The 62 Project: #’s 20 and 42

Filed in Delaware by on May 27, 2014

20. Rep. John Kowalko

The pluses: A true progressive, unafraid to take unpopular stands, willing to be a public gadfly when needed, almost always a dependable vote for progressive principles, and a willing sponsor for progressive legislation.

The negatives: Alienates would-be allies, has trouble getting his legislation considered as a result, throws others under the bus.

I’ve written so much about John over the years that you’ve probably seen it all before. At first, he was a refreshing breath of progressive candor in the General Assembly, and I think he inspired others to embrace progressive principles.

However,  over the years, the Newark Democrat has rendered himself less effective by publicly picking fights with colleagues and/or using back channels to diss those who at one time were allies. Oh, and by setting himself up as both the hero and victim of every fight he undertakes. Colleagues roll their eyes at such grandstanding tactics. He may not be past the point of no return, but he’s close.

John would benefit from trying to work the inside game. You can do it w/o abandoning your principles, but by learning how to effectively move those principles forward.  That requires building genuine working relationships with legislators other than those who are the most loyal progressives. No progressive can pass legislation w/o expanding their base. At least not yet. If he does this, he can increase his effectiveness. If not, he will never rise above his current legislative station. He would also benefit from a change of caucus leadership as we know that Val Longhurst and, to a lesser extent, Speaker Schwartzkopf are not looking to do him any favors.

Bottom line: A strong voice for progressive causes. Not as effective as he could or should be in turning those causes into law.

42. Sen. Bob Venables

The pluses: A good Bond Bill chair who understands that capital investment in roads and schools is a good thing, first to really blow the whistle on the cost of prison expansion and minimum mandatory sentences, a genuinely nice person.

The minuses: A troglodyte on social issues, although, to his credit, he struggles with understanding this Brave New World where some of the the boys want to be with the boys and some of the the girls want to be with the girls. It’s not that he hates that world, he just doesn’t understand that world.

I admit I’m a little biased here. I worked for the Senate during much of Venables’ term, and it’s impossible to dislike him. He is able to separate his political and policy differences from his interaction with people.  You’d like him if you knew him as well.

He is also probably as good as you could get from a senator representing the central/western part of Sussex County. Not saying a whole lot, I know, but an R is guaranteed to be worse. But there’s no denying that, on issues of equal rights, he’s not gonna be there, and he won’t be with progressives on abortion or gun issues either. The good news is that he can’t do much harm in the Senate in its current configuration.

Bottom Line: Graded on a curve when it comes to Sussex County legislators, he’s about where you’d expect him to be. Better than the alternative, IMHO. Better than Thurman Adams, not as good as Richard Cordrey.

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  1. Geezer says:

    Give an example of a progressive measure torpedoed by John Kowalko’s support for it.

    I don’t really give a damn who he irritates or alienates. You have allowed the perfect to be the enemy of the good but flawed.

  2. Pretty much any bill he’s sponsored, the Delaware/DelState open records bill that has been buried in an unfavorable committee being the latest example.

    As to the “(you) have allowed the perfect to be the enemy of the good but flawed” meme, it’s why Kowalko is #20, not #1, not #62. Seems about right for ‘good but flawed’. Which is what I think the critique conveyed.

  3. Geezer says:

    So you think such a bill put forward by someone else would succeed? Wouldn’t most lawmakers count heads before putting such a bill forward and, concluding they were far short of the votes without arm-twisting, fold their hands instead?

    Isn’t the system you describe one that gives great power to the speaker and so encourages currying favor with that potentate? If the speaker doesn’t like the bill in question, it can go into an unfavorable committee even if half the caucus supports it.

    Different roles for different pols, or to put it in metaphorical terms, he’s a DH. Are you saying the best DH is only the 20th best player?

  4. HoHum says:

    I think you are ‘spot on’ here. Good job. Still looking forward to the rest of the list. I hope in the end you’ll run the piece in it’s entirety.

