‘Rebel’ John Kowalko refuses to keep quiet

The News Journal · January 24, 2015 · Jeff Montgomery

Some describe him as a political maverick. Others say he’s the Rebel Without a Pause.

Democratic state Rep. John Kowalko of Newark is easily riled, a trait of affection for some around Legislative Hall in the state capitol, a turnoff for others. “You either love him or hate him,” one insider said.

Lately the fifth-term representative has been worked up more than ever. And after being stripped of committee leadership roles, he’s making sure he’s still heard from deep at the back of a Democratic caucus doghouse.

“I’m still here you sons of bitches, I’m still here,” Kowalko told the Christina School Board Tuesday, coming close to quoting a line from the movie “Papillon” in arguing against Gov. Jack Markell’s plan for improving performance in Wilmington’s struggling schools.

It was a bumpy start to a ninth year in the House for Kowalko, 69. Elected in 2006, just before Democrats broke a long Republican lock on the House, his career has meshed a blue-collar background with a college-town constituency, focused sometimes obsessively on one or another side of consumer, environmental, energy and human service issues.

Referring to Kowalko’s sometimes uncompromising approach, House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, earlier this month refused to keep the lawmaker on the House Education Committee, and bumped him from the House Energy Committee chairman’s seat.

The school board episode last week further clouded Kowalko’s efforts to maintain his clout after losing committee positions, changes that the Newark Democrat has repeatedly linked to his persistent attacks on Markell’s school plans.

“I’m still a member in good standing, and I think there’s nothing they can ever do to drive me out of it,” said Kowalko, D-Newark South, who said his own union labor career and community service record are a classic fit with old-school Democratic politics.

Schwartzkopf at one point likened the committee moves to a “personnel matter” and said “it’s about the ability to play well with others” in the Legislature.

“He claims I took him off because he disagrees with the governor’s position on priority schools,” Schwartzkopf said. “The truth be known, I disagree with the governor’s position on priority schools. I’m more in line with John’s position.”

Schwartzkopf said he never had a conversation with the governor about Kowalko’s removal from the education panel. Kowalko was replaced, Schwartzkopf said, because of a need for people with diverse views and an ability to “sit down and talk in a rational manner” while working toward compromise.

“John’s wanted to make this about John, but this has always been about the education system and the ability to get some legislation out of committee and move it forward in a compromise form.”

Kelly Bachman, spokeswoman for Gov. Markell, said the governor has not talked with Kowalko recently on any issue. She referred questions about committee assignments to legislative leaders, adding: “The governor and his staff were not involved in any of those committee discussions.”

“I can’t allow myself to become a poster boy for intimidation and coercion. If I don’t speak out publicly about it, then there are people I know who are good people who would be a little bit willing to succumb to that kind of pressure,” Kowalko said, “and think ‘Well, I don’t want to become ineffective.’ ”

‘Clearly a maverick’

Kowalko is far from the first breakaway lawmaker in Delaware, retired University of Delaware political science professor Joseph Pika pointed out. His dissents have been among the most strident in recent years, however, articulated in rapid fire by a legislator whose explosion of curly white hair is hard to miss in a crowd.

At times, Kowalko has even made an asset of his appearance, setting out on annual Halloween parades in Newark with supporters wearing lookalike wigs – wigs that turned up again atop supporter heads as the lawmaker blasted the House leadership for its sanctions.

“He’s clearly a maverick, which historically is a term that has been applied to people who, though a member of a party, tend to disagree with the party’s positions,” Pika said. “He tends to disagree more often than the typical Democrat does in the House.”

“And not only has he disagreed with the governor, but he’s also disagreed with his own party leadership, and there are consequences to that happening.”

Examples in recent decades go back to former Kent County Republican Rep. G. Wallace Caulk Jr., who bolted from his party in 2005 and served as an independent after a dispute with the party’s leadership over state pay and farm policy votes. At one more-brazen point in the late 1980s, Republican House leaders attempted to replace a balky committee member while a controversial bill was under active consideration in a bid to get the measure to the floor.

