Progressive Democrats lost, but they’re not giving up

December 25, 2012

Upstairs at Irish Eyes in Lewes, the room was filling up with happy volunteers. It was Election Night, and Marie Mayor supporters were in a good mood. They were expecting Mayor to win.

Then Joanne Cabry, Mayor’s campaign coordinator, heard the first results from H.O. Brittingham Elementary School, a polling place in Milton. The news wasn’t good.

Steve Smyk, Mayor’s Republican opponent, had won that election district.

“That surprised me,” Cabry said. “I didn’t expect to win it by much, but I didn’t expect to lose Brittingham.”

Further results quickly told the story. Mayor had won only two election districts, one in Milton, the other in Lewes. Smyk swept the rest.

“I was blindsided,” Cabry said. “Totally blindsided.”

She was also angry. “Maybe I shouldn’t admit that, but I was,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘What more do people want?’”

Here, Cabry said, was a candidate with a good background, who worked hard, was accessible, and who offered “very concrete, very specific” positions on the issues - unlike her opponent, who, citing time constraints, declined to answer the questionnaire for this newspaper.

And while it was a big Republican year in Sussex, it wasn’t as if residents in the new Representative District 20 refused to vote for Democrats. In District 20, Cabry said, a total of 10 Democrats were on the ballot; seven of them won. The only losers were Mayor, Senate District 6 candidate Andy Staton and President Obama.

They voted for Democrats U.S. Sen. Tom Carper and Gov. Jack Markell. Markell outpolled Obama in the 20th Representative District 7,484 to 5,952. Why the big difference?

Now, sitting in the sunroom of the Rehoboth-area home she shares with husband Jack and two dogs, Cabry pores over election district counts, trying to divine what the numbers tell her.

With her neat notebook filled with page after page of election results, she looks every inch the longtime political pro - which she isn’t.

Like many others, Cabry found her life changed by the events of 9/11. A retired English teacher and guidance counselor, she and her husband were living in Virginia, less than a mile from the Pentagon.

She didn’t actually hear the plane crash - she doesn’t know why; she was close enough to smell the smoke lingering in the air - but its impact altered the course of her life.

The Cabrys decided they needed a place to get away, to get outside Washington. In 2002, they bought a house in Rehoboth. They wound up moving here and in 2004, Cabry got her first real taste of politics, volunteering for the John Kerry campaign.

That one wasn’t a winner, but the next one was, the 2008 campaign for then Sen. Barack Obama. Cabry was Sussex County coordinator for the Obama campaign, which, naturally, meant campaigning on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

The Obama campaign didn’t need them in “blue” Delaware, so she and 72 volunteers spent weekends knocking on doors in Northampton and Accomack counties. On Election Night 2008, Cabry focused on the returns from Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Obama won.

After that “wonderful experience,” Cabry and her fellow volunteers decided they didn’t want to spend four years in political hibernation. Sitting around Cabry’s dining room, the group formed two new Sussex County political organizations, the Progressive Democrats of Sussex County and the confusingly named Dining With Progressives, which Cabry said is nonpartisan.

The first group was something new for Sussex County, a move away from the traditional “Dixiecrat”-style lower Delaware Democrats, who can be difficult to distinguish from rock-ribbed Republicans.

Despite Mayor’s loss, Cabry feels progressive Democrats can win local elections if they are able to identify and frame important issues, such as the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). While it’s federal law, Cabry said, many decisions about Obamacare will be made at the state level. Cabry said Mayor would have closely followed that implementation.

While Obamacare may not appear particularly popular, Cabry thinks its day will come. She offers her experience as a perfect example of why people should support it. A 70-year-old breast cancer survivor - she’s in remission and looks fit as a fiddle - Cabry asks how someone with her pre-existing condition could possibly get health insurance.

In Cabry’s case, she’s in a group plan, but many people aren’t. Under Obamacare, those with pre-existing conditions will still be able to get health insurance.

As for Dining With Progressives, she said it’s not specifically Democratic. The idea was to have an informal, nonpartisan organization that offered perspectives on the issues. A meeting on healthcare, for example, had people with differing views on Obamacare.

While many who attend are Democrats, Cabry said the dinners also attract independents and some Republicans. (People interested in the January program may contact Cabry at

She admitted they may have to change the name of Dining With Progressives to distinguish it from the Progressive Democrats, who she promised will remain a force in Sussex politics.

Even though Mayor lost, she still pulled nearly 5,700 votes, Cabry said. That number shows that “Democrats are here and we’re here to stay.”

  • A number of accomplished writers will be appearing in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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