A former judge is poised to potentially become the first openly gay person elected to statewide office in Delaware.
Mitch Crane of Lewes will square off against incumbent Insurance Commissioner Karen Weldin Stewart, Paul Gallagher and Dennis Spivack in the Democratic primary on Sept. 11. The winner will face Republican Benjamin Mobley and Libertarian Eisenhower David in the general election.
Then-Insurance Commissioner Matt Denn hired Crane, who was a district judge in Chester County, Pa., from 1982-1987, as a regulatory specialist for the Delaware Department of Insurance in 2007. Stewart succeeded Denn, who is now the lieutenant governor, in 2008. Crane stepped down in Jan. 2011 after he said he realized that his now opponent would not continue what he described as the “pro-consumer programs” that he said her predecessor put into place.
“A few months later some progressive members of the party asked me to run,” he noted. “I was hesitant about running against an incumbent Democrat — also a woman, but I was convinced it was important that the insurance commissioner be a consumer advocate. And if I didn’t run, someone less qualified or less able to do the job properly would run and either beat her or lose and we would be in the mess that we’re in now.”
A commitment to civil rights
Crane’s maternal grandparents became active in the civil rights movement in the 1930s — he was 16 when he and his grandmother were arrested in 1963 during a protest outside a Brooklyn, N.Y., hospital that was under construction. Crane later coordinated three buses that brought the West Chester, Pa., contingent to the 1963 March on Washington that Bayard Rustin, the openly gay adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who grew up in the southeastern Pennsylvania city, organized. The University of Denver expelled him shortly before he was to have graduated in 1968 because he led a student rights movement.
“I come from a family of activists — my parents and my grandparents — in almost every aspect of the human rights movement,” said Crane. “I wasn’t brought up to become a rebel in the 60s. I actually was just following my family tradition of fighting for other people.”
Crane invited Rustin to speak at a local high school and West Chester University while he was on the West Chester Borough Council in 1981. He also spearheaded the effort to name a park next to his home in honor of the civil rights activist after his death in 1987. Crane became a permanent Delaware resident in 2002, but he remained involved in the effort to name a new West Chester high school in honor of Rustin.
Crane later played a role in the effort to add sexual orientation to the state’s non-discrimination laws. He was president of the Barbara Gittings Delaware Stonewall Democrats in May 2011 when state lawmakers passed a civil unions bill that Gov. Jack Markell signed into law. The statute took effect earlier this year, but the governor told the Huffington Post last month that he expects state lawmakers could debate a same-sex marriage bill as early as next year.
Crane’s opponents did not immediately respond to the Blade’s inquiries about whether they support either Delaware’s civil unions law or nuptials for gays and lesbians. Crane, who entered into a civil union with his partner of 14 years in February, told the Blade that he feels marriage is a federal issue that Congress and the courts should ultimately decide. He described the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act as the most important issue.
“To upset the applecart by herding legislators who are brave by voting for it is not worth a word,” he said, referring to what he said is a lack of support among Dover lawmakers for a same-sex marriage bill. Crane stressed that adding gender identity and expression to the state’s non-discrimination laws should remain a top legislative priority going into 2013. “I’m saying this and people aren’t going to like what I’m saying, but quite frankly you’ve got to pick your fights and you’ve got to do what’s helping people. And that’s always been my attitude. Fighting a battle you know you can’t win is only good if you can’t win something less than that.”
In spite of his skepticism over the timeline of a potential same-sex marriage bill, Crane stressed he would support it.
“If it comes up and I’m the insurance commissioner, I will testify in favor of it,” he said. “I’m fine with it; it’s just not the battle I choose to have at this point.”
Crane, 65, would join Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown as the country’s only other openly gay statewide elected official if voters elect him in November. The state’s Democratic Party, the Delaware State Education Association, the Victory Fund and House Majority Leader Pete Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth Beach) are among the groups and local officials who have endorsed him.
“It’s important that people see that it’s possible to be out, to be gay and to run and succeed in high elected office. That’s the significance of it.” said Crane when asked about the possibility of becoming Delaware’s first openly gay statewide official. “There are people in the legislature who are not out who maybe would come out if they saw it’s not going to hurt them.”