Sen. Harris McDowell to retire after 44 years

Sen. Harris B. McDowell III
Sen. Harris B. McDowell III

Sen. Harris B. McDowell III came in on the wave that swept Jimmy Carter into the White House 44 years ago. Now he says it is time to put a lifetime in Legislative Hall behind him.

McDowell, who is represented his north Wilmington district since 1976 and outlasted Carter and the other state lawmakers who came with him, rocked Delaware’s political world when took to the Senate floor and announced he won’t seek reelection next year.

The announcement came as the General Assembly wrapped up a series of bills before leaving for summer break.

“I just decided that it’s time,” he said. “I’m fine. My family’s fine, but I want to spend more time with my wife, Sunee.”

But he’ll be back when the second leg of the 150th General Assembly gavels into session in January. And he’ll be the lead chairman of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee. His agenda included working on expanding mental health care, reforming the state’s criminal code, and continuing his efforts to address global warming at the state level.

McDowell’s announcement caught the General Assembly flatfooted. Not even State Rep. Quinn Johnson, D-Middletown, the JFC’s co-chairman knew what was coming.

“He never let on,” Johnson said. “I consider myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn from him.”

While it’s too early to predict the move’s political effects, McDowell has represented one of the state’s most reliably Democratic districts throughout his career.

A highlight reel of McDowell’s accomplishments could fill a small book.

He played a key role in developing the Joint Sunset Committee process of agency review, establishing the Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families, better know as “the Kids’ Department,” the SEED Scholarship program, Delaware’s Sustainable Energy Utility and an internationally recognized program of energy improvement bonds, where savings from energy efficiency improvements are used to pay off the bonds issued to pay for them.

“He was talking about legacy tonight on the floor,” said Gov. John Carney. “But when you look at everything Sen. McDowell has done from the Kids’ Department to his work on energy and climate change, he already has a huge legacy.”

McDowell’s departure will make Senate President Pro Tem David McBride the Dean of the General Assembly.

“He has been my friend and my mentor in the Senate,” said McBride, D-Hawks Nest. “I’m sure that I’ll continue to learn from him.”

McDowell clashed with Carney over Carney’s desire to create a formal “budget smoothing” fund. Carney, who has been one of McDowell’s Senate constituents from decades, said he was a mentor for him as well.

“We haven’t always agreed,” Carney said. “But as governor for two-and-a-half years, I have enjoyed working and learning from him.”

– By Patrick Jackson

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