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9/14/2016
Anatomy of an upset: How Meyer downed Gordon - News Journal

Councilman Bob Weiner, who represents Greenville over to Brandywine Hundred, said voters in the area are more attuned to the current issues in the administration. 

"The folks in northern Wilmington read the newspaper, they are aware of the issues and challenges that have faced the current county executive," Weiner said. "They are not necessarily directly impacted by the jobs issues that were Gordon's strong suit in the city."

Anatomy of an upset: How Meyer downed Gordon
Xerxes Wilson, The News Journal 7:49 p.m. EDT September 14, 2016

Meyer saw his largest margin of victory in the Fourth District, which covers parts of Wilmington's west side and unincorporated Greenville

Story Highlights
Matt Meyer on Tuesday defeated incumbent New Castle County Executive Thomas P. Gordon.
He now will face Mark Blake in the November general election.
About 25 percent of votes cast for county executive came from Wilmington.

Former colleagues at Prestige Academy in Wilmington on Wednesday showered congratulations on Matt Meyer, a former math teacher who the night before did what many once thought was close to impossible: He beat Thomas P. Gordon.

Meyer is the Democratic nominee for New Castle County executive, and on Wednesday kicked off his "Thank You Tour" in an appropriate place — in Wilmington, in the very neighborhoods critical to his stunning victory that cut short a fourth term for Gordon, one of the state's deep-rooted political figures.

Election data shows Meyer, a political newcomer and attorney, racked up support in the incumbent's stronghold of Wilmington while flipping the voter base south of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and handily winning districts Gordon has previously underperformed in.

It was enough to give Meyer a 2,000-vote advantage, setting up a November general election contest with Republican businessman Mark Blake, who defeated county employee Barry Nahe in the Republican primary Tuesday.

In heavily blue New Castle County, the primary victory all but guarantees Meyer will become executive. It is a highly visible and influential position in Delaware's largest county, overseeing a $300 million annual budget.

Meyer admits it was an uphill battle.

"You have to be a little nuts to run against an incumbent in Delaware and think you can win. When we started knocking on doors, I started to believe we would if we could get the message out," said Meyer, who visited with supporters at events in Wilmington, Christiana and Newark the afternoon following Election Day. Additional campaign events are planned Sunday. 

About 25 percent of votes cast for county executive Tuesday came from Wilmington, the foundation of Gordon's 2012 Democratic primary victory. In that race, Gordon soundly defeated three Democrats in the primary.

Though Gordon didn't see his voter base significantly wane in the city this year, his previous dominance was muted, since Meyer was the only alternative. It was a trend that held throughout the county.  

"He didn't dilute the vote this time," said former County Executive Paul Clark, a Democrat Gordon defeated in 2012. "I think if I ran one-on-one with Mr. Gordon, I would have won."

In the four representative districts that make up the city, Gordon won more votes in all except the one that stretches outside the city into the affluent Greenville area. But the margins were much closer compared to 2012's Democratic primary for county executive.

Clark said having eight candidates running for Wilmington mayor also made it more difficult for Gordon to consolidate support. In the 2012 primary, Gordon frequently campaigned with city candidates like Mayor Dennis P. Williams, who also was defeated in his reelection bid Tuesday.

Williams was unable to overcome criticism about violent crime and other issues from seven challengers. Mike Purzycki, executive director of Riverfront Development Corporation, ended up with the nomination.

Clark said not having Williams put Gordon at a disadvantage.

"That ticket wasn't really viable this time around," he said.

While both candidates grew up in Wilmington, Gordon now lives in Hockessin. Meyer lives in the Trinity Vicinity neighborhood of Wilmington.

Gordon, a former county police chief who once was considered a possible gubernatorial contender, attributed the closer race in the city to his opponent's shoe-leather campaigning. Meyer spent months knocking on doors.

"He worked much harder than I did, but I did have to run a government," Gordon said. "I was tired at the end of the day."

Meyer saw his largest margin of victory in the 4th District, which encompasses the city's west side and parts of unincorporated Greenville, beating Gordon by more than 1,500 votes. It's the city's most affluent district and home to the bulk of 1,200 city Republicans who switched their registration to Democrat ahead of the mayoral primary.
Rashad Taylor, Meyer's campaign director, said the large margin was down to the candidate showing his face to voters.

"At the end of the day, I think Matt outworked Tom Gordon," Taylor said.

Among unincorporated areas, Meyer won by the largest margins in northern New Castle County, including Brandywine Hundred, Hockessin and Pike Creek.

It was a victory by design.

