Meet the 3 new Delaware lawmakers who made state history for LGBTQ, Muslim communities
The 2020 election cycle was a historic one for Delaware when the state’s favorite son, Joe Biden, won the presidency.
But the state also made history in other ways, including newly elected progressive lawmakers who broke national and local barriers.
Three of them became Delaware’s first openly gay, first openly lesbian and first practicing Muslim state lawmakers in history, increasing the diversity in the 62-member Legislature after shocking the state by defeating three powerful, longtime incumbents with underdog campaigns.
Now, Sen. Marie Pinkney of New Castle, Rep. Eric Morrison of Glasgow and Rep. Madinah Wilson-Anton of Newark hope to use their governing powers to push Delaware policies and politics in ways that could change Delaware’s moderate lawmaking traditions for years to come.
“I am aware of how identity can get in the way of things, especially in the current climate of the country,” Pinkney said. “But I’ve also just never been the kind of person ... to take that for a rationale as to why I can’t do something.”
They want to accelerate a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, foster environmental justice, challenge powerful special interest groups, increase police accountability and reduce the prison population.
They're part of a growing faction of progressive Democratic incumbents and newcomers in the statehouse, including freshman Wilmington Sen. Sarah McBride, who made state and national history by becoming the first openly transgender official in the state and the highest-ranking openly transgender official in the country.
In any regular year, their agendas would be hard to achieve in a state where moderate Democrats, including Gov. John Carney, are used to holding the majority opinion.
But state leaders are entering what is expected to be one of the most demanding governing sessions in state history as lawmakers grapple with an urgent need to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
They are also dealing with a backlog of postponed legislation from a truncated 2020 session and a growing call across the First State for racial justice and police reform.
So the new lawmakers are trying to gain their footing as freshmen over Zoom instead of in person after the six-month legislative session started earlier this month.
“A lot of us — women of color, marginalized people — we often talk ourselves out of things and convince ourselves that we’re not good enough,” Wilson-Anton said.
“I’m hopeful that younger Delawareans across the state see us breaking molds and making history and they’re like, ‘You know what? If they can do it then I can do it.’”
First LGBTQ lawmaker of color wants to combat gun violence, reduce prison population
Pinkney, who was raised by her great aunt in New Castle, entered politics after several experiences when she felt the system was failing people in need.
She is a former family therapist at an adolescent mental health and substance abuse treatment center. So she said she saw firsthand how insurance companies did not make it easy for people who are seeking help for mental health or substance abuse.
During that time, Pinkney was also a foster parent for a teen mom and her toddler.
She was in her 20s and, while she gets a lot of praise from people for being a foster parent, she said she struggles because the resources were not there to make the situation successful, making it "one of the most difficult things that I have ever done."
“Trying to survive in an apartment with a salary that was fine for just one person, but when you add in a teenager and a toddler, it was very difficult,” she said.
“I don’t think that the system that we have in place now is working as effectively as it could be.”
She later started a job working in trauma care at Christiana Hospital in Newark where she has been for four years.
The job has exposed her to patient after patient who came into the hospital right after a shooting or car crash, and it made her want to stop people from coming into the hospital at all.
“I thought, for me personally, the best way to do that was through policy,” she said.
So she decided to run against her senator, who just happened to be the most powerful senator in the state, as well as the most tenured.
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Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, D-Hawk’s Nest, hadn’t had a primary opponent since 1986 — a few years before Pinkney, 30, was born.
While Pinkney won’t be the first openly lesbian lawmaker in Delaware history (she follows former Sen. Karen Peterson, who in 2013 came out on the Senate floor before a vote on same-sex marriage), she is the first to be elected while being out.
She is also the state’s first openly LGBTQ lawmaker of color.
Most of her life, Pinkney was told that being a Black queer woman could be three strikes against her, but on the campaign trail it made her more relatable to her future constituents, she said.
She beat McBride 52% to 47%.
"We’re still talking about the first person to do something,” she said. “These are identities that are quite normal and quite natural and that deserve to be represented and celebrated."
Pinkney, who is staying on her job at the hospital part-time, wants to work this year on targeting the root causes for gun violence and examining the rate at which law enforcement solves gun-related homicides. She also wants to reduce the state prison population.
“We have a lot of room for prison reduction, we just have to be creative and innovative about it,” she said.
But she will have a hard time getting moderate Democrats, including the governor, on board with using state dollars to pay for her plans. Pinkney plans on using data to prove her point.
“It’s not to say that we need to be out here trying to go into debt,” Pinkney said. “If we’re not willing to invest in the things that equate to a healthy state, what are we doing? We’re wasting our time.”
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Wilson-Anton grew up in the Newark district she now represents and got her first crash course in state politics as an undergraduate, when she found out about a fellowship program at the General Assembly.
It was one of the only paid internships for political science students at the University of Delaware, so she signed up. She went on to work there full-time as a graduate student for Democratic Rep. Earl Jaques and her eventual political rival who she would unseat, Democratic Rep. John Viola.
