When Special Elections Become a Circus

What’s so special about a special election? Usually nothing—unless the balance of power could become unbalanced.


Published:


Illustration by Tim Foley

A special election has a special place in political lore. Delaware has a special election whenever there is a sudden opening in the General Assembly due to a political disruption, namely, one of the Three Ds.

School has its Three Rs of Reading, ’Riting and ’Rithmetic. Politics, not nearly so alphabetically challenged as to need apostrophes, has its Three Ds: Death, Departure and Disgrace.

School should be ashamed of itself, where spelling counts. Unlike politics, where even Dan Quayle could make it to vice president while under the impression that the potato not only could be selectively pronounced po-TAY-to, po-TAH-to, but also selectively spelled po-ta-to as po-ta-toe, as if a tuber had not just eyes but a part of a foot.

A special election is not normal. It is like the bearded lady. It is a sideshow that most people will ignore but others cannot turn away from. That’s not to mention that it is an act no circus can do without, political circus or otherwise. It is simply essential to the experience.

Delaware did not have a special election for a legislative vacancy for six years. Then it had to have one in mid-September because of Mike Barbieri, a Democratic state representative who had occupied a Newark-Christiana area seat since 2008.

Neither death nor disgrace extracted Barbieri from the state House of Representatives. A self-propelled departure did. Also possibly another grubby sidekick of the Three Ds. That would be Dollars.

Barbieri took his legislative background, mixed it with his doctorate as a social worker who ran his own agency, and got himself hired by the state Department of Health & Human Services as the division director for Substance Abuse & Mental Health. His paycheck went from $44,000 a year in the legislative branch to $144,000 in the executive. Enough said.

There often seems to be little at stake in a special election because it is for one of the 21 seats in the state Senate or the 41 seats in the state House, but politics often turns on little things, sometimes even tiny things. (Hanging chad in Florida, anyone?) The campaign to replace Barbieri counted as one of those little things that actually was not so little, certainly not inside Legislative Hall.

As special elections go, it could not have changed the balance of power in the House, where the Democrats outnumbered the Republicans 25-16 before Barbieri’s departure, but it could change the dynamics: A Republican victory meant the Democrats would lose the super-majority that let them pass tax bills without any Republican votes.

It emerged as the prime reason both parties really cared whether the winner was David Bentz, a 29-year-old Democratic legislative aide, or Eileen O’Shaughnessy-Coleman, a 51-year-old Republican special-education advocate whose five grown children included two with autism. Still, it was insider politics. Maybe once in a generation, though, there is a special election that really is momentous.

It happened 36 years ago, in September 1979, during the early years of Pete du Pont’s two-term tenure as the Republican governor from 1977 to 1985, and it had all of state politics on the collective edge of its seat.

Du Pont would go on to be one of Delaware’s greatest governors, earning respect and even admiration from the legislature—but not at first. The relationship between du Pont and the Democrats who were in charge of both chambers was so rocky, Democrats would not even allow a new coat of paint inside Woodburn, the governor’s mansion in Dover.

Then a Democratic state representative died. It left the House divided, with 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans, and it could not stand. A special election would determine the new majority.

The Republicans regarded the special election as make-or-break for du Pont. This was their political Waterloo, they were the British, and it was now or never to stop Napoleon. Never mind the special election was in a Newport-area district that was overwhelmingly Democratic with plenty of labor union households.

Both parties went all out. When the voters answered their doorbells, it was for a cornucopia of political celebrities. Du Pont did his part to drum up votes by going house to house. So did Bill Roth, the Republican U.S. senator, and Caleb Boggs, the Republican ex-governor and ex-U.S. senator who came out of retirement to campaign. The Democrats countered with Joe Biden, then in his second term as a U.S. senator.

The Republicans won, and du Pont was on his way. The only thing predictable about a special election is that it is wildly unpredictable. It is a political oddball with a life of its own, with voter turnout notoriously low and easy to skew. In a state representative district of 15,000 voters, for example, all it usually takes is a little more than 2,000 of a candidate’s closest friends to win.

That said, there are some elements of a special election that go a long way in determining if the voters stick with, or stick it to, the party of the legislator they just lost. Widows, for instance. As fickle as politics is, if one of the candidates is the grieving spouse of a dearly departed legislator, she is all but guaranteed to draw a sympathy vote that gets her elected. This is the way Nancy Cook became a Democratic state senator, Dori Connor a Republican state senator, and Hazel Plant a Democratic state representative.

