Pete du Pont, transformational governor who brought credit card industry to Delaware, dies at 86

WILMINGTON, Delaware — Pete du Pont, the former Republican governor, presidential candidate and DuPont heir whose sprawling influence transformed state government and helped bring the credit card industry to Delaware, died Saturday. He was 86.

Du Pont died in his Wilmington home after battling a “long illness,” said Bob Perkins, former chief-of-staff. Because of the pandemic, a memorial service will be held at a later date.

Born with Delaware’s most famous surname, du Pont broke from the family business (and tradition) to become a politician. He entered office as governor when the state was in crisis. In eight years, he led efforts to limit excess spending, dramatically cut income taxes and created a slew of government agencies.

Presidential candidate Pete du Pont on March 24, 1988.

Presidential candidate Pete du Pont on March 24, 1988.

He also implemented school desegregation, and his administration courted major banks to relocate to Delaware through tax cuts and deregulation, ultimately remodeling the state’s image from anti-business to corporate tax haven.

Du Pont established himself as a moderate Republican as Delaware’s U.S. representative, advocating for the environment and campaign spending reform. Post governorship, which included a lackluster run for the presidency, du Pont’s politics moved farther right, once described as a mixture of Reagan conservatism and libertarianism.

During the rise of the Tea Party, he spoke at rallies about fiscal conservatism. To many Delaware Republicans, today’s GOP no longer reflects the party du Pont once led.

The self-effacing du Pont was known to have quick wit and a good sense of humor.

His political hero was Winston Churchill.

“Government is not an end in itself, it is a means,” du Pont said in his farewell address in 1985. “Restoring integrity to government, restoring discipline to government and restraining government were part of a process of improving the means.”

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Supreme Court Chief Justice Daniel L. Hermann swears in Gov. Pete du Pont for his second term with his wife, Elise, at his side in 1981.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Daniel L. Hermann swears in Gov. Pete du Pont for his second term with his wife, Elise, at his side in 1981.

Growing up du Pont

Pierre S. du Pont IV was born Jan. 22, 1935, in Wilmington to parents Pierre S. du Pont III and Jane Holcomb du Pont. He is the descendent of E.I. du Pont de Nemours, who founded the Du Pont Co.

Surrounded by immense wealth and privilege, du Pont, known as “Petey,” described himself shy as a child. He was gifted with sports, but not school. He earned lousy grades at Tower Hill and Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. He often cajoled his sisters to play games, which included human checkers on the marble checkered floor in the family’s home.

He later described his father as the tough parent who demanded excellence. It was his mother he went to for comfort.

A competitive sailor, he competed in the America’s Cup trial races. He described feeling most comfortable when he went sailing.

Du Pont studied mechanical engineering at Princeton University, then a college only for men, since he figured it would be most helpful when he worked for the family business. He met his wife Elise Wood, then a Bryn Mawr student, on Princeton’s campus. (He did once go on a blind date with Jane Fonda.)

He and Elise met after a football game, when du Pont and his buddies smoked cigars at the fraternity and debated religion. In an oral history with the Delaware Heritage Commission, du Pont recalled hearing from the other side of the smoke-filled room: “That was a really dumb thing to say.”

It was Wood. The two married in 1957 and would have four children. Wood, a descendent of Benjamin Franklin and heir to the Wawa fortune, established a career in her own right. As her husband was based in the governor’s mansion, she went to law school and later worked in the Reagan administration.

After graduation, as the tension of the Cold War continued to build, du Pont enlisted in the Navy. He was stationed in Newport, Rhode Island, and then Brunswick Naval Air Station in Maine. It was in Maine he first became interested in law.

Du Pont described his military service as “one of my life’s extraordinary experiences.”

“In the Navy you were with real people,” he said in the oral history. “You had to manage their work, understand their thinking, and help them with their problems … You learn about life in the Navy because you weren’t talking to the elite, you were working with normal Americans.”

Du Pont excelled academically for the first time at Harvard Law. But after graduation, he returned to Wilmington in 1963 to work at DuPont, where his father was an executive. He was there for six years. He and his family lived in Rockland in an estate called “Patterns.”

“You begin to realize that in an enormous company — and I had lots of good opportunities there,” he told The Washington Post in 1988, “but in an enormous company like that, the chance of being in charge and leading really is 30 years away. That’s a long horizon.”

Entering politics meant breaking from family tradition and the expectations that had been set for him. Some in the family considered politics to be dirty business.

He started his political career in 1969 in the Delaware House of Representatives, where he represented Brandywine Hundred. He ran unopposed.

Just the next year, he ran to represent Delaware in the U.S. House of Representatives. His primary campaign slogan was: “Nominate a winner.”

Du Pont won the general election easily.

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Transforming Delaware

When he arrived at the halls of Congress, U.S. Rep. Pete du Pont quickly learned how much power he had — and didn’t have.

He was assigned to minor House committees at a time when Republicans weren’t in power. And being from a small state he didn’t wield much influence. An aide once described him as bored during this era.

His most significant contribution during this time was co-authoring and sponsoring the War Powers Act of 1973, which limited the president’s war powers. During his second term in Congress, President Richard Nixon faced impeachment.

Du Pont was one of the last Congressional Republicans to abandon support for Nixon.

Tired of Washington, du Pont sought the governorship in 1976. Delaware was a mess at the time: The state’s finances were in disarray, unemployment towered at 9%, debt was mounting and legal battles to desegregate schools continued.

Many Delawareans didn’t trust politicians at the time, as this was post-Watergate. New Castle County Executive Melvin Slawik had just been removed from office after being convicted of perjury.

There had also been a rotating door of Delaware governors. By 1977, a governor had not served two consecutive terms in almost 30 years.

