The News Journal | by Jonathan Starkey
Rep. John Kowalko apparently has had enough.
The Newark Democrat fired off a letter to Democratic House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, accusing the speaker of creating an “atmosphere of intimidation and coercion that threatens to envelop our caucus and the entire House of Representatives.”
Kowalko sent the letter after Schwartzkopf left him off the House Education committee, a panel on which he had served for eight years.
The six-page missive offers a rare show of deep disunity within the House Democratic caucus and accuses Schwartzkopf, the House Democratic leader and perhaps the most powerful member of the Legislature, of attempting to stifle dissent and rule by fear.
A spokesman for Schwartzkopf said the speaker received the letter Monday afternoon.
“You should not confuse earning respect with instigating fear and accepting subservience,” wrote Kowalko, who has planned a Legislative Hall press conference today to discuss the letter with members of the media.
Kowalko has drawn attention in recent months for his sharp opposition of Gov. Jack Markell’s education agenda, specifically the governor’s plan to turn around, or take over, six failing Wilmington schools. Kowalko has accused Markell of abusing his power and of “bullying” school leaders.
A spokeswoman for the governor said in a written statement that Markell’s office had nothing to do with Kowalko’s committee assignments. He also was stripped of his chairmanship of the House Energy committee.
Schwartzkopf has not publicly commented on the matter, but as political leader of the House, he is entitled to choose committee members. Nevertheless, Kowalko’s letter was harsh.
“If I remain publicly silent in this matter, then the type of political persuasion that you seem to embrace will be legitimized. Your action against me is an attempt to stifle dissent and dissenting opinions,” wrote Kowalko, whose letterhead still lists him as a member of the education committee and chair of the energy committee.
“It is your expressed attitude that the public and media should not be informed of important policy matters and business as usual should prevail. Contentious issues should be left cloaked in secrecy while conducting back-room arrangements accessible only to the like-minded and powerful.”
According to Kowalko, Schwartzkopf said in a Jan. 3 call the Newark Democrat had become an “activist” on education issues and had lost his ability to compromise.
Kowalko wasn’t the only Democrat taken down a notch by Schwartzkopf’s committee assignments. Rep. Helene Keeley, a Wilmington Democrat who challenged House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst in a leadership fight last month, lost her spot on the powerful committee that authors Delaware’s capital budget.