  5. SussexAnon says:

    “A troglodyte on social issues” Full stop.

    “…he struggles with understanding this Brave New World…”

    Struggle would imply trying to understand. The conversations I have had with him show little to no interest in understanding or empathizing with LGBT issues.

  6. Geezer, you made my point. In general, progressive legislation isn’t automatically killed in committee. But too many of Kowalko’s bills remain stuck there. I think you’re right about the system and the power it gives to the speaker, but it’s the only system we’ve got. I DO support a leadership change, and John would benefit by it–if he’s able to successfully form alliances, which remains to be proven.

    My original post didn’t discuss progressive bills in general, but progressive bills sponsored by Kowalko. You asked me to cite one bill, and I cited one. I can cite numerous others.

    Which all goes to my overriding point. One of my gauges of being an effective legislator is being able to get good bills passed. In general, Kowalko doesn’t.

    As to being a DH, if nothing else, a DH has gotta hit.

  7. puck says:

    “One of my gauges of being an effective legislator is being able to get good bills passed”

    In an environment where progressive legislation is unwelcome, we tend to lower the bar on what is a “good” bill. Are you proposing that the value of a bill is measured by its passage? Or can bills that are not passed or even introduced also be “good” bills?

    When good bills are killed, I suggest the Assembly is ineffective, not the bill’s sponsor. There is only so far you can schmooze your conservative/corporatist colleagues to the left, no matter how effective you are.

  8. Progressive legislation is not necessarily unwelcome. Bills sponsored by Kowalko have been notably unwelcome in the House.

    And I submit that his dealings with his colleagues is one of the key reasons why he can’t get much legislation passed.

  9. Geezer says:

    True about progressive bills not being killed in committee. I remember many a Harris McDowell good-government bill being introduced and voted on. Don’t remember many getting passed, though.

    Go ahead and cite all of them. It will make an interesting list. I’d love to see this list of all the wonderful, progressive stuff the General Assembly wants to do but just can’t, all because John Kowalko is a dick.

    Or an alleged dick.

  10. Geezer says:

    One more note on the speaker front: Yes, it’s a very powerful position, and no, people who become state police captains are not very nice to people who cause them repeated pain in the ass.

    I maintain he’s needed for the same reason Bernie Saunders is needed — he pushes the Overton window to the left. Sorry you can’t value that, but it’s your loss, not the public’s.

  11. Harris is perhaps the closest analogy to John as you could have raised in that I was often frustrated by the bills he left on the table. Although, in his case, his problems grew out of waiting until the last minute to try to pass stuff.

    However, Harris DOES have the creation of the Joint Sunset Committee, the creation of the Kids’ Department, heating assistance to low-income residents, the clean-up of leaking underground storage tanks, and juvenile justice reform to his credit. Plus, he’s been a good JFC chair the last couple of terms.

    I think that John could have been a Harris McDowell, at the least. And that would have been plenty good enough.

    And if you don’t think that John’s demeanor has anything to do with his failure to get bills passed, there’s nothing I can say that would convince you otherwise.

    I agree with you about John’s role in pushing the Overton Window, however. Just think he could be, and do, more.

  12. AQC says:

    Geezer, can you name any good legislation Kowalko has sponsored and succeeded in getting passed? There has to be a reason some of the best legislators call him Quacko and avoid him like the plague.

  13. Geezer says:

    I can’t name legislation anybody has sponsored or passed. It makes very little difference who sponsors what; a lot of it is for show.

    The reason they call him that is that he is indeed, by their standards, a quacko. His temper makes it impossible for him to play well with others for any length of time, and he rarely has an unexpressed thought. We simply value his role differently.

    I’m still waiting for the list of legislation that died because he touched it.

  14. Geezer says:

    Since justifying a higher rating for Harris McDowell than for Kowalko is on the table here, let me ask: How stiff was the resistance to any of those efforts?

