New Del. Senate front-runner campaigned for Reagan, then became a Democrat after Africa trip

By Randall Chase, AP
Thursday, September 23, 2010

O’Donnell foe’s career marked by political shift

DOVER, Del. — The Democrat facing off against surprise GOP primary winner Christine O’Donnell in the Delaware Senate race campaigned as a teenager for Ronald Reagan and helped found the Amherst College Republicans, but he saw the liberal light after a student trip to Africa.

“For me, becoming a Democrat was a big change,” said Chris Coons, who has gone from self-described “Republican fanatic” in college to a progressive Democrat who embraces much of President Obama’s agenda.

The 47-year-old county executive and married father of three became a national figure overnight after O’Donnell’s primary upset of Republican congressman and former two-term governor Michael Castle, who had been the heavy favorite to win the Senate seat formerly held by Vice President Joe Biden.

O’Donnell, making her third run for the Senate, rode a tide of tea party support to beat Castle, but she is mired in controversy over past statements and allegations that she improperly spent campaign funds. O’Donnell’s primary win catapulted Coons from an underdog against Castle to a favorite to capture the seat. A CNN/Time poll released Wednesday shows Coons leading O’Donnell 55 percent to 39 percent among likely voters in Delaware.

“When you work hard, you make your own luck,” said Coons, who became the Democratic standard bearer after Biden’s son, Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, shocked party leaders by deciding not to run.

Coons says his parents, active volunteers in their community and church, instilled in him the importance of giving back. But he said he thought in his early years that his public service likely would be in church and nonprofit work, not politics.

Still, Coons worked on Reagan’s presidential campaign in 1980 and spent a summer during college working for Republican Sen. Bill Roth of Delaware.

Coons, who received degrees in political science and chemistry at Amherst, says his outlook changed after spending part of his junior year in Kenya, where he saw widespread poverty and says he struggled to defend the Reagan administration’s policy of constructive engagement with the apartheid government in South Africa.

“Both of those challenged my sense of our obligation to do more, to be engaged with the world positively,” he said.

Coons described the impact of his Kenya experience in an opinion piece for his college newspaper entitled, “Chris Coons: The Making of a Bearded Marxist.”

He wrote of studying under “a bright and eloquent Marxist professor,” and realizing that “my own favorite beliefs in the miracles of free enterprise and the boundless opportunities to be had in America might be largely untrue.”

O’Donnell told Fox News this week that Coons “made some very anti-American statements, apologizing for America and calling himself a ‘bearded Marxist.’”

Coons has played down the issue, saying the article title referred to ribbing from his college buddies about his change in political views. He never described himself as a Marxist in the article, nor did he apologize for America. He did note that he had “returned to loving America, but in the way of one who has realized its faults and failures and still believes in its promise.”

Coons says he believes in capitalism, but that unlike O’Donnell, he does not believe in unfettered markets, which he says must be properly regulated.

Though Coons is now financially well-off, he says he can relate to the struggles many Americans are going through. His parents were forced to declare bankruptcy and sell their home in the mid-1970s after his father, a food industry executive, fell on hard times. His parents later divorced.

“As it is for any family who goes through losing their home these days, it is a painful and difficult thing to go through, and it is a hard thing to talk about,” said Coons, adding that his father “absolutely did his best.”

After graduating from Amherst, Coons did volunteer work in Kenya and took a job monitoring the conditions of homeless shelters in New York City. He worked as issues director in 1988 for Roth’s Democratic challenger, then-Lt. Gov. S.B. Woo, and received degrees from Yale’s law and divinity schools. He went on to clerk for Roth’s wife, a federal appeals court judge in Philadelphia.

In 1996, Coons returned to Delaware and took a job as in-house counsel for W.L. Gore & Associates, which was founded by his stepfather, Robert Gore, and is the maker of Gore-Tex fabrics.

Four years later, Coons was elected county council president in New Castle, a Democratic stronghold and the most populous of Delaware’s three counties.

“I think he is very articulate; a little on the shy side,” said state Democratic Party chairman John Daniello, who recruited Coons to run for council president.

Other Delaware Democrats describe Coons as a thinker who doesn’t shoot from the hip and strives to bring parties together.

He is “a consensus builder and collaborator,” said Democratic state Sen. Patricia Blevins, a longtime friend of Coons and his wife Annie. “He’s got that legal mind going on all the time, too.”

Coons ran for county executive in 2004, easily winning a primary election against chief administrator Sherry Freebery, who along with Coons’ predecessor, Tom Gordon, had been indicted on federal racketeering and fraud charges.

“I think he’s just a rich opportunist,” Freebery said of Coons at the time, accusing him of trying to take credit for the accomplishments of the Gordon administration.

Coons pledged to try to maintain a balanced budget without raising taxes, but he has presided over three property tax increases, including a 25 percent hike last fiscal year.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has alleged that Coons drove the county to the “verge of bankruptcy.” Coons said his predecessor’s budgets, for which he voted, relied on rosy financial projections and the use of reserve funds to pay bills.


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