WILMINGTON, Del. — One of the country’s most historic election wins of 2020 happened in a Delaware Senate District in North Wilmington, where a 30-year-old Cab Calloway graduate and LGBTQ activist became the highest-ranking openly transgender official in the United States.
Now, Democratic state Sen. Sarah McBride enters what could be one of the most demanding legislative sessions in the history of the state as the Democrat-controlled 62-person Delaware General Assembly grapples with an urgent need to address the COVID-19 pandemic, a backlog of postponed legislation from a truncated 2020 session — including controversial issues such as gun control — and a growing call across the First State for police reform.
All of it will come to the forefront as lawmakers return to floor and committee debates via Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The virtual meetings will be live-streamed and broadcast to state residents who were, until last year, used to having very little access to their state’s legislative process unless they could carve out an afternoon to travel to the statehouse in Dover. For McBride, it will mean starting a new job remotely, and all the stresses that come with it.
She’s joining a body of state lawmakers who will likely be under more scrutiny than ever before in their careers. After 10 months of virus-related restrictions, economic turmoil and increased urgency for a vaccine, people are perhaps now more invested in their state government than ever before in modern American history.
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Even without her growing reputation as an unstoppable public figure in the First State, it would be impossible for a lawmaker like McBride to shy away from the most pressing issues this year. The freshman Senator will chair the Senate Health and Social Services Committee and sit on the Senate Judiciary and Corrections and Public Safety committees.
McBride said she wants to use her power as a lawmaker to reform health care laws for the long term. While she supports science-based pandemic response strategy of Gov. John Carney’s administration, she argues it’s not enough for Delaware to simply face the pandemic and then “return to normal.”
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“You can’t separate the longer term issues from the COVID-19 crisis,” she said. “What we’ve seen is that far too many Delawareans had to give up their income in the face of illness. … Whether that’s COVID or cancer, whether that’s an individual health crisis or a public health crisis, the same values and the same principles are at stake.”
Paid family and medical leave — something that she has campaigned on since she first announced her bid for the Senate seat in the summer of 2019 — is at the heart of that goal, she said.
“There is no question that this pandemic has reinforced and highlighted the urgent need for that policy, regardless of the situation a person is finding themselves in,” she said.
McBride, who has been spotted at Moms Demand Action rallies in recent years, supports progressive gun control measures similar to what lawmakers failed to pass in recent years. She also supports raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and a Medicaid “buy-in” option, which would allow people with disabilities to get Medicaid services that aren’t available through other insurers even if they make a certain level of income.
McBride said she also plans to back the Black Caucus’ eight-item list of proposals that Delaware’s Legislative Black Caucus members introduced in June to reform police departments and fight systemic racism. That includes advancing bills from two recently formed task forces to come up with law changes around racial equity and police accountability.
She expressed support for law changes that would make it easier to access records related to officer misconduct. She said she also wants to reduce recidivism through job opportunities.
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It’s likely that this is the start of a long political career for McBride, who is younger than most of her colleagues in the General Assembly. Before even stepping foot in Legislative Hall as an elected official, she has proven herself as a political force to be reckoned with. In her bid to replace retiring longtime Sen. Harris McDowell, she pulled in more than $170,000 in the first six months of her campaign — a war chest that competed with that of some statewide races and eclipsed those of other General Assembly candidates with far more competitive opponents.
The newly elected lawmaker is already a familiar face in Legislative Hall after working for former Gov. Jack Markell and the late Attorney General Beau Biden, as well as successfully advocating for passage of the Gender Identity Nondiscrimination Act in 2013.
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The Wilmington native is entering with a slew of other freshman Democrats in both chambers, a handful of whom usurped powerful, longtime incumbents in the state primary and have formed a progressive faction that has pledged to challenge the General Assembly’s compromise-driven, closed-door traditions known as the “Delaware Way.”
While McBride identifies as a progressive, she has been less publicly critical of the Legislature’s “old guard” compared with other progressive freshman. Instead, she says she wants to focus on unifying her colleagues, and points to former Senate Majority Leader Margaret Rose Henry, also Democrat from Wilmington, as someone she hopes to emulate.
“She demonstrated that you can be bold, you can be brave, you can be progressive and you can bring people together,” McBride said about Henry. “That’s the most effective way to bring about change. … The only way we can tackle the significant challenges we face is by combining the experience of the returning members and the new energy of the first-year members.”
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When asked about what obstacles she expects during her first term, she said she has spent the last few months “listening as much as possible” to people in the state.
“I recognize that folks have a diversity of thought in this state and there will be people who disagree with positions I take or policies I put forward,” she said. “I’m no stranger to advocacy and I’m ready to do the work necessary to get those bills over the finish line and to do so in a way that results in meaningful change for the folks who elected me.”
Holding public office isn’t the first “first” for McBride, who in 2016 gained national prominence when she became the first openly transgender person to speak at the Democratic National Convention. Four years before that, she was already making headlines as a college student when she came out publicly as transgender at the end of her term as American University student body president.
But it’s no surprise that McBride’s win in November earned headlines across the country, heralded as a triumph for the LGBTQ community and boosting her to an even more prominent, national celebrity status than what she already had before her 2020 campaign — something that is essentially unheard of for local politicians.
The lawmaker this month even made the cover of The Cut, a style and culture website that is part of New York Magazine, in a feature that included photos of her modeling designer clothes in the Old State House in Dover.
While she’s breaking national barriers, she’s not the only incoming lawmaker who is making state history. Three other newly elected Democrats — Rep. Eric Morrison, Sen. Marie Pinkney and Rep. Madinah Wilson-Anton — are respectively the first openly gay man, first openly lesbian Black woman and first practicing Muslim lawmakers elected to the Delaware General Assembly.
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McBride said she felt “privileged” to be part of an incoming class that is committed to more fully representing the diversity of the state.
“At the end of the day, diversity in government isn’t just about symbolism and messages,” McBride said. “Because the Delaware Legislature more fully looks like Delaware … the bills we pass will more fully address the wide range of needs and experiences that Delawareans of all backgrounds are facing right now.”
Sarah Gamard covers government and politics for Delaware Online/The News Journal. You can reach her at (302) 324-2281 or [email protected] You can also follow her on Twitter @SarahGamard.