Over a dingy couch in Meyer's home and campaign headquarters is a county map that charts each of the representative districts and how Clark fared against Gordon in 2012. Meyer said he knew his campaign had to go into the areas where Clark won to get them to the polls and then go into the areas where Gordon “rocked” Clark to at least try to “break even.”

"What we saw was the last election that he won after serving two terms, he didn’t get a majority of the vote," Taylor said. "That gives you some understanding there is a large swath of the electorate that didn’t want to vote for him."

Councilman Bob Weiner, who represents Greenville over to Brandywine Hundred, said voters in the area are more attuned to the current issues in the administration. 

"The folks in northern Wilmington read the newspaper, they are aware of the issues and challenges that have faced the current county executive," Weiner said. "They are not necessarily directly impacted by the jobs issues that were Gordon's strong suit in the city."

Gordon's strongest backing came in the Bear-Glasgow corridor, an area where Gordon has invested county money in a new library as well as millions in improvements at Glasgow Regional Park. But the incumbent saw his support dip south of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal compared to 2012, where he took at least a third of the votes.

On Tuesday, Meyer cut into that winning by slim margins south of the canal.
Retiring state Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Stanton, said Gordon suffered there probably because of a controversial plan to pay two farmers $6 million in federal money to bar their Port Penn properties from development and get out of a legal settlement between the county and the two farmers. The deal eventually fizzled. 

"It is my understanding the Middletown area turned on Tom because of that farmland preservation brouhaha," Peterson said. "I think he lost a chunk of people who always supported him." 

Gordon has said it was a bad political decision but one he felt was right to prevent the farms from being developed given the county's legal settlement with the men. Meyer hit out at the plan as a sweetheart deal. 

Peterson said she felt the loss was ultimately down to recent, publicized missteps in the administration.

The News Journal on Saturday reported about an email crafted by a county government department head that stated Meyer intended to pull police pensions and this week wrote about an LGBT rights organization calling for the firing of James McDonald, Gordon's deputy chief of staff, after McDonald shared a meme attacking Meyer that officials for Equality Delaware blasted as "homophobic."  

"I think it was the cumulative effect of some missteps in the last weeks," Peterson said. "It reached a saturation point where people said enough is enough."

Much of Meyer's campaign rhetoric and advertising sought to draw parallels between Gordon's past federal indictment on corruption charges in 2004. Ultimately, all federal corruption charges were dropped and Gordon pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors tied to two county employees doing campaign work on county time.

The issue followed him through an unsuccessful 2008 campaign for executive as well as in the 2012 primary. 

Paul Brewer, research director of the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication, said Meyer's tactics were smart. 

“Gordon had some clear weaknesses and Meyer honed in on that pretty aggressively,” said Brewer. “Clearly [Meyer] ran a pretty solid campaign.”

Brewer said Gordon had advantages over Meyer, having already been elected twice and enjoying political connections across the county. And the number of competitive races meant there “wasn’t much oxygen” for Meyer to keep many arguments in the minds of voters.

“Drawing that sharp contrast and sticking with it really was a smart move,” Brewer said. “You saw the contrast everywhere.”

“Gordon had some clear weaknesses and Meyer honed in on that pretty aggressively.”
Paul Brewer, University of Delaware Center for Political Communication
Gordon said he feels left unvindicated for his past and for Meyer's attacks, which he called "disingenuous."

"It was unfair because it was all dropped," Gordon said. "Nobody defended me on it ... It was a close race and it makes a lot of difference."

Meyer also accused Gordon of peddling false attacks and said he stands by his statements.

"The public-service-versus-self-service (message) was based on community meetings, not based on focus groups and robocalls," Taylor said. "Just listening to people, they think it is a government of self-service. Matt has lived a life of public service. Let's contrast that."  

Gordon also had former close allies working against him, chief of those being David Grimaldi. Grimaldi was the county's chief administrative officer under Gordon's current term before being fired by the executive in October.

Matt Meyer defeats incumbent Tom Gordon in the Democratic primary for New Castle County executive Tuesday. Daniel Sato/The News Journal

The fallout has seen the county and Gordon embroiled in an ongoing defamation lawsuit filed by Grimaldi. Grimaldi has also released private emails and secretly-recorded phone calls that have called Gordon's ethics into question and drawing parallels to Gordon's past that Meyer used as a campaign ax. 

Peterson has known Gordon for decades and considers herself an ally. She said Gordon is the victim of voters' rush to judge others without fully understanding highly complicated situations involving government ethics and administration. She said it is "unfortunate" the ghosts of Gordon's past still linger. 

"It is a cloud over you forever, even if you are found not guilty," Peterson said. "It is still, you were indicted. The voters were willing to try again but the whole Grimaldi thing flared up, which I think was the last nail in the coffin."

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