Former Delaware Governor and Congressman Pierre S. (“Pete”) du Pont IV died today, May 8, 2021, at his home in Wilmington, Delaware after a long illness.
Governor du Pont served as Delaware’s lone Congressman in the 92nd – 94th Congresses from 1971 to 1977. He served as Delaware’s 68th Governor from 1977 to 1985.
During his three terms in the U.S. Congress from 1971 to 1977, du Pont served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee. As a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, he was a co-author and sponsor of the War Powers Act of 1973, which was passed into law and limits the authority of the President to commit U.S. Armed Forces abroad without the consent of the Congress.
Beginning with his second campaign for Congress, he refused to accept any campaign contributions larger than $200 from any one person or organization. He continued this policy during his later campaigns for Congress and Governor.
As Governor of the State of Delaware from 1977 to 1985, du Pont led eight consecutive balanced budgets, two separate income tax reductions totaling 9%, and a Constitutional Amendment to limit future excess spending and tax increases. The income tax cuts were the first in Delaware’s 200-year history. He brought the state back from the worst bond rating in the country to one of the best. Under his tenure, Delaware’s unemployment dropped from above average to one of the lowest in the nation, 14% lower than the US average. One in five jobs that existed in the state when he left office had been created during his administration.
In 1981, Governor du Pont spearheaded Delaware’s “Financial Center Development Act” which gave birth to Delaware’s credit card and financial services industry. It brought over thirty banks to the state and created some 43,000 new finance related jobs. Wilmington and the rest of New Castle County were transformed. His actions led the state away from its dependence on a single industry toward a more robust, multi-faceted economy.
Du Pont was also a sponsor of the “Jobs for Delaware’s Graduates” Program which became the national “Jobs for America’s Graduates” Program. It is an employment, counseling and job placement program for high school seniors in the bottom quartile of their classes.
On a lighter note, he was known for throwing Halloween parties at Woodburn, the Governor’s mansion in Dover. His family would decorate the entire ground floor for the occasion, and he would dress as Dracula to greet the guests. He wore a black cape, drew a steep widow’s peak on his forehead, and welcomed trick or treaters with a deep “Good EEEvening…” Many a reporter had a field day with that image.
In 1987, Governor du Pont launched a campaign for President of the United States, competing for the Republican nomination with then Vice-President George H.W. Bush, Senator Bob Dole, Congressman Jack Kemp, and televangelist Pat Robertson. Columnist George Will said about du Pont’s 1988 campaign for president, “du Pont has the highest substance-to-blather ratio among candidates, even on subjects as sensitive as agriculture policy and Social Security.”
Du Pont described his presidential platform as five “Damn Right” issues. These controversial issues included replacing the Social Security system with private savings accounts, ending farm subsidies, making drivers licenses contingent on passing drug tests, replacing welfare with work, and giving parents the option of choosing the public schools their children attended. The intention of his platform was to stimulate real discussion in the country, which he believed was the purpose of the race and the job. Du Pont used to say that “a Congressman’s job is to wet his finger and put it up in the air to see which way the wind was blowing. The President’s job is to make the wind blow.”
After a modest showing in the New Hampshire Primary in February 1988, Governor du Pont withdrew and supported the eventual nominee, George H. W. Bush. Thereafter he withdrew from the political arena to become a partner of the Wilmington, Delaware law firm, Richards, Layton & Finger.
During his career in public service, Governor du Pont served as Chairman of the Education Commission of the States, the Hudson Institute, the National Review Institute, and the National Center for Policy Analysis. In 1978 he founded GOPAC, a political action committee, with the goal of creating a base of promising Republican state office holders who could run for Congress or higher offices later. Many credit GOPAC for being a key catalyst in expanding the American conservative movement in 1994, flipping both the House and the Senate.
In 1990, Governor du Pont was appointed by the Hudson Institute to be a member of the International Blue-Ribbon Commission established at the request of prominent Hungarian political leaders to prepare detailed economic proposals for the Hungarian government that assumed office after the parliamentary election in March 1990. The commission explored the challenges that issues such as free trade, private ownership, labor law, taxes, social welfare and inflation present to a nation attempting to move from socialism to a market economy.
Du Pont co-founded one of the first online political magazines, IntellectualCapital.com, in 1996. It was a weekly public policy journal featuring the leading ideas of renowned public policy thinkers until its sale in 2000. In October 1999, Newsstation.com named du Pont as one of the “50 best, most important, and most influential journalists on the Internet.” And Yahoo! Internet Life awarded IntellectualCapital.com the Best Political Commentary site in 1998.
Governor du Pont was a regular columnist on OpinionJournal.com, the editorial page on the website of the Wall Street Journal. His column was entitled Outside the Box and discussed current public policy and political matters from 2000 to 2014. In December of 1999, the Delaware News Journal selected him as one of the “Delawareans of the Century.”
In 2003, Governor du Pont established the Pete du Pont Individual Freedom Award, given to an individual who has championed a successful idea that has led to economic growth or innovation in the private sector. The Pete du Pont Freedom Foundation was established in 2017 to create jobs and opportunity in Delaware.
Governor du Pont was born in Wilmington, Delaware on January 22, 1935, the oldest of three children of Pierre S. du Pont III and Jane Holcomb du Pont. He was a direct descendant of E.I du Pont de Nemours, the founder of the Du Pont Company, a great nephew of Pierre S. du Pont, the founder of Longwood Gardens, and a cousin of Henry Francis du Pont, the founder of Winterthur Museum. Governor du Pont attended Tower Hill School, graduated from Philips Exeter Academy, received a B.S in Mechanical Engineering from Princeton University in 1956, and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1963 where he won the Ames Moot Court Competition during his final year.
Du Pont was an accomplished sailor. He began sailing when he was quite young, when his father bought him a classic Herreshoff Bull’s Eye and left him in the harbor by himself to learn how to sail. He went on in later years to win a series of trophies from the Royal Swedish Yacht Club Regatta in Sandhamn, Sweden, culminating in taking the King Oscar II Jubilee Cup in 1957. This was the first time the Jubilee Cup had gone to anyone outside Scandinavia. He competed in two America’s Cup trial races on the twelve-meter boats Weatherly and Nefertiti in 1958 and 1962, respectively. He served as a grinder on Weatherly and the navigator on Nefertiti. He made one transatlantic crossing and participated in five Bermuda races from Newport, Rhode Island to Bermuda.
In May of 1957, he married Elise Ravenel Wood from Wawa, Pennsylvania and they moved to Brunswick, Maine where he joined the U.S. Naval Reserve, the Seabees, from 1957 to 1960. His primary duties included snow plowing the Brunswick Naval Air Station runway. He used to describe the lonely drive from his house to work in the dead of night at the beginning of a snowstorm as “driving off the edge of the earth.”
In 1963 he moved to Wilmington, Delaware to work as an engineer for the DuPont Company and continued there until 1969.
His political career began in 1969, when he ran unopposed and was elected to the Delaware State House of Representatives representing Brandywine Hundred. In that first race, he won over 70% of the votes. He joked that he was proud to have won 73% of the vote but was frequently reminded that 27% would rather have had no one representing them.
He enjoyed the process of campaigning, even in later life when he wasn’t running for office. To walk through the grocery store with him meant meeting almost every person in that store and listening to countless stories from adults and children alike as he made his way to the cookie aisle.
He enjoyed sailing far into his old age, sailing with his children and grandchildren in Penobscot Bay and beyond. He frequently sailed and raced in the annual New York Yacht Club Cruise through the bay, bringing friends and family along, with a goal to have fun, win races and instill a love of sailing. Woe be to any who challenged him on the waters of the Fox Island Thoroughfare in Maine, where he dominated the local sailing circuit late into his life. But competition was only part of his love of the sport. He volunteered his time at the North Haven Casino to teach new sailors the art of racing. He took his family on weekly sailing cruises during the summer, including overnight trips for special occasions like birthdays. And every day he spent on the water was spent with a smile. In his own words, “I have sailed boats all my life, and found calm and fulfillment and real pleasure on the water.”
Governor du Pont is survived by his wife of over 60 years, Elise, and their four children, Elise du Pont Zoller and her husband Preston of Salt Lake City, Utah, Pierre S. du Pont, V and his wife Jenny of Ossining, New York, Benjamin Franklin du Pont and his wife Laura of Rockland, Delaware, Éleuthère I. du Pont (“Thère”) and his wife Darla of Wilmington, Delaware, and ten grandchildren. In addition, Governor du Pont is survived by his sister, Michele Goss, of San Francisco, California.
Due to Covid-19, a memorial service will be held at a later date.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Frontotemporal Disorders Unit at Mass General Hospital, Dr. Dickerson’s lab: https://Giving.MassGeneral.org/FTDUnit and the Pete du Pont Freedom Foundation, https://www.petedupontfreedomfoundation.org
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