Firebrand progressive Rep. John Kowalko will retire at the end of his term in November after spending nearly 16 years in the Delaware House of Representatives.
The 76-year-old Democrat from Newark made the announcement on the House floor Thursday afternoon to the surprise of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
“I am proud of my continuous and resolute support, not only for organized labor but for all working people, their families, and for all of Delaware citizens,” Kowalko said while holding back tears. “The bills I put my name on support ordinary people, working people, parents, children, the homeless and Delaware’s small business community.”
During his time as a State Representative, he said, he has fought for government transparency and good government while sponsoring bills to improve health care, voting rights, gender equity and the environment.
“There is a time for everyone to pass the baton,” he said. “And this term is my time. I’m counting on my fellow progressives to continue my efforts. I will work hard for my constituents for the last nine months and in November I will pass my position as the 25th District Representative over to a new and hopefully just as progressive successor.”
Republicans and Democrats alike praised Kowalko for his uniquely passionate brand of advocacy. Many said that though they often disagreed with Kowalko, one could never question his honesty or his intentions.
In a joint statement issued after Kowalko’s announcement, Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst and Majority Whip Larry Mitchell called him a stalwart legislator who has faithfully served his community and his state for the past 16 years.
“He has been a champion of working-class Delawareans, the marginalized and the underprivileged during his time in office,” the Democratic leaders said. “We could always count on John to constantly challenge the status quo in the General Assembly, asking hard questions and pushing goals previously thought to be out of reach into focus.”
“It wasn’t always a fun process – John’s passion could sometimes lead to some very heated conversations – but we all know that it came from a position of wanting the best for every resident in our state, and that, in turn, made us think more critically about whether our actions were right.”
They said his departure will leave a “sizable hole” in the Democratic Caucus, the House of Representatives and the General Assembly, but that they look forward to the “inevitable sparring matches” that will happen before he leaves office.
Raised in Philadelphia, Kowalko graduated from St. Joseph’s Preparatory School in 1963 and apprenticed as a machinist at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.
While at the shipyard, he held offices of treasurer and secretary of his International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers local.
He also spent 26 years employed at the Delaware City Refinery. As a union member there, Kowalko held the positions of machinist steward and general foreman machinist.
His second career as a State Representative began in 2007 after he defeated the district’s Republican incumbent, Stephanie Ulbrich, who had held the seat for 12 years.
Rep. Kowalko is currently involved in many local organizations including the Progressive Democrats of Delaware, Alliance for Health Care Reform, Delaware Coalition for Health Care NOW, Delaware Academy of Science, St. John’s Holy Angel’s Parish, Brookside Lions, International Reading Association Advisory Board, and the Windy Hills Resident’s Civic Association. He is also vice-chair of the 25th District Democratic Committee.
Kowalko is the third legislator in the General Assembly to announce plans to retire at the end of the current legislative session.
Beleaguered Rep. Gerald Brady, D-Wilmington, also planned to retire at the end his current term following an email scandal but then changed course, announcing last week that he would instead resign by Feb. 4.
Days after he made that announcement, Newark police charged him with two counts of shoplifting from a local grocery store.
Kowalko’s work isn’t done yet. He’s detailed plans to introduce a bill to create an inspector general’s office in Delaware, a measure that, if passed, would be a capstone on his advocacy for government transparency.
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