It should probably go without saying that the voters tend to get ornery if they think they are being fooled with. Either departure or disgrace could be the culprit. The classic case was probably a special election in Brandywine Hundred in 2007.

Voters there were blindsided when Republican Wayne Smith, the house majority leader they had re-elected just five months earlier, quit to run a health care trade association, where his responsibilities included lobbying ex-colleagues. It only got worse when the Republican candidate tapped to replace Smith was his next-door neighbor, and it looked for all the world like a setup.

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. The voters elected a Democrat. No wonder the political class cannot resist a special election. Not only is it a circus when a special election pops up, but it is the only show in town.

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Cost: FREE

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Telephone: 302-378-4119-
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More information

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Website »

More information

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Cost: $25–$45

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View map »


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Website »

More information

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Sponsor: The Lighthouse Inc.Church
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Contact Name: Christopher Gore

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Plein Air, an exhibition of local landscape paintings by Jim Rehak, will be on view in the Mezzanine Gallery from May 3-31, 2019. The artist will host a free opening reception on Friday, May 3 from...

Cost: Free

Where:
Mezzanine Gallery
2nd Floor, Carvel Building
820 N. French St.
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Sponsor: Delaware Division of the Arts
Telephone: 302-577-8278
Contact Name: Roxanne Stanulis
Website »

More information

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Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
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Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

cusp The University of Delaware 2019 MFA Thesis Exhibition May 3 - May 30 2019 Opening Reception: Friday, May 3, 2019 | 5 - 9 PM during Art Loop In a joint venture with the...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Sponsor: The Delaware Contemporary
Telephone: 302-656-6466
Contact Name: Tatiana Michels
Website »

More information

March 23 – August 4, 2019 Edward Loper, Sr. is one of Delaware’s most celebrated artists, having lived his entire life in the state and taught generations of local artists. His son,...

Cost: Free with admission.

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »

More information

Commemorate the prolific artistic achievements of two distinguished Delaware artists at the Historic Odessa Foundation’s exhibit, The Keepers of Color: Paintings by Marilyn Bauman and Edward...

Cost: Free with admission

Where:
Historic Houses of Odessa
201 Main Street
Odessa, DE  19730
View map »


Sponsor: Historic Odessa Foundation
Telephone: 302-378-4119-
Contact Name: Jennifer Cabell Kostik
Website »

More information

From the dazzling gold of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation robe to the simple sophistication of Princess Margaret’s wedding dress, from the majesty of royal crowns and tiaras to the comfort...

Cost: $6-$20

Where:
Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
5105 Kennett Pike
5105 Kennett Pike
Winterthur, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 800-448-3883
Contact Name: Information & Tours
Website »

More information

TACIT 2019 Friends' Juried Exhibition May 21 - September 26, 2019 Opening Reception: Friday, June 7, 2019 5 - 9 PM during first Friday Art Loop Juried by Cynthia Hawkins...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Sponsor: The Delaware Contemporary
Telephone: 302-656-6466
Contact Name: Tatiana Michels
Website »

More information

NEW HEIGHTS Erica Loustau  January 11 - December 11, 2019 Opening Reception: Friday, January 11, 2019  7 - 9 PM Seeking to engage the unused space of our atrium lobby, artist...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 130-265-66466
Website »

More information

UNIVERSITY OF DELAWARE LYNN HERRICK SHARP AWARD EXHIBITION A Group Exhibition May 3 – May 26, 2019 OPENING RECEPTION: Friday, May 3, 2019, 5 - 9 PM during Art Loop In a...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Sponsor: The Delaware Contemporary
Telephone: 302-656-6466
Contact Name: Tatiana Michels
Website »

More information

Thursdays  Storytime at the Brandywine Zoo, 10:30 am. - 11:15 am Enjoy fun animal stories read by our own zoo story-telling team! Story Time may include a craft, activity, or live animal...

Cost: Adults $7, Seniors $5, Kids $5; free for under 3yrs and for Zoo members.

Where:
Brandywine Zoo
1001 North Park Drive
Wilmington, DE  19802
View map »


Telephone: 302-571-7747
Website »

More information

Schedule a private group tour followed by lunch or dinner with a historic, revolutionary war era presentation.* Ideal for conferences, corporate meetings, special interest groups. $25 per...

