Amherst Magazine

Tailing Senator Coons

Chris Coons

Chris Coons ’85 talks with students after
giving the 2011 DeMott Lecture. See video
of his lecture and photos of the event.

By Sarah Auerbach '96

Long before the train from Wilmington, Del., reaches Washington, D.C., a small entourage stands in Union Station, waiting. The Amtrak Northeast Regional, due at 8:20 a.m., is late. The members of the entourage stand at attention, watching the sliding doors through which U.S. Senator Chris Coons ’85 will emerge. Ian Koski, the senator’s communications director, clutches a cup of coffee in each hand. Beside him are Todd Webster, Coons’ chief of staff, and Josh Kagan, the senator’s deputy scheduler.

Two years ago, Coons didn’t have an entourage. In fact, if you lived outside of Delaware, you probably hadn’t heard Chris Coons’ name. By November 2010, you most likely knew him only as the Democrat who beat out Tea Party candidate Christine O’Donnell for Joe Biden’s Delaware Senate seat.

Coons catapulted into the headlines from relative obscurity after Ted Kaufman, the Biden staffer who took over the vice president’s Senate seat, chose not to seek reelection. Then Beau Biden, the vice president’s son and heir apparent, decided not to run either. The Bidens asked Coons, then executive of the most populous county in Delaware, to run instead. After O’Donnell upset Republican Mike Castle in the primary, Coons staged his own surprise victory in the November special election to beat O’Donnell 56 percent to 40 percent, winning a term that expires in 2014. In the national media, it was the most covered campaign of the 2010 midterm elections.

To spend a day with Chris Coons is to understand that the Amherst admission committee and the people of Delaware knew what they were doing when they chose him. Coons is funny, quick-thinking and both deeply and broadly knowledgeable. A graduate of Yale Law and Yale Divinity schools, he’s as nimble as a defense attorney and as spiritual as a minister. All of which is very good, because, as I’m about to learn, being a U.S. senator requires the footwear of an athlete and the patience of a saint.

Coons must run farther and faster than his senior colleagues because he’s still staking out his territory, working hard to define his freshman term. If you come in with a high profile, like Marco Rubio or Hillary Clinton, some of the work has already been done for you. But if you’re struggling to prove that you’re not just the lucky bald guy who beat a Sarah Palin wannabe, you have to be more deliberate in laying out the positions that will define your Senate career. “He’s aggressive, I’m aggressive, so we’re doing stuff,” says Koski, in what might be the greatest understatement ever heard in D.C.

There’s a whiteboard in Coons’ office on which Koski has drawn five buckets to illustrate the areas where the senator’s energies should go. Three are unsurprising: making the U.S. more competitive, which includes reducing the deficit; finding jobs for Delawareans and Americans; and making a mark in foreign affairs. The other two buckets are “doing what’s right” and “other pointless crap.” Into “doing what’s right,” Koski puts Coons’ staked-out commitment to repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law that defines marriage as being “between one man and one woman” and gives states the right to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages. The “other pointless crap” bucket is a reminder to Coons and his staff that if something doesn’t fall into one of the other four buckets, it’s a distraction, not a priority.

Actually, there’s a sixth, invisible bucket. It’s filled with fundraisers and meet-and-greets—activities that sometimes feel like distractions but that are essential for supporting everything else Coons does. On this overcast morning in March, Coons’ first stop of the day is a meet-and-greet breakfast with the moderate think tank Third Way and executives from the energy industry. From the think tank’s perspective, having Coons in the room is a chance to build credibility; from Coons’, it’s a chance to learn from energy leaders and demonstrate that he’s attentive to their issues.

Coons races off the train platform, grabbing his coffee from Koski and taking the helm of his entourage as the small crowd moves through Union Station, then outside and across the green in front of the Capitol. Arriving at breakfast—late—he is visibly flustered, and as he hands over his cell phone and coffee to his staffers, he demands to know whether he’ll miss a security briefing on Libya that starts in 20 minutes. (His chief of staff says no.) Then Coons takes a breath so deep even I feel cleansed, squares his shoulders and plows into the room.

Soon, Coons is chatting, smiling and shaking hands. There are 20 men and women milling around, mostly Third Way supporters. Naively, I ask Koski whether the schmoozing will leave any time for the main event. This is the main event, Koski says. Everyone’s here to meet the senator.

Still, Coons is on the hook for a speech, so after 10 minutes, everyone sits around a conference table. “I’m going to be brief because I’d rather take your questions than go on at great length,” he says. “You can tell I’m a freshman. Give me a few years.”

