready for him to go.”

Correction: August 30, 2018
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the year in which the Tuileries insurrection took place. It has been updated. 

Top photo: U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., participates in a re-enacted swearing-in with his wife Martha Ann Stacy and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in the Old Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 3, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

Join The Conversation