Sen. Karen Peterson, a former state Department of Labor manager who was denied a labor committee position and other preferences in 2002 after backing the losing side in a Senate caucus leadership fight, said payback is part of the business.

“We were all duly punished,” Peterson said. “Do I agree with it? Absolutely not. We should be looking out for the best interests of the public, not our own political power.”

“We all know that Rep. Kowalko is very passionate,” Peterson said, “and I think he’s very frustrated with a system that thwarts what you’re trying to do. But if you believe in something, you keep doing it. We all deal with frustration in different ways. He’s chosen to speak out. I’ve said to him ‘John, I’m afraid you’re going to have a massive heart attack some day;’ he gets so worked up.”

John Flaherty, who lobbies for the Delaware Coalition for Open Government, said Kowalko had already paid a relatively heavy price for caucus dissent two years ago, when he was pulled as co-chairman of the House-Senate Sunset Committee. Kowalko had supported Schwartzkopf’s caucus opponent in a leadership fight, Flaherty said, and afterward lost the Sunset panel chairmanship, a job including supplemental pay.

“That was a political difference,” Flaherty said. “But this time it’s because of a policy difference.”

Schwartzkopf said that Sunset assignments, involving reviews of agency performance in depth, are regularly rotated, partly to give as many lawmakers as possible an opportunity to examine government workings.

Since taking office, Kowalko has been a frequent public voice on consumer, energy, labor and education issues, often breaking from administration positions and regularly testifying in Public Service Commission hearings on rates and consumer issues.

Kowalko “obviously has not been censured by his own constituents,” Pika said. “He’s got a record of having done this over time. His constituents have rewarded him by sending him back.”

“I don’t think that says anything necessarily about the Newark community. I think it’s just recognition that he works hard. He’s a grassroots kind of guy. He shows up at a lot of community meetings and local meetings,” Pika said. “He stays in touch with his constituency and I think that gives him a foundation from which to launch confident disagreements with the powers that be in his party.”

History of histrionics

Education is only the latest issue to trigger a Kowalko outburst.

The legislator lined up squarely against former Gov. Ruth Anne Minner’s position in an epic and costly battle over development of in-state green power supplies. Kowalko aggressively supported an offshore wind proposal while Minner’s administration lined up on the losing side of a natural gas turbine project.

The gas plant backers at one point proposed an untested scheme to make the power plant meet environmental goals by capturing its carbon dioxide and pump it deep under Millsboro, without proof of below-ground conditions or effectiveness in keeping the gas down.

In the end, neither proposal became a reality, however.

More recently, Kowalko publicly sided with environmental and neighborhood groups against The Data Centers LLC power plant proposal at the former Chrysler Assembly plant, now the site of the University of Delaware’s STAR Campus.

Markell’s administration had been an enthusiastic supporter, but saw the idea scuttled when the university pulled its support.

Kowalko’s leadership disputes have produced a small but largely supportive flurry of Letters to the Editor in The News Journal in recent weeks, although one said the 25th District should vote him out so that he can indulge in a “fondness for grandstanding and advocacy of pet leftist/liberal causes.”

David Cassling of Newark said Kowalko’s punishment was evidence of a state political power structure that “allows very little public participation in governance and very little transparency in its processes.”

A loyal constituency

To this point, Kowalko has earned solid voter support, running unopposed in each of the last two races. Those wins came after he rolled up big majorities against Republican challengers in the two races that followed his defeat of a long-serving Republican incumbent in 2006.

His strength remained even after a redrawing of House maps following the 2010 Census carved a large portion of Newark out of Kowalko’s district. New lines removed a large block of established homes and “working-class” voters and some more-Republican neighborhoods in the north, replacing them with areas immediately south, where apartments and less-permanent residents are more common.

Kowalko found a cause even there, saying apartment communities are often under-represented by lawmakers. They are part of a district where Democrats have an 85 percent registration edge, and half the election districts have more than twice the number of Ds as Rs. It is a constituency, heavily shaped by the university, that he describes as “the smartest and certainly the most engaged” in the state.

