Was Smyk lucky not to have primary opponent?
No candidate wants a primary. Especially in Delaware. Not held until after Labor Day, primaries foster bitter divisions within a party and harm a candidate preparing for November’s general election.
But maybe that truism isn’t true. Maybe primaries help the candidate.
Consider the race in the newly formed Representative District 20, which pits Democrat Marie Mayor against Republican Steve Smyk. (The district, moved from New Castle County following redistricting, takes in Lewes, Harbeson and Milton.)
In the primary, Mayor, a 12-year resident formerly from College Park, Md., faced the well-known and home-grown Lynn Rogers, a former Sussex County councilman.
Mayor looked to have her hands full just making it past the primary. But she ran hard - Mayor told me she’s lost 15 pounds knocking on doors - and she made a name for herself.
Smyk, on the other hand, seemed to have the advantage. Last year he took his resume to the Sussex County Republicans and asked if he could have the honor of representing the party in either Representative District 20 or Senate District 6, which had also moved from New Castle County. (It includes Dewey, Rehoboth, Lewes and Milton.)
But the race for Senate District 6 - which attracted two other strong candidates, Ernie Lopez and Glen Urquhart - “became a rugby scrum and I said, ‘It’s not about me, it’s about trying to get a conservative voice for all of the state, but primarily for right here in Sussex County.’”
Telling party leaders he would run in either district, Smyk wound up filing for the District 20 seat, the only candidate in the two new districts without a primary opponent. But that had a downside. With much of the interest in the primary races, “I wasn’t getting a lot of attention,” he said.
But now he’s out knocking on doors, and Smyk, a 47-year-old former state trooper, believes his conservative message will resonate, partly because of the dominance of the state Democratic Party, which controls the governor’s office and both houses of the state Legislature.
“The conservative party,” he said, “has no voice and, true to myself, I champion the underdog.”
He thinks a stronger conservative voice at Legislative Hall will benefit everyone.
“We get better legislation when they’re up in Dover fighting,” Smyk said. As president of the Delaware State Troopers Association, he saw firsthand how the Legislature operates. If the troopers association wanted to get legislation passed, he said, he had to go to the Democrats. Republican bills wouldn’t be considered.
While there’s much talk nationally about “red states” and “blue states,” Smyk doesn’t think party labels mean much in Delaware. Sussex Countians, he said, vote the person or the issues - not the party.
“You might be Democrat and I might be Republican, and we might lean one way or another, but mostly, as Sussex Countians, we are conservative and we probably see more eye-to-eye than not. We’re not just party affiliates down here in Sussex County.”
Smyk sees many of the issues as balancing acts. He said he’s a strong proponent of private party rights, but he wants to preserve open spaces and farmland.
“You don’t want government to tell you how to use your land,” he said. “But then again there has to be a middle ground of being personally responsible to your community.”
Another area requiring balance is addressing the needs of longtime residents and more recent arrivals.
“We have to marry these two cultures,” he said. “The people that move here need to see what it is. It’s a shame they moved to a place and somehow are ignorant of what they’re moving into.”
He cited the case of hikers on the path between Lewes and Rehoboth.
“They’re getting scared of this guy coming up the trail with a shotgun and camo.” They don’t realize it was the hunters that were here first, Smyk said.
Another example, he said, are the newly arrived residents who want the government to add all the amenities and services they enjoyed back home. He’s afraid that could turn the Cape Region into another Duck, N.C., where high taxes have driven out the locals.
When he’s out campaigning, he said, people in new developments sometimes tell him they want to a place to “stretch my legs and walk my dog.”
He doesn’t see that as the state’s responsibility. They already have plenty of places to do that now, he said.
“Why would you want the state or the county to pay for you and your dog to stretch your legs?” he asked. He said people need to pitch in and designate recreational areas within their own communities.
“Step up and take up leadership for your own self,” he said.
Smyk, who lives with his wife and three children near the King Cole Ranch between Lewes and Milton, has lived in Sussex County most of his life.
Born in Wilmington, he came here as a boy and graduated from Sussex Central High School.
He later attended Del Tech on the GI Bill after serving seven years in the Delaware Army National Guard. He joined the Delaware State Police in 1988 and retired earlier this year.
What Smyk says about the essentially conservative nature of most Sussex County voters was certainly accurate a generation ago. Downstate Democrats were as reliably conservative as Republicans. This election will show if that still holds true in the Cape Region of 2012.