Voters in Milton, Lewes, Rehoboth and Dewey will have three choices on the ballot when they vote for their next state senator in the Nov. 8 general election.
One familiar name will not be on the ballot — that of Sen. Ernie Lopez, the 10-year incumbent Republican who opted against seeking re-election.
Republican State Rep. Steve Smyk, Democrat Russ Huxtable and Non-Partisan Delaware candidate Gwendolyn “Wendy” Jones want to fill his shoes.
Key issues for voters in the 6th Senate District include its aging and congested infrastructure, protection of agricultural lands, responsible growth, offshore wind and LGBT rights.
As of October, there are 18,845 Democratic voters in the district, 15,710 Republicans and 11,392 belonging to a third or no party.
Meet the candidates
Smyk has served in the Delaware House of Representatives since 2013. His 20th Representative District shared Milton and Lewes with the 6th Senate District, but not the more politically liberal Rehoboth and Dewey.
A 24-year veteran of the Delaware State Police and former president of the Delaware State Troopers Association, Smyk retired in 2012 to run for public office.
“I left the presidency of the State Troopers Association — one of the strongest labor organizations in the state of Delaware — and I had seven more years that I could have been a trooper,” Smyk told Delaware LIVE News.
“I gave that up because I care about the people of my community and I recognized back in 2012 that someone was going to represent us that didn’t reflect the wants and needs of the people I know in that district,” Smyk said. “That’s the same reason I’m running for Senate.”
Smyk said he watched the Democratic primary election and came to believe that Huxtable and his primary opponents were introducing national issues into the local dialogue in pursuit of national agendas.
That’s not what the people of the 6th Senate District are looking for, Smyk said. They’re interested in their “quality of life. When they sit down at the kitchen table, that’s what they’re talking about.”
Huxtable believes the issues he’s running on are ones that matter to the people in his district and sees his candidacy as a continuation of the public service he says he’s been committed to his whole life.
A native Delawarean and graduate of the University of Delaware, Huxtable volunteered as a staff member with the Appalachia Service Project while in college.
The Service Project addresses substandard housing using volunteer labor to perform repairs to make homes “warmer, safer, and drier.”
It was his work with that group that made Huxtable realize the life he envisioned for himself wasn’t what he wanted.
“It changed my life,” Huxtable told Delaware LIVE News. “I saw abject poverty. I saw what a roof over one’s head means to them and their family. And I was spurred on by that project into my life’s work of serving others and the community.”
He soon realized that poverty and housing insecurity are not unique to the Appalachian region. For the last 19 years, Huxtable has served as vice president of the Milford Housing Development Corp., a company with a mission to provide decent, safe and affordable housing solutions to people of modest means.
Huxtable said he’s been appealing to the General Assembly for affordable housing policies for decades. For too long, he said, the legislature has failed to act.
“So instead of being one to advocate across the table, I figured I needed to be on the other side of the table this time,” Huxtable said.
Gwendolyn “Wendy” Jones
Jones is a school bus driver in Cape Henlopen School District and a board member of Non-Partisan Delaware, the First State’s newest political party.
The centrist party aims to “promote policies that protect the rights of Delaware residents and offer them the most opportunity to provide for themselves and their families,” according to its website.
Jones said she’s concerned that 11 incumbent state senators and 14 incumbent state representatives are running unopposed in the general election.
“In other words, in the majority of Delaware’s legislative districts, there’s not even a functioning two-party system anymore,” Jones told Delaware LIVE News.
She was inspired to run after having several conversations with Smyk about legalizing recreational marijuana.
While she supports marijuana legalization, Jones was sure to mention that she doesn’t use marijuana or any other substance, including alcohol.
Smyk “has vociferously opposed that effort and he’s quoted a number of statistics from police-supplied websites,” Jones said. “The problem is that over two-thirds of the residents of the state of Delaware support the legalization of cannabis and I think that [Smyk] is not being responsive to his constituents.”
Jones believes residents of the 6th Senate District are “sick of partisan politics,” something that’s driving voter apathy and making it such that people aren’t even bothering to vote anymore.
“That’s why I think there needs to be a balanced, reasonable, responsible and responsive representative in Dover,” she said, adding that if she can wrangle 72 rowdy kids on a school bus, she can do the same with 20 fellow state senators.
Smyk said Sussex County “cannot stop growth and anybody that’s running for state office that says they’re going to stop growth is lying.”