In published comments shortly before his first win in 2006, Kowalko described himself as “your textbook liberal, progressive Dem.” Born in Portsmouth, Virginia, he had a career as a machinist and union leader, working both at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard and at the Delaware City Refinery, before moving on to community work.

David Gilefski, western New Castle regional chairman for the state Republican Party, said he had no strong feelings about Kowalko, but was keeping track of flareups.

“I can say that we’re just keeping an eye on it,” Gilefski said. “We keep notes. We want to make sure we understand all the latest developments when we prepare for the 2015-2016 cycle. Whenever a party’s elected officials are engaged in an argument, the other side watches closely to look for weaknesses.”

Kowalko’s record of sponsoring and securing passage of legislation is mixed, although in a 41-member chamber few good government advocates would see a high success rate for all as a good thing. Markell signed two Kowalko-sponsored bills last year: one removing a Freedom of Information Act exemption from the University of Delaware and Delaware State University, and another barring lawmakers from working as lobbyists before at least a year after their term ends.

Dozens of other Kowalko bills have emerged from Kowalko’s office in recent years. They ran a largely consumer, taxpayer and populist gamut, with topics ranging from public education and charter schools to public utilities, state worker pensions, health planning, child care licensing and even trans-fats in school student meals. Nine were signed into law in the 2011-2012 session out of 25 introduced.

James Gates, a Republican who lost to Kowalko by a nearly 3-to-1 margin in 2008, said he has little hope for real change.

“I just basically believe that politicians do whatever they want to do,” said Gates, brother-in-law of former Republican Rep. Stephanie Ulbrich, who lost to Kowalko in 2006 after defeating him in their first matchup in 2004. “The biggest issue I have now is the fact that they do real campaign reform, or anything like it.”

Gates said Kowalko appeared to get significant campaign financial support from out-of-state labor groups.

A check of contributions since 2006 does show that political committees and other organizations accounted for more than half the count of all contributions received by Kowalko. Labor interests and teacher interests are heavily represented, but so are a wide range of other groups, from police, attorneys and educators to supermarket and horse owners.

Former Treasurer Chip Flowers and Schwartzkopf, who famously squared off in the House last year over state financial management, both contributed to Kowalko in the past. Flowers eventually dropped a re-election bid and announced he was moving to Massachusetts.

Legislative influence

Kowalko’s community work covered a range of issues, including time as a member of the activist group, Acorn, advocating for low-income families and heating assistance, among other issues. That work naturally led to a bid for a political seat and an opportunity to both represent and advance his views.

“I think that translates into a drive to have a political career – not a political career, a public service career,” Kowalko said. “That’s why I bristle when I’m called an activist, as if an activist is somehow counterintuitive to being a legislator.”

Kowalko also has long focused on education; his wife, Constance Merlet, is a former Christina School Board member who now directs the nonprofit Willa Road Day Care not far from the couple’s Newark home just off South College Avenue.

The lawmaker’s family tie to a child care service provider has come up at times, including in 2011 when Kowalko was Sunset Committee vice chair during reviews of state child care licensing and child placement programs.

“Where do we go from here? I have about nine bills here that I will be introducing,” Kowalko said, noting that issues ranged from chemical and environmental policy to education. Some of the education bills, he said, focus on charter school admissions and approval policies, designed to revise a trend that he said appears to be helping to re-segregate state schools.

Markell’s education reform plans, Kowalko said, needs far more scrutiny and public discussion. Not content with that, he went further, saying he had sought release of public records showing that a policy initiative by the state’s chief executive is “for lack of a more aggressive description, is less than honest.”

The university’s Pika said Kowalko’s assertions sometimes “don’t quite capture the tone of looking for the middle ground.”

“I think this was kind of an inside politics issue,” Pika said. “It’s really interesting to those who are directly involved, who are entertained by politics, but I don’t think the voters need to worry very much about it. Ultimately, the voters in Kowalko’s district will have to figure out ‘Are we in any way being damaged by this?’ ”

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