William B. Golin
In 1970, I was a junior at Wilmington Friends School. One late spring day, our popular history teacher, Valerie Biden Saunders (later Owens) led an assembly. On stage with her was a young man who looked like he could be her groovy older brother.
Saunders introduced him:
“This is my brother Joe. He’s running for the job of New Castle County councilman and needs your help. But first listen to what he has to say.”
Since he was Saunders’ brother, of course we listened to what he had to say. And we liked what we heard. He talked about the discontent with the old ways of politics and how it was important that young people channel their energy and idealism into bringing about change. This message indeed appealed to our energy and idealism, and just a wee bit to our self-importance. Most importantly, he was the brother of a very popular teacher. So, after Biden’s talk, his sister asked for volunteers — and she got plenty of takers.
After verifying that Biden was a Democrat, I signed up as well. As I was putting my name down, I asked Saunders: “Do you think your brother has a chance of winning”?
“Are you kidding”? was her reply: “He’s going to be president some day!”
She really boggled my mind with that one: A president from Delaware? A Democratic president from Delaware?
Back in 1970 Delaware was not the place to be for those who aspired to achieve lasting fame, let alone occupy the highest office in the land. No one could name off-hand any Delawarean prominent in sports, theater, television, music and other popular fields. The last Delawarean to be part of a Presidential cabinet retired in the 1880s.
And Delaware was certainly not a Democratic state. In 1970 Delaware was deeply red. Both U.S. Senators, the lone congressman, the governor and every other state official were Republicans. Two-thirds of the seats in both houses of the state Legislature were held by Republicans. In New Castle County, all of the countywide offices were held by Republicans as were four of the six county council seats. Even the city of Wilmington — despite its large minority population — had a Republican mayor.
The Republican Party was united, well-funded and functioned with startling efficiency. For the 1970 elections, the party was fielding a slew of attractive candidates at every level and appeared invincible.
The Delaware Democratic Party had been badly beaten in the previous two elections and was on course for a third straight devastating defeat. Its coffers were almost empty. The party was sharply divided along racial and ideological lines and was in the midst of a bloodletting congressional primary fight. Biden would have to draw on his own wits and resources to win.
New Castle County Council race
The Fourth County Council District, which lay between Wilmington and Newark, consisted of part of Christiana Hundred and all of Mill Creek Hundred. The district’s chief landmarks were the General Motors plant in Boxwood; the vast (by Delaware standards) Prices Corner Shopping Center; the iconic Mill Creek Fire Hall; and the Kirkwood Highway. The last, which was notorious for its difficult traffic conditions and its sheer strip-zoned ugliness, formed the district’s backbone.
It was a microcosm of American middle-class suburbia. The district’s residents covered the full middle-income range. At one end were lower middle-class, blue-collar workers in Elsmere, Stanton and Newport who struggled to keep above the poverty line. At the other end upper middle-class business managers in places like Winterberry Circle, who expected to eventually relocate to the “Chateaux Country” on the banks of the Brandywine River. In between were scores of solidly-middle class suburban developments which strongly resembled Mayfield, the Brandywine Hundred development where Joe spent his teenage years.
On paper, the two parties appeared evenly matched here, and until the 1966 Republican landslide, they were. But by 1970, with the…