While there is a role for state legislators to play in smart development, what the 6th District’s constituents don’t want is “lawmakers from New Castle County making land-use decisions for Sussex County,” Smyk said.
“We want Sussex Countians making those decisions,” he said. “The overwhelming majority of the legislature is from New Castle County because that’s where the majority of the population is, and they don’t know what we need. We need the agriculture, we need to be able to sustain ourselves with food and we don’t want to pollute our aquifer.”
Smyk said he’s fought to ensure that developers are paying their fair share, especially as it relates to the burden development places on infrastructure.
Taxpayers often foot the bill when housing projects cause traffic, he said, so developers need to pitch in to improve roadways, not only where developments tie into existing streets but also at intersections down the road where traffic is affected by additional cars.
Smyk said he’s also fought to increase funding for farmland and open space preservation.
Huxtable said Sussex County needs to have a “better growth strategy.”
“It’s one of the main things I hear when I’m canvassing and knocking on doors,” Huxtable said. “We need to find a better balance between our environment and growth. I’m not anti-growth, but I think it needs to be done responsibly.”
Due to a lack of affordable housing, people who keep the county running are often priced out of the area, he said. As a result, the 6th District is having difficulty meeting its health care and educational demands, which negatively impacts small businesses and residents’ quality of life.
While things like zoning regulations are largely handled by the county government, Huxtable said the state can offer financial resources to preserve open space, provide affordable housing and attract teachers and other professionals to areas of high growth and high demand.
“It’s really a collaboration between local, county and state governments that needs to be there,” he said.
“The median home price is over $400,000 in Sussex County and in this district, it’s even higher,” Huxtable said. “So if you’re making minimum wage, employed gainfully at $15 an hour, you’re making $31,200. You can’t afford a home.”
With market-rate rents hovering between $1,200 and 1,400 for a two-bedroom unit, many working-class renters are left in a position of paying half their income for housing alone.
That doesn’t just affect minimum wage workers, he said. With teachers in Cape Henlopen School District earning starting salaries in the mid-$40,000 range, “where are they going to live that is going to be affordable?”
Jones said the county needs to take a balanced approach that “keeps up with the influx of population while also respecting and preserving wildlife areas.”
“Our very subsistence is based on farmlands and agriculture,” she said. “So I think we need to respect that and the environment for that matter, and also focus on developing the infrastructure to support the increased population.”
Numerous large-scale offshore wind projects are under development off the coast of Delaware.
The issue has been a point of contention in Delaware’s coastal communities. Some say that as the lowest-lying state in the country, people living along the shore have the most to lose if swift action isn’t taken to address climate change.
Others say the turbines will have a detrimental effect on the beach view and hurt Delaware’s coastal tourism industry. On the same side, many call into question the reliability and efficacy of wind turbines.
Smyk said he hopes to balance concerns on both sides of the issue.
“If any legislator or candidate is giving their personal opinions, then that’s wrong. That means that they’re going to vote their personal way,” Smyk said.
“I’m looking for a compromise between those who say, ‘I’m better off by having cleaner energy and our children are better off,’ and those who say, ‘I’m sitting on the beach and I don’t want to see that.’ And they will see it.”
Smyk said anyone who claims the windmills won’t be visible from the shore has “no understanding of visibility, especially on clear days through the horizon.”
“There’s days that you can look all the way through the curvature of the earth,” he said. “And I see it, it’s there. I’ve noticed it there and I’ve been doing this all my life.”
Smyk said the windmills will affect more than just the view from shore.
“There’s advances in technology for harnessing the wind that don’t have these great big arms making a great big circle in the sky,” he said. “Sadly, it’s been a hazard for our birds. We are in a flight path throughout the globe for waterfowl — we’ve got birds out there — birds of prey.”
Smyk said if someone hopped the fence at the wind turbine in Lewes, they’d see that “there’s a loss of life from the birds up there.” He also pointed out that turbines use “a huge amount of petroleum oil that has to be changed every year for the gears, so you’re not leaving oil completely.”
Ultimately, he said, he wants to balance all those concerns with his constituents’ desire to move toward cleaner energy — something he said government should always be researching and considering.
Huxtable said when Millsboro’s NRG coal-fired power plant goes offline in 2026, “we’ll need additional new and alternative energy sources for Delaware and its residents.”
“I think if done well, in partnership with the state and the federal government, we can create a great project that will bring a lot of great jobs to this district and to Delaware, as well as clean, renewable energy, which is going to be good for addressing climate change and sea level rise,” Huxtable said.