Cost: $25–$45

Where:
The University and Whist Club
805 N Broom St
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Sponsor: The University and Whist Club
Telephone: 302-658-5125
Contact Name: Stacey Inglis
Website »

More information

Start your Sunday on the water with our delicious brunch cruise. Enjoy a mouth-watering brunch buffet, then begin a two-hour cruise along the beautiful Christina River out to the Delaware, complete...

Cost: $45 for Adults, $22,50 for Children 15 and Under

Where:
Riverboat Queen
Riverwalk Public Dock, Behind Iron Hill
620 Justison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 302-425-4890
Website »

More information

Relax and unwind after a long day with the Museum’s popular Happy Hour series. Mingle with friends and enjoy live music on the terrace or tour the galleries indoors. Special themed nights...

Cost: Museum Admission is Free

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Website »

More information

Start your weekend early on the Queen! Enjoy all the sights of our River Cruise from the ship’s deck with a summer cocktail! Our Happy Hour Cruises take you down the Christina and provide weekly...

Cost: Adults: $24 Seniors: $20 Kids: $12

Where:
Riverboat Queen
Riverwalk Public Dock, Behind Iron Hill
620 Justison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 302-425-4890

More information

Book your party of 10+ people on The Patio & receive 10% off for everyone in your group, in addition to a reserved table! Offer available only when prearranged. The Patio at Market Kitchen...

Cost: Free admission

Where:
Market Kitchen & Bar at the Hilton Christiana
100 Continental Dr.
Newark, DE  19713
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More information

Laura Story is a GRAMMY award-winning singer/ songwriter and bestselling author who has received Billboard Music Awards, multiple GMA Dove Awards, and an RIAA Gold Certification for her massive No....

Cost: $26-$38

Where:
The Grand Opera House
818 N. Market Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Sponsor: MARKINC.org
Telephone: 302-584-6461
Contact Name: Melissa Weisenfels
Website »

More information

The Lighthouse Inc. Church presenta el servicio de la iglesia en espanol.  El servicio de la iglesia en espanol comenzia 14 de merzo de 2019.  Hables espanol?  Entonces este es el...

Cost: free

Where:
The Lighthouse Inc., Church
6 S Railroad Ave
Wyoming, DE  19934-1026
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Sponsor: The Lighthouse Inc.Church
Telephone: 302-697-1472
Contact Name: Christopher Gore

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Plein Air, an exhibition of local landscape paintings by Jim Rehak, will be on view in the Mezzanine Gallery from May 3-31, 2019. The artist will host a free opening reception on Friday, May 3 from...

Cost: Free

Where:
Mezzanine Gallery
2nd Floor, Carvel Building
820 N. French St.
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Sponsor: Delaware Division of the Arts
Telephone: 302-577-8278
Contact Name: Roxanne Stanulis
Website »

More information

Helena van Emmerik-Finn  “Anything Goes” ~ Pastels & Oil Paintings Opening Reception to Meet the Artist – Friday, May 3, 5 – 8 PM   Helena’s...

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

TACIT 2019 Friends' Juried Exhibition May 21 - September 26, 2019 Opening Reception: Friday, June 7, 2019 5 - 9 PM during first Friday Art Loop Juried by Cynthia Hawkins...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Sponsor: The Delaware Contemporary
Telephone: 302-656-6466
Contact Name: Tatiana Michels
Website »

More information

March 23 – August 4, 2019 Edward Loper, Sr. is one of Delaware’s most celebrated artists, having lived his entire life in the state and taught generations of local artists. His son,...

Cost: Free with admission.

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »

More information

Commemorate the prolific artistic achievements of two distinguished Delaware artists at the Historic Odessa Foundation’s exhibit, The Keepers of Color: Paintings by Marilyn Bauman and Edward...

Cost: Free with admission

Where:
Historic Houses of Odessa
201 Main Street
Odessa, DE  19730
View map »


Sponsor: Historic Odessa Foundation
Telephone: 302-378-4119-
Contact Name: Jennifer Cabell Kostik
Website »

More information

cusp The University of Delaware 2019 MFA Thesis Exhibition May 3 - May 30 2019 Opening Reception: Friday, May 3, 2019 | 5 - 9 PM during Art Loop In a joint venture with the...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Sponsor: The Delaware Contemporary
Telephone: 302-656-6466
Contact Name: Tatiana Michels
Website »

More information

From the dazzling gold of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation robe to the simple sophistication of Princess Margaret’s wedding dress, from the majesty of royal crowns and tiaras to the comfort...

Cost: $6-$20

Where:
Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
5105 Kennett Pike
5105 Kennett Pike
Winterthur, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 800-448-3883
Contact Name: Information & Tours
Website »

More information

NEW HEIGHTS Erica Loustau  January 11 - December 11, 2019 Opening Reception: Friday, January 11, 2019  7 - 9 PM Seeking to engage the unused space of our atrium lobby, artist...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 130-265-66466
Website »

More information

UNIVERSITY OF DELAWARE LYNN HERRICK SHARP AWARD EXHIBITION A Group Exhibition May 3 – May 26, 2019 OPENING RECEPTION: Friday, May 3, 2019, 5 - 9 PM during Art Loop In a...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Sponsor: The Delaware Contemporary
Telephone: 302-656-6466
Contact Name: Tatiana Michels
Website »

More information

Every Friday | 10:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.   Read a story fromFairy Tales to Nursery Rhymes, explore art, and create. Ages 2+. Family Friendly.  

Cost: Free to Members, $5 per child and one adult free for Non-Members.

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentemere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Website »

More information

Schedule a private group tour followed by lunch or dinner with a historic, revolutionary war era presentation.* Ideal for conferences, corporate meetings, special interest groups. $25 per...

Cost: $25–$45

Where:
The University and Whist Club
805 N Broom St
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Sponsor: The University and Whist Club
Telephone: 302-658-5125
Contact Name: Stacey Inglis
Website »

More information

The Milton Farmers’ Market is held each Friday from April 19th until October 4th  (except September 27th) from 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm at 6 Village Center Boulevard, Milton, DE  19968.

Cost: Free

Where:
Grounds of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery
6 Village Center Boulevard
Milton, DE  19968
View map »


Sponsor: Milton Farmers' Market
Contact Name: KA Jordan
Website »

More information

Join us for a 1.5 hour sightseeing tour along the historic Christiana River. View the city from this unique vantage point, and enjoy picturesque scenes crossing over the Brandywine River out to the...

Cost: Adults: $24 Seniors: $20 Kids:12

Where:
Riverboat Queen
Riverwalk Public Dock, Behind Iron Hill
620 Justison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 302-425-4890

More information

The Overfalls Foundation Benefit and Auctions will be held on Friday, May 24, 6-9PM, at the Virden Center in Lewes. There will be great food and drink and also live music by local band 33-1/3...

Cost: $50-$55

Where:
Virden Center
1155 College Drive
Lewes, DE  19958
View map »


Sponsor: The Overfalls Foundation
Telephone: 412-384-0600
Contact Name: Victoria Kosko
Website »

More information

The Lighthouse Inc. Church presenta el servicio de la iglesia en espanol.  El servicio de la iglesia en espanol comenzia 14 de merzo de 2019.  Hables espanol?  Entonces este es el...

Cost: free

Where:
The Lighthouse Inc., Church
6 S Railroad Ave
Wyoming, DE  19934-1026
View map »


Sponsor: The Lighthouse Inc.Church
Telephone: 302-697-1472
Contact Name: Christopher Gore

More information

Experience the city like never before on this special evening version of our tour! The city's lights make this a romantic evening along the water. Enjoy a full-bar and delicious snacks while you...

Cost: Adults: $24 Seniors: $20 Kids: $12

Where:
Riverboat Queen
Riverwalk Public Dock, Behind Iron Hill
620 Justison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 302-425-4890

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Helena van Emmerik-Finn  “Anything Goes” ~ Pastels & Oil Paintings Opening Reception to Meet the Artist – Friday, May 3, 5 – 8 PM   Helena’s...

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

The 12th annual Artisans Fair will feature unique handcrafted art objects. Artisans will exhibit both inside and outside, showing textiles, fine art, glass, jewelry, photography, woodworking,...

Cost: Free

Where:
Lord Baltimore Elementary School
120 Atlantic Ave.
Route 26
Ocean View, DE  19970
View map »


Sponsor: South Coastal DE AARP
Telephone: 302-732-6336
Contact Name: Ida Crist
Website »

More information

UNIVERSITY OF DELAWARE LYNN HERRICK SHARP AWARD EXHIBITION A Group Exhibition May 3 – May 26, 2019 OPENING RECEPTION: Friday, May 3, 2019, 5 - 9 PM during Art Loop In a...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Sponsor: The Delaware Contemporary
Telephone: 302-656-6466
Contact Name: Tatiana Michels
Website »

More information

TACIT 2019 Friends' Juried Exhibition May 21 - September 26, 2019 Opening Reception: Friday, June 7, 2019 5 - 9 PM during first Friday Art Loop Juried by Cynthia Hawkins...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Sponsor: The Delaware Contemporary
Telephone: 302-656-6466
Contact Name: Tatiana Michels
Website »

More information

From the dazzling gold of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation robe to the simple sophistication of Princess Margaret’s wedding dress, from the majesty of royal crowns and tiaras to the comfort...

Cost: $6-$20

Where:
Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
5105 Kennett Pike
5105 Kennett Pike
Winterthur, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 800-448-3883
Contact Name: Information & Tours
Website »

More information

cusp The University of Delaware 2019 MFA Thesis Exhibition May 3 - May 30 2019 Opening Reception: Friday, May 3, 2019 | 5 - 9 PM during Art Loop In a joint venture with the...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Sponsor: The Delaware Contemporary
Telephone: 302-656-6466
Contact Name: Tatiana Michels
Website »

More information

March 23 – August 4, 2019 Edward Loper, Sr. is one of Delaware’s most celebrated artists, having lived his entire life in the state and taught generations of local artists. His son,...

Cost: Free with admission.

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »

More information

NEW HEIGHTS Erica Loustau  January 11 - December 11, 2019 Opening Reception: Friday, January 11, 2019  7 - 9 PM Seeking to engage the unused space of our atrium lobby, artist...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 130-265-66466
Website »

More information

Commemorate the prolific artistic achievements of two distinguished Delaware artists at the Historic Odessa Foundation’s exhibit, The Keepers of Color: Paintings by Marilyn Bauman and Edward...

Cost: Free with admission

Where:
Historic Houses of Odessa
201 Main Street
Odessa, DE  19730
View map »


Sponsor: Historic Odessa Foundation
Telephone: 302-378-4119-
Contact Name: Jennifer Cabell Kostik
Website »

More information

Schedule a private group tour followed by lunch or dinner with a historic, revolutionary war era presentation.* Ideal for conferences, corporate meetings, special interest groups. $25 per...

Cost: $25–$45

Where:
The University and Whist Club
805 N Broom St
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Sponsor: The University and Whist Club
Telephone: 302-658-5125
Contact Name: Stacey Inglis
Website »

More information

Every Sat. & Sun.: Creature Features, Noon- 12:30pm, www.brandywinezoo.org (302) 571-7747 Stop by our Creature Feature for a close encounter with one of our zoo education animals. Meet a scaled,...

Cost: Adults $ 5, Seniors $4, Kids $3; free for under 3yrs and for members.

Where:
Brandywine Zoo
1001 North Park Drive
Wilmington, DE  19802
View map »


Website »

More information

Join us for a 1.5 hour sightseeing tour along the historic Christiana River. View the city from this unique vantage point, and enjoy picturesque scenes crossing over the Brandywine River out to the...

Cost: Adults: $24 Seniors: $20 Kids:12

Where:
Riverboat Queen
Riverwalk Public Dock, Behind Iron Hill
620 Justison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 302-425-4890

More information

The Lighthouse Inc. Church presenta el servicio de la iglesia en espanol.  El servicio de la iglesia en espanol comenzia 14 de merzo de 2019.  Hables espanol?  Entonces este es el...

Cost: free

Where:
The Lighthouse Inc., Church
6 S Railroad Ave
Wyoming, DE  19934-1026
View map »


Sponsor: The Lighthouse Inc.Church
Telephone: 302-697-1472
Contact Name: Christopher Gore

More information

Experience the city like never before on this special evening version of our tour! The city's lights make this a romantic evening along the water. Enjoy a full-bar and delicious snacks while you...

Cost: Adults: $24 Seniors: $20 Kids: $12

Where:
Riverboat Queen
Riverwalk Public Dock, Behind Iron Hill
620 Justison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 302-425-4890

More information

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