    The sunset committee acts as a handy excuse for failure to rein in runaway agencies — “we don’t have to investigate that now, it’s up before the sunset committee in two more years” is a common LegHall sing-along — but it was a paper tiger until Kowalko took the rookie assignment seriously. Or do you think it was an accident that Blackhead wanted him off that committee?

    We pay for heating assistance at full price, don’t we? The electric company doesn’t give the state a break on the rate just because the taxpayers are footing the bill. I’m sure that was a tough sell to all those lawmakers who owned stock in the company — so many they had to change the rules so they would constitute a quorum to pass deregulation. Let’s not forget how much good deregulation has done for the common consumer, right? Or how much his carbon-tax-funded “sustainable energy” agency has paid on administration vs. actual green energy programs.

    The children’s department was the reaction to a scandal, and all it really did was reshuffle lines of authority.

    Can we talk, too, about his long-running tease towards progressives – lots of talk, no muscle behind it? Because that’s as much a part of his legacy as the things you have cited.

    But they’re your rankings. As I said, it’s a shame you don’t value his contributions more highly.

    But yeah, John Kowalko talks about single-payer health care and it scares a few Republicans out of their comas, so he’s not a team player. I realize you can multiply that example by about 50 per session, but it’s still no reason to pretend that he doesn’t advance the progressive cause.

  15. AQC says:

    How does he advance the progressive cause?

  16. Geezer says:

    I think that’s already been covered. If you don’t understand what moving the Overton window means, it’s impossible to value it.

  17. Norinda says:

    State Rep. Kowalko should stay the course. We need more ‘real’ progressives in office. This come from more Progressive Democrats, Green Party, Liberitarian or other future 3rd Party Canidates. Even if Kowalko is unable to get a bill passed, his constituents know where he stands. Building relationships w/ his colleagues especially when you work for ‘Working Families’ is no easy task when constantly surrounded by strong Wallstreet and/ Corporate influence. Vermont paased Single Payer Insurance -will take affect in 2016- Senator Bernie Sanders is a registered Independent. Any suggestions? or Mass Civil Disobediance Protests? What will it take to wake up our Communities? Kowalko’s is on the right track-just ahead of his time. Delaware isn’t ready for Progressive Democrats-just the Moderate/Centrist ones.

  18. Geezer: Here is a list of Kowalko’s legislation as cited by John Kowalko for this session:


    Feel free to click on any of them on John’s legislative home here:

    I did. Your question is asked and answered. Though, granted, only for this session. If this doesn’t satisfy you, I’ll go back even further. I DO have other obligations, you know.

    As to single-payer, McDowell sponsored legislation for single-payer health insurance something like 20 years ago, and he’s introduced it a few times since then.

    As to the legislation he got passed, he got the Kids’ Department established over the objections of Gov. DuPont, he got the Sunset legislation passed over the objections of many of the career lobbyists who swarmed the Hall at the time, he got juvenile justice reform passed despite the opposition of Tom Sharp and Jim Vaughn at a time when the push for minimum mandatories was at its highest.

    One thing McDowell did was partner with some real good people. People like Joe Del Olio of CHILD Inc. and Barbara Brown, who was director of the Foster Care Review Board at the time, on juvenile justice bills. He has his faults, but he’s accomplished some stuff that was really ahead of its time.

    And (spoiler alert), he’s not #1 either.

  19. AQC says:

    The Overton window has nothing to do with my question. If you can’t work agreeably enough with your colleagues to get your ideas through, you’re not advancing anything.

  20. I didn’t give John enough credit for his work on the Joint Sunset Committee. His reward? He’s not on that committee any more. He’d be an asset to what is a pretty uninspiring group. The current House members:

    Chairman: Gerald L. Brady

    Andria L. Bennett
    Stephanie T. Bolden
    William R. “Bobby” Outten
    Harold J. Peterman