Lopez takes ‘Back to the Future' approach to Republican politics

June 5, 2012

People are very aware of this race, said Ernesto “Ernie” Lopez, a Republican primary candidate for the Sixth Senate District. “I think more than any other race in the state.”

That’s a bold statement, but I suspect, a true one. What happens on Primary Day - Tuesday, Sept. 11 - will say a lot about the present and future of the Republican Party in Sussex County, and perhaps in Delaware.

Talking to Lopez, who is running against former Sussex County Republican Chairman Glen Urquhart, can be a “Back to the Future” political experience. I recently sat down for coffee with him at Café Azafran in Lewes.

The “future” part is readily apparent. At 35, he is a generation younger than the 63-year-old Urquhart.

It was the going “back” part I found surprising. Unlike other recent candidates, Lopez often invokes such giants of the Delaware Republican Party as Caleb Boggs, John Williams and Bill Roth, now-deceased men who were a generation - or two - older than Urquhart.

“These were people who were respected on both sides of the aisle,” Lopez said. “They weren’t grenade throwers. That’s something I think we need to bring back to Delaware.”

Take Roth, the youngest of the three party leaders mentioned above. Before losing to Tom Carper in 2000, Roth was one of the most consistent vote-getters in Delaware history, winning five straight races for the U.S. Senate. He was also considered, in his day, a solid Republican, regularly ranking among the more conservative members of the Senate.

But it’s hard to imagine Roth fitting in with today’s Republican Party. He supported the Brady Bill, which instituted a waiting period to buy handguns, and championed environmental causes.

More than that, he was a courtly man, willing to reach across the aisle and work with Democrat Joe Biden to serve Delaware’s interests.

You only have to look at the 2010 election results to see where that approach will get you. Christine O’Donnell, a candidate almost wholly lacking in political or job experience, but more than happy to toss grenades, defeated moderate Mike Castle.

The Tea Party spoke, especially in Sussex County.

Urquhart speaks more directly to that Tea Party mind-set. At public events, he never fails to mention that government is not the solution and that too much government is the problem.

Lopez, who works for the University of Delaware as a counselor for at-risk students, acknowledges the need for government to do more with less, but doesn’t see government itself as the enemy.

Instead, he talks of “leveraging resources.”

“We have good people who serve our state,” he said. “What ways can we make it more efficient to better serve our people? That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”

Lopez presents himself as someone willing to compromise, not necessarily a popular word in Republican circles.

“If I can ’t get everything I want out this agreement or this deal right now, let’s leave that agreement with a handshake. We can always come back to that process in good faith,” he said. “Right now, that’s not happening.”

But that doesn’t mean he’s not partisan. He thinks Delaware has suffered because of the weakness of the Republican Party. He points out that Democrats have controlled the state Senate for 40 years, “since before I was born.” Because of that, he said, good legislation has been allowed to die.

“In Delaware we’ve always done things better by having parity, and right now we don’t have that,” Lopez said. “And that’s enabled the Democratic Party to run roughshod through the state government process.”

Lopez, who moved to Sussex County in 2006, grew up in Newark and got his political start in New Castle County. In 2004, at age 27, Lopez volunteered to run for New Castle County Council when “no one else wanted to run.”

He lost, but he paid his dues and he made contacts. He also worked on Bill Lee’s gubernatorial campaign.

Lopez has local connections. His wife, Janis, is a 1994 graduate of Cape Henlopen, and Janis’s sister, Karen Pickard, another Cape grad and a faculty member at the Beebe School of Nursing, is his campaign manager. Lopez and his wife have two daughters and live in Sandy Brae near Lewes.

The Sixth Senate District, which was moved from New Castle County following redistricting, includes Dewey Beach, Rehoboth, Lewes and Milton.

In addition to the two Republicans vying for the office, three Democrats will face off in the September primary: Andy Staton of Rehoboth, Bob Frederick of Rehoboth and Mike Miller of Lewes.

ODDS AND ENDS: During preliminaries for the Miss USA Pageant last week, 11 of the young women representing eastern states were asked to name the vice president of the United States, our own Joe Biden. Only five could do so. Fortunately, one of those was Miss Delaware USA Angela Viscount

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