Coons’ path to the Senate began with a call from God—actually, two calls. A Protestant who regularly attends St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Wilmington with his family, Coons describes himself as very spiritual despite having misgivings about certain aspects of organized religion. He keeps the ink fresh on his divinity degree by preaching occasionally. Still, the first call caught him off guard. It came from the Rev. Silvester S. Beaman, pastor of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Wilmington, exhorting him to preach at his church. As Coons remembers, Beaman told him, “You belong in the pulpit.” Coons acceded, preaching on Epiphany about epiphany. Little did he know he was about to have a career epiphany of his own: Days later, he got the phone call from Beau Biden asking him to run for the Senate.

A Delaware native, Coons spent his early career at the Investor Responsibility Research Center in Washington—where he wrote a book on American divestment from South Africa—and the Coalition for the Homeless in New York City. After law and divinity school at Yale, he filed a lawsuit against George H.W. Bush on behalf of Haitian refugees who had been expelled from the United States.

Then something turned his attention back home: He met fellow Delawarean Annie Lingenfelter. After their first date, Coons remembers thinking, “If I’m ever getting married, this is who I want to be married to.” He married Lingenfelter, went to work as in-house counsel at his stepfather’s company, W.L. Gore (the Newark, Del.-based makers of Gore-Tex), and threw himself into life in Delaware. That decade was kind to Coons; he is on the roll of lawmakers whose net worth tops $1 million.

He was county council president for New Castle County from 2000 to 2004 before being elected that county’s executive. It’s rare to leap from a county position to the U.S. Senate. Mitch McConnell did it, as did Vice President Biden. It sounds like a meteoric rise, but in fact, Coons says, people underestimate the scope of his previous work. “I was essentially the mayor of a city of a half million people,” Coons says. The population of New Castle County is slightly smaller than that of Wyoming, so Coons’ job was roughly analogous to being governor of a very small state.

When Coons took office as county executive, the previous government was under a federal criminal investigation: Coons’ predecessor, among others, had been indicted on corruption charges. “I went in to clean up a mess,” Coons says. “I rolled up my sleeves, threw myself into it.” Over the next six years, Coons balanced the New Castle county budget, a goal that had eluded previous leaders. David Wilson, a political science professor at the University of Delaware, says Coons left the county in great shape fiscally (in fact, he left it with a triple-A bond rating, which only 30 out of 3,000 U.S. counties can boast). Coons also used nearly $8 million in block grants and outside funding to make 20 government buildings more energy-efficient; The New York Times called this “one of Coons’ signature achievements.” Coons would have been re-elected if he hadn’t sought the Senate seat, Wilson believes.

Coons expected to campaign for Senate against longtime Delaware Congressman Mike Castle, a Republican incumbent so popular that the national media wasted no time in picking Coons to be the loser. As the Times reported, “Democrats gave the slot to Mr. Coons, thinking it was ‘a suicide mission,’ in the words of Jim Jordan, a veteran Democratic strategist.” Still, once the race was launched, Coons had tremendous support, particularly in the northern—most populous—part of Delaware, says Wilson, who followed the race closely. Coons’ favorability rating in the state was an enviable 54 percent. Nationally, things were less clear, with plenty of important strategists sharing Jordan’s jaundiced point of view.

Then O’Donnell beat Castle in the primary, and the battle lines were redrawn. The Times reported that Republican party strategists “said … they would likely direct their money elsewhere—a sign that they believed that Ms. O’Donnell could not prevail in a general election.” O’Donnell had already faced media reports that she had lied about her personal finances and faked her educational credentials. Videos had surfaced illustrating that she opposed masturbation, had dabbled in witchcraft as a teenager and was dubious about evolution. Still, she had voter anger and the Tea Party behind her, and Coons led off the general election season harassed by the misstep of a supporter, Harry Reid, who’d called Coons “my pet.” A 30-second spot, funded by the Senate Conservatives Fund, warned voters, “Delaware doesn’t need a Washington career politician’s pet. Christine O’Donnell’s not afraid to stand up to the party bosses and power brokers.”

The debates between O’Donnell and Coons were a study in opposites: her possibly exaggerated educational credentials stacked against his multiple degrees; accusations that she used political donations to pay rent juxtaposed with the fact that he spent $250,000 of his own money on the campaign; her everywoman persona versus his policy-wonkish demeanor. Neither emerged the obvious victor: If she was sometimes nervous before the camera, he was occasionally irritable. She stumbled from time to time, as when she demanded of Coons, “Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?” He answered issues questions with ease but became riled when addressing claims that he was a “bearded Marxist,” a phrase cribbed from the title of an essay he wrote for The Amherst Student about how a trip to Africa transformed his political thinking. “‘If you take five minutes and read the article, it’s very clear that it’s a joke!’ he said in an exasperated tone,” reported the Times. “‘I am not now, and I have never been, anything but a clean-shaven capitalist!’” Both President Obama and Vice President Biden campaigned for Coons. And O’Donnell’s unfolding difficulties—and the dawning realization that Democrats were in danger of losing their majority in the Senate—spurred campaign contributions from Democrats who’d been unwilling to donate to Coons when he was expected to run against Castle.