She beat Viola in a primary last year by a mere 43 votes.
As a staffer, one day in 2017 she watched Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Marydel, give anti-Muslim comments on the Senate floor after he and Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, walked out of the chamber during a prayer conducted by two Muslim community leaders from Wilson-Anton’s own district.
Lawson, who is still in office, criticized the duo for praying “to their God for our demise.”
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In that moment, she felt she didn’t have the power to defend the Muslim community, which includes an estimated 10,000 Delawareans.
“I wasn’t on the floor with the ability to stand up and say, ‘What you’re saying is hateful, what you’re saying isn’t true,’” she said. “It means a lot to me to know that, if someone were to try to do that again and demean one of the most populous religions on the globe, I’m there.”
In 2019, she decided to run against her former boss, using her experience in Legislative Hall to her advantage. She was quick to say during the campaign that she had witnessed taxpayer-salaried lawmakers who were afraid to take hard votes.
It was an already-uphill battle as a 26-year-old who had never run for office before to go against a two-decade incumbent, but Wilson-Anton saw being a young, Muslim woman as an advantage when campaigning in a diverse district.
Last summer, she also helped organize peaceful protests against police brutality following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.
She said she was inspired by young female lawmakers of color, such as New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was 28 when she defeated an established Democratic incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in a 2018 primary.
Now 27, Wilson-Anton is one of the youngest lawmakers ever elected in Delaware.
She wants to change laws to combat education inequity, help keep manufactured homeowners from being exploited and boost environmental justice.
She wants a Delaware that “works for everyone, not just the rich few,” especially as the pandemic has highlighted inequalities in health care and jobs.
Wilson-Anton, who is trying to finish graduate school this summer, expects one of her biggest obstacles will be going up against special interest groups who will resist her proposals.
“A lot of legislators rely on them to catch them up on issues,” she said.
“One of our biggest challenges as legislators, as progressives, is to learn the system and then be able to navigate it in a way where you’re not constantly getting undermined by special interests.”
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Morrison grew up in Bridgeville and got involved in state and local politics in 2016, in part by working on other candidates' campaigns.
He decided to run in 2020 against moderate Democratic Rep. Earl Jaques because “the more I learned about my predecessor, the more disappointed I was in his record.”
The 46-year-old, who does drag, claims to be the highest-ranking female impersonator in the country.
The practice was something that Jaques originally thought would be poison to Morrison’s campaign.
But that mindset ended up backfiring on Jaques after the incumbent criticized Morrison in the fall of 2019 for hosting a drag show campaign fundraiser, saying it was "so far off-base for our district, it’s unbelievable."
Jaques later apologized for the comments.
For the next year, Morrison spent the campaign aggressively door knocking across the district, even during the pandemic as many other progressives switched to campaigning from home.
He managed to outraise Jaques in campaign donations, despite the incumbent’s tenure and political connections — something his fellow progressive primary challengers were unable to do.
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Now, one of Morrison’s priorities will be requiring employers to give workers paid sick time. He argues that the need for it has become more obvious during the pandemic when many Americans live paycheck to paycheck.
“I know people who thought they had COVID who went to work,” he said. “You’ve got people going to work when they’re sick, and spreading that sickness. And it’s also just really kind of inhumane.”
He also plans on pushing for a more aggressive version of a proposal by his Democratic colleagues to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. This year’s proposal, which has not been filed yet, would gradually increase Delaware’s minimum wage from its current $9.25 to $15 an hour over the course of several years.
Morrison wants employers with 500 or more workers to start paying that rate by 2022 and accelerate the timeline for other employers to increase the rate and tie future increases to inflation.
It’s just some examples of the freshman lawmaker, who is also a human resources project manager at JPMorgan Chase, seeking to push his party further left from its moderate traditions.
He said he's expecting a challenge when trying to pass his agenda when a number of lawmakers still hold allegiance to the Delaware Way, the bipartisan tradition criticized by progressives in which First State politicians make decisions and work out tensions behind closed doors.
But since he and his fellow progressives ousted moderate incumbents in the September primary, Morrison thinks that many lawmakers are “seeing the writing on the wall.”
“Maybe they haven’t been in touch enough with their constituents,” he said.
“But I think that a lot of legislators are waking up and saying, ‘Holy cow. People want a higher minimum wage. People want cannabis legalization. People want wealthy Delawareans to pay their fair share of state income tax.'"
While he doesn’t believe in being elected solely for representing a certain demographic, Morrison thinks it is important that LGBTQ people are represented in government.
“If you don’t have people in office of various walks of life — whether that means gay, whether that means people of color, whether that means women — not only can you not try to solve issues affecting those communities, but you can’t even identify them because you haven’t lived it,” he said.
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Sarah Gamard covers government and politics for Delaware Online/The News Journal. Reach her at (302) 324-2281 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @SarahGamard.