What you need to know about the race for New Castle County Council president

Brandon Holveck
Delaware News Journal

At the heart of the race for New Castle County Council president is the question of who is best qualified to curb the council's propensity for drama and division. 

Incumbent Karen Hartley-Nagle says she has been a "watchdog" helping account for the county's more than $300 million budget over the past four years while starting to bring together polarized members of the council.

But her Democratic challengers, most notably the county's Register of Wills Ciro Poppiti, say that her tenure, marred by accusations of harassment, proves her inability to unify the county.

The president of New Castle County Council oversees the legislative branch of a county government that serves roughly 560,000 residents. Along with 12 members elected from each district, the president votes in matters decided by the County Council, which in recent years have included several controversial land use debates.

New Castle County Council President Karen Hartley-Nagle presides over a recent council meeting.

Hartley-Nagle, Poppiti and Monique Johns, a workshop facilitator from Middletown, are vying for the Democratic nomination in the primary election on Sept. 15. Only registered Democrats and Republicans can vote in the primary, and they can vote only for members in their own party.

The primary winner will emerge as the favorite in the general election against independent candidate Brian Whitaker, the New Castle city clerk.

Hartley-Nagle won the seat in 2016 after defeating Councilman Penrose Hollins in the Democratic primary.

Less than a year into her tenure, the County Council ordered an internal human resources investigation into Hartley-Nagle's interactions with aide Kate Maxwell. After spending at least $135,000 to investigate and settle claims of workplace harassment by Maxwell, the County Council asked Hartley-Nagle to resign in January 2018.

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Hartley-Nagle refused to step down, calling the vote for her resignation a "politically-motivated smear campaign" initiated by members of the council. She also refused to participate in behavior coaching mandated by a council vote.

New Castle County Council President Karen Hartley-Nagle watches presides of council with her former aide, Kate Maxwell, to the right.

Poppiti said the controversy is a "big reason" why he decided to run at the urging of members of the council. In his view, Hartley-Nagle has created a "toxic environment" that, if elected, he will alleviate by leaning on strong pre-existing relationships with members of the council, some of whom he helped elect as a former vice chair of the Democratic Party.

Hartley-Nagle said historically the council has attacked the president at the beginning of their tenure and hers was no exception.

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"I don't know why that is," she said. "When you're doing a good job, people will find a way to smear your name and attack you and you have to work with that. ... It's part of politics. You just develop a thicker skin."

Since the allegations of harassment surfaced, which Hartley-Nagle still denies, the depth and quality of conversation among the council has continually improved and has been focused on issues the county faces, she said.

Ciro Poppiti, shown speaking at a New Castle County event, is challenging Karen Hartley-Nagle for New Castle County president after more than nine years as the county's register of wills.

Although the County Council president is a part-time position (paying $30,000), the Bellefonte resident says she works the job full time. All of her calls are forwarded to her cellphone, which she answers seven days a week.

Poppiti, who lives in his hometown of Wilmington, practiced law at his family's firm until becoming register of wills in 2010 at the beckoning of Chris Coons, who was then the New Castle County Council president.

He is enlisted in the Delaware Army National Guard. In 2016, he waged an unsuccessful campaign for lieutenant governor against fellow Democrat Bethany Hall-Long.

Hartley-Nagle has questioned whether there is a conflict of interest between Poppiti's family firm, led his father and wife Laura, which practices in estate planning and wills and estates, and his role as register of wills.

Poppiti said when he took office, his team put into place a process by which he recused himself from handling paperwork submitted by his family, and the only person to make an issue of it in more than nine years is Hartley-Nagle. David Ferry, the former president of the Delaware Bar Association, has backed Poppiti's ethics.

"It's ironic that someone who has had so many problems with ethics wants to throw that mud at me," Poppiti said.

Hartley-Nagle said even if Poppiti has not directly benefited from his office's dealings with his family's law firm, the appearance of impropriety alone is disqualifying. 

Johns was embroiled in her own public controversy in a previous race for Middletown's state House seat. In 2018, she was caught on camera removing a campaign pamphlet supporting her opponent, Republican incumbent Kevin Hensley, from the front door of a home.

Monique Johns

Johns, who could not be reached for comment for this story, apologized at the time in a statement released by the Delaware Democratic Party.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, record unemployment and widespread racial unrest, Poppiti has questioned why the county has not put forth a comprehensive diversity plan like the one he has "ready for day one."

It includes a mentorship program to give young people experience in public office, an expansion of the county's behavioral health unit, an increase in community art celebrating minority groups and an emphasis on awarding county contracts to minority-owned businesses.

His other priorities include protecting seniors and their right to "age in place" and advocating for the arts, especially for kids.

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Hartley-Nagle said the council is already acting on the issue of racial injustice and the problems the pandemic has created, pointing to a recent resolution to bar a chemical plant near New Castle from expanding and the $322 million awarded through the federal CARES Act.

Her experience leading the council and managing the county's operating budget makes her most qualified to see through the pandemic response, Hartley-Nagle contended, adding that the county shouldn't interrupt the progress its made by initiating a new leader. 

In a survey, Johns listed small-business development, enhanced sensitivity training for police and health and human services including free counseling and career development as her top priorities.

Campaign finance reports show Poppiti has outspent his opponents. From the start of this year to Aug. 16, Poppiti collected $49,501.34, $20,000 of which he personally loaned to his campaign, and spent $45,636.14. His campaign had $11,100 on hand at the beginning of the year.

In the same period, Hartley-Nagle raised $13,400 and spent $3,103.75. Her campaign had $5,558.86 on hand at the beginning of the year after raising $7,000 in 2019.

Johns and Whitaker have not filed 30-day campaign finance reports.

Contact Brandon Holveck at bholveck@delawareonline.com. Follow on Twitter @holveck_brandon.