Dean Schramm ’84 watched this play out. Before O’Donnell vanquished Castle, Schramm introduced Coons to high-powered West Coast Democratic fundraisers (Schramm’s wife, Wendy Greuel, is a politician now running for mayor of Los Angeles). Schramm, who was on the debate team with Coons at Amherst, says he knew Coons to be not only “a thoroughly good person” but an “exceptional public speaker” with a “wicked sense of humor.” He told fundraisers, “This is one of the smartest and most decent people I’ve met.” When those fundraisers met Coons, they were impressed, but they still felt he didn’t have a chance. Then, after the primary, they stepped forward and opened their wallets.

Back at the Third Way breakfast, someone asks Coons what he thinks about nuclear power. “I’m a bit of a geek,” Coons begins. “I was a chem major in college.” He says he’s interested in the promise of nuclear power but wants to understand the science behind technologies that can make it safer. An attendee invites Coons to tour one of his nuclear plants, and Coons says he’ll come as long as the tour offers him an education about future disposal and containment technologies and insight into federal funding issues. This is part of how Coons and his team have chosen to define him, as a senator who doesn’t just take positions but understands issues. As the meal ends, one of the attendees approaches me and volunteers, “He’s not like every other senator, just so you know.”

Coons and his entourage hurry on foot across the green to a Senate office building, where they exercise senators’ privileges and skirt the metal detector on their way to the security briefing on Libya. Another way Coons is defining himself is as an expert on Africa. He chairs the Senate’s Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs. It’s a good fit for a man who wrote a book on U.S. divestment from apartheid South Africa and who wrote his Amherst senior thesis on U.S. foreign aid to Africa.

Conducted by intelligence officials, the Libya briefing is classified; only senators and Foreign Relations Committee staff may attend. In the North African country, Moammar Gadhafi has responded to pro-democracy protesters with increasingly violent reprisals. The question being pondered behind closed doors is what, if anything, the U.S. should do to intervene. Afterward, Coons will observe that the briefing convinced him that “there are no good options in Libya, only less-bad ones.” Two days later, the U.N. Security Council will issue a resolution creating a no-fly zone over Libya, which Coons will publicly support.

After a half hour, Koski attempts to find Coons to take him to his next meeting, only to realize the briefing is over and the senator has left. (Another staffer, not entirely joking, suggests that a senator-tracking GPS product is in order here.) They track Coons to the Senate floor, where he’s voting on an amendment to the reauthorization of the Small Business Investment and Research bill. The SBIR program provides research and development grants to small business owners—a mechanism, Coons believes, for filling the “jobs” bucket. This amendment is concerned with ironing out minor issues. While the bill itself is crucial to Coons’ mission, this amendment is the sort that leads to accusations that too much valuable time in Washington is spent on inconsequential matters. Yet Coons’ vote matters, if only because senatorial no-shows become fodder for opponents.

After Coons casts his “yes,” he rides the public elevator down. (There’s another elevator just for senators.) In the elevator, he jokes to Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, that if someone were to lock the two of them in a room together with a legal pad and a bottle of Scotch, they could solve the nation’s budget problems. A federal government shutdown has been threatened now for several weeks. Corker stipulates that the drink in question must be Tennessee sipping whiskey. The exchange has a grain of truth to it: Coons often feels he has more in common with senators such as Corker who have worked as county, state or city executives than with Democrats who’ve been lifetime legislators.

Also no joke is Coons’ conviction that to solve the budget crisis—and, by extension, reduce the deficit—everything needs to be on the table. His own experiences as county executive, he says, taught him that. “You can’t just cut your way out of it,” he says, in what’s become a familiar refrain nationally, “and you can’t just tax your way out it.”

Part of what makes Coons receptive to the idea of a legal-pad-and-whiskey exchange is that his own political views cross party lines. During the week of my visit, he took part in both the Defense of Marriage Act repeal press conference—casting himself as a liberal on the issue—and a meeting with the American Bankers Association about delaying the implementation of the interchange fee cap—a conservative cause. This political complexity mirrors Delaware’s. Delawareans tend to vote slightly right of center on fiscal and economic issues and slightly left of center on social issues. And Delaware, because it has a large body of laws devoted to smoothing the way for corporations, has a substantial base of big business, which inclines its politicians toward business-friendly positions.

This becomes clear at Coons’ next meeting. He finishes voting and walks briskly along the maze of interconnected corridors in the Senate office buildings to a luxuriously turned-out conference room populated by about 20 chiefs of police, mayors and county executives who have gathered to hear from Coons and from Delaware’s only congressman, Democrat John Carney. “The concerns you bring to the table are more practical and less partisan than anyone else in government,” Coons tells them. Then the local leaders talk about those concerns. A typical problem: a municipality can’t afford to build enough freshwater and wastewater infrastructure to encourage corporations to settle there, bringing jobs.