“The challenge, then, will be to recognize our limitations, establish our priorities and live within our means,” du Pont said in his inaugural address. “It will require personal discipline from each of us, and political discipline from all of us.

“It will be painful,” he said, “but not fatal … .”

In the early days of the du Pont administration, the governor passed executive orders on financial disclosures and judicial appointments. He also created the Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council, an independent commission that would give the state an accurate prediction of how much money would be available in the fiscal year.

Yet du Pont would make a major political blunder early in his tenure, leading to a News Journal headline of: “A half-year of failure for du Pont.”

When the governor in March of 1977 addressed the General Assembly, controlled by Democrats in both chambers, he declared: “The state of Delaware is bankrupt.”

This statement shocked lawmakers and plummeted the state’s bond rating. The governor was forced to do damage control within the General Assembly and on Wall Street.

But the state’s finances were in fact in disarray. By summer 1977, the General Assembly was nearing the end of its session and no budget was in sight. Lawmakers drafted their own version, which passed in both chambers.

Yet, du Pont vetoed the budget during the July 4 weekend. He wrote that what lawmakers wrote was “inaccurate, unrealistic and detrimental to the future of Delaware.” But the General Assembly voted to overturn, dealing a significant blow to du Pont.

It forced the governor to start building personal relationships with lawmakers. In the coming years, the administration passed bipartisan legislation that created a spending limit of 98% of revenue for the fiscal year, and subsequently saved the remaining money for the “Rainy Day Fund.”

Another key piece of legislation required a supermajority to increase taxes. Both these laws were enacted as Constitutional amendments. By 1979, the state’s budget had a surplus of $20 million. Du Pont oversaw eight balanced budgets during his time as governor.

That same year, he cut income taxes in half, for the first time in state history.

Du Pont, in his first term, was tasked with implementing desegregation of public schools, following a court order that culminated years of legal battles. This issue revolved around forced busing, and there was a concern of unrest in New Castle County.

The Delaware General Assembly had failed to create any type of plan to integrate the schools, resulting in du Pont calling lawmakers in for a special session in February 1978.

It was in the midst of a blizzard, making the roads impossible to drive on. So du Pont sent a helicopter to pick up a lawmaker and bring him to Legislative Hall so he could pass the legislation — which the General Assembly eventually did.

Though, the lawmaker wasn’t given a ride back.

Du Pont’s legacy as governor was likely crystalized with the passage of the 1981 Financial Center Development Act, which led to the credit card and financial industry becoming a force in Delaware. The bipartisan legislation taxed bank profits at a lower rate than New York.

Passing this legislation was so important to du Pont that he ordered his lieutenant governor Mike Castle to stay in the Senate chamber in the event he would have to break a tie.

Castle remained in the Senate for nearly seven hours, without taking any bathroom breaks, according to the Delaware Heritage Commission’s oral history.

While the legislation created more than 40,000 jobs, it also created a new dependency on the financial services industry and corporate interest.

When du Pont left office in 1985, he was succeeded by his lieutenant governor Mike Castle. He described in 2004 to the commission how Delaware had an inferiority complex going into the du Pont administration — and ended this era with a superiority complex.

“I think to this day,” Castle said, “we maintained that outlook that as a small state we can be flexible, we can get things done, therefore we have advantages over other states, which we really never thought before Pete du Pont.”

Life after governor

Former Gov. Pete du Pont announces his presidential campaign at the Hotel du Pont in 1986.

Former Gov. Pete du Pont announces his presidential campaign at the Hotel du Pont in 1986.

After leaving the governor’s mansion, du Pont eyed the White House.

He became the first Delawarean in 62 years to seek the nation’s highest office. Du Pont launched his 1988 presidential campaign in 1986, way before other candidates, including Joe Biden, joined the race.

The late News Journal columnist Bill Frank wrote in 1986: “To be honest, I must take the position that Pete du Pont has more background to guide him in the ways of a successful president than our other reported presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, Democrat.”

Du Pont ran on a controversial platform of policies called “Damn Right,” which would have replaced Social Security with private savings accounts, phased out farm subsidies and required welfare recipients to work.

The former governor was unable to gain any momentum, and he dropped out after the New Hampshire primary. He would go on to create one of the first online political magazines in the mid 1990s and wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal from 2000 to 2014.

1988 would-be Presidents, from left to right are, Alexander Haig, Rep. Jack Kemp, Pat Robertson, Donald Rumsfeld, Sen. Robert Dole, and Pete du Pont joke around during a picture session on Friday, March 14, 1987, in Nashua, New Hampshire. The presidential hopefuls were guests at the Northeast Republican Leadership conference.

1988 would-be Presidents, from left to right are, Alexander Haig, Rep. Jack Kemp, Pat Robertson, Donald Rumsfeld, Sen. Robert Dole, and Pete du Pont joke around during a picture session on Friday, March 14, 1987, in Nashua, New Hampshire. The presidential hopefuls were guests at the Northeast Republican Leadership conference.

He founded the Pete du Pont Individual Freedom Award, which honors a person who has helped create economic growth in the private sector. In recent years, du Pont had mostly stayed out of the local limelight.

The Pete du Pont Freedom Foundation, which oversees the award, recently announced that for the first time this year a business will be presented with the honor: MBNA for being one of the first companies to move to Delaware following the passing of the Financial Center Development Act

“Other than getting married and so forth,” du Pont told a reporter in 1988, “being governor was the best life decision that I’ve ever made.”

Contact Meredith Newman at (302) 324-2386 or at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @MereNewman.

Staff writer Patricia Talorico contributed reporting to this article.

This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: Pete du Pont, Delaware governor who transformed state, dies at 86