Delaware needs to seriously look into green energy sooner rather than later, he said, and it’s going to require strong state leadership in order for it to happen.
There will also be questions about where the power will be brought onshore.
“I would love to be part of that conversation if elected,” Huxtable said.
Jones believes offshore wind power is viable so long as it does not disincentivize people from visiting the beach or purchasing waterfront properties.
She said the turbines “may very well be an eyesore and also seriously impact the tourism industry.”
Instead, resources should be allocated to research thorium-based nuclear power, she said, because it’s a high-potential clean energy source that doesn’t come with the dangers and waste associated with uranium-based nuclear power.
She acknowledged that such advancements are years off and said the electrical grid will need to be updated before that comes to pass.
“A source of clean and safe electrical generation needs to be brought up to the table,” Jones said.
Rehoboth Beach is known as one of the mid-Atlantic coast’s most popular gay-friendly getaways.
That’s in part due to the significant number of LGBT-owned and operated businesses, and because of the LGBT-frequented stretch of beach near Queen Street at the south end of the boardwalk known as Poodle Beach.
Notably, when first elected to the House of Representatives in 2013, Smyk voted against legalizing same-sex marriage.
Smyk told Delaware LIVE News that, as with any issue, he was merely representing his district.
“On the floor of the House on that particular vote, I made it very clear that I don’t have a position,” Smyk said. “You don’t hire me as your state legislator for my position — you hire me for your position. So it’s my job to find out what the majority wants.”
Smyk said 17 times more people reached out to him in opposition to the bill than in support.
“So is there an evolution of my position? No,” Smyk said. “My position cannot evolve because it didn’t exist. It never did. My position was the position of the majority. I represented the majority since I’ve been in office.”
Smyk said he’ll always vote according to what the majority of people want while also protecting those in the minority.
As an example, Smyk said, if a bill to eliminate marriage equality or do “anything else against the gay community” came up, “If it’s a popular issue, then I’ll vote for the popular issue. But I’m also going to work very hard to change the language to protect those in my district … I don’t want them to be hurt.”
Smyk said Huxtable “went straight to the narrative” by criticizing him for his vote on gay marriage and claiming Smyk is against all gay rights.
“Really? Wow. Well, let me explain it,” Smyk said. “I had two gay people that were mad at me and told me, ‘We are secondhand citizens. We don’t have the rights that everybody else does.’ I said, ‘Excuse me. Tell me where you don’t have rights.’ ‘Well, we don’t have gay marriage.’ I was like, ‘Well, you got it now. You got it now.’”
“And — is marriage a right? When did marriage become a right? It’s actually a sanctity between you and God, and government should never even be in it,” Smyk said.
Huxtable pointed out that he’s endorsed by the Delaware Stonewall PAC and has “several LGBTQ+ members” on his team.
“It’s certainly an important subject as far as making sure we preserve marriage equality and equal protection,” he said. “And I’ll certainly stand up for that community and any disenfranchised community.”
Huxtable said Smyk’s position on same-sex marriage “is not a position that would be very welcomed in this community.”
Jones said she’s one of the founding members of Rehoboth’s PFLAG chapter. PFLAG stands for Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
“So I understand their concerns,” Jones said. “And something that I hope that they realize is that simply voting for the major party tickets isn’t necessarily going to solve their problems.”
Neither Smyk nor Huxtable said they’re confident they’ll win the election.
“I don’t think I feel confident until the polls are closed and the results are in,” Huxtable said. “Steve [Smyk] has been elected, he has name recognition. I’m the new guy on the block and trying to get my name out there. So I have a ways to catch up.”
Huxtable said the most important thing is making sure voters turn out on Nov. 8.
“If they don’t, I won’t win. If they do, I’ve got a good shot.”
Smyk said he’s never felt confident he’d win an election.
“I’ve won them all, but I never feel confident,” he said. “And it’s only because not everybody knows me, believe it or not. You would think they would, but I help people a lot, and those who are running against me do not have that burden.”
Jones said she’s often left out of the conversation because she doesn’t belong to a third party, but if she’s able to get her message out, she’ll feel good about her odds.
“There is a substantial number of voters in this district who aren’t registered Republican or Democrat,” she said. “It seems obvious that they’re unhappy with or not wanting to be associated with either one of those right-wing or left-wing extremists, so I offer another choice.”
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