Coons’ attention has gone from Libya to sewage management in less than an hour, a contrast he brings to the Delaware leaders’ attention. He tells them his “no good, only less-bad” assessment of Libya. He listens sympathetically as they express their views on Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, then he talks about a conversation he had with a USAID staffer in Afghanistan. The staffer told him that the United States is pouring more aid into Afghanistan than the country’s troubled infrastructure can absorb, a view held by other development experts. “We’re trying to be all things to all people,” Coons says. A local leader notes, kindly but pointedly, “Those days are over. You need to be all things to us.”

Coons urges the Delaware leaders to call him if they need help—for example, with convincing a corporation to develop in the state or with easing the bureaucratic holdup of an infrastructure project. “There is no call too small for me to make if it creates jobs,” he tells them. The University of Delaware’s Wilson says this “no-call-too-small” claim isn’t an act: Coons’ responsiveness during the campaign—his willingness to meet people and have conversations—was instrumental in his winning the election. In fact, when he took office, he kept his cell phone number. “Everyone in Delaware has it,” Koski says. It’s an exaggeration, but the many constituents who view Coons’ cell phone as a private hotline cause some strain in the office, since callers constantly identify themselves as “an old friend of Chris’.”

It’s not the only strain on Coons’ finite resources. Racing around to meetings scheduled mostly in half-hour increments can wear on a man. Midday, an exhausted Coons leans back on the tram that connects Congressional office buildings to the Capitol. Koski exhorts him to focus on the speech that’s just been shoved into his hands. “Is this the last serious thing I have to do?” Coons asks. “The last thing that requires me to make a decision?” He’s not complaining, merely curious, and a little resigned. (It isn’t the last thing. Not even close.)

Coons is on the way to the press conference announcing a bill to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. With powder on his pate to cut down on TV glare, he takes the podium in a Senate hearing room with Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), among others, to argue for giving same-sex couples the right to marry. Coons’ remarks emphasize the message the bill sends to young people struggling with their sexuality.

Next, the senator runs to an Afghanistan briefing, ducking out to put in a good word in a judiciary committee hearing for a law school classmate who’s up for a federal judgeship, then back to the briefing again. Finally, he returns to his office and begins a familiar modern-day ritual: trying to find outlets to recharge his electronic devices. The office in the Russell Senate Building is spacious, echoey and big on style—upholstered, wooden-armed chairs, a mammoth wooden desk, a fireplace stacked with wood, eagle lamp stands on the mantel—but its occupant still has to kneel under a side table to plug in his phone.

The final event of the day is the senator’s race for the train, though it’s really less a race than a hurry-up-and-wait event. The thing Coons likes least about being a senator is that he has no control over his schedule. The night before, his phone rang as he stood at the gate at Union Station, eager to get home to see his 11-year-old twins, Mike and Jack, perform in a play. He also has a daughter, 10-year-old Maggie. When he answered his phone, a staff member said a Senate vote was pending. Coons went back to work, took a later train and missed half the play. “I was ripped,” he says.

Tonight, he won’t make the early train either. There’s a vote possible in 10 minutes on the Senate floor. (“It’s always ‘vote possible,’” Coons says, sotto voce. “It’s never ‘vote impossible.’”)

When people tell Coons they want to run for office, he asks them, “‘Why? What’s the picture in your head of the perfect government leadership moment?’ And it’s almost always giving a speech, or ribbing-cutting at a park,” he says. So he tells them: Picture yourself at Costco on a Sunday at 4 p.m. Your three kids are fighting. You’re tired and facing another week of balancing your paying job and your town council work. And someone comes up to you and demands to know where the sewer service is that you promised him two years ago.

You have two choices, says Coons. You can say, “Look, I’m on my own time here. Come see me on Monday.”

Or—this is the Chris Coons answer—“You stop, you smile, you pull out a piece of paper and a pencil—which you always keep with you—because that’s your boss talking.”

“That’s your basic orientation,” says Coons. “‘I work for you.’ The people who get into the most trouble in government get into it because they want to feel important or they want to make money or they want other people to kiss up to them. That’s exactly backwards. If you have the heart of a servant and you believe in servant leadership, you can make a difference in these places. If you don’t, you will get yourself in trouble.”

One person who may have gotten himself into just that sort of trouble is Mike Castle. O’Donnell won the Republican primary, Coons argues, because Castle had strayed from his base. “He cast votes that seemed to waver back and forth between being who he really is, which is a centrist and a moderate, and trying to build a more conservative record,” Coons says—an interpretation confirmed by Professor Wilson.

Despite the fact that popular perception attributes Coons’ victