In Praise of Peterson
No one becomes a legend because he took the easy road. Former DuPont company man, former governor, former Republican, Russell W. Peterson has always been one thing—an underdog. But when it comes to protecting the planet, he put our little state on the map.
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Weeks after last year’s race for governor, victor Jack Markell took a well deserved vacation with his family on the island of St. John. Considering he would soon be sworn in to a job that was guaranteed to crimp his family time, the trip was the best way to escape the politics of previous months and recharge for the pressures of office.
But the getaway wasn’t all about sun, sand and surf. Markell also made time to dine with another Delaware governor who happens to vacation on St. John—Russell W. Peterson.
Markell was 9 when Peterson, now 92, was elected four decades ago, yet their meeting made perfect sense. Markell is betting clean energy will help spur jobs and investment in Delaware. Peterson, as governor, rejected the promise of massive economic development by oil companies that wanted to transform our coast into the East Coast hub of dirty energy.
Peterson’s work in passing the Coastal Zone Act in 1971 protected the coastline from the construction of several refineries, but it also made him unpopular. At the time, business leaders and construction unions accused Peterson, a former DuPont executive, of betraying his old employer and, in the wake of a recession, depriving state residents of jobs.
“His willingness to stand up to powerful interests and do what he thought was right is inspirational,” Markell says. Peterson’s advice to Markell during their discussions: Do the right thing—regardless of the politics. “I was encouraging him how to carry out the job as governor,” Peterson says.
Markell may not have wanted all of Peterson’s advice—Peterson did, after all, miss reelection in 1972—but he provides a powerful example.
Without Peterson’s leadership in passing the Coastal Zone Act, much of the northern Delaware coast would be spiked with oil refinery towers and shrouded in smog. Think Delaware City. Just offshore, two islands built of dredged bay-bottom muck would hold hulking mounds of coal and iron ore. Neither came to pass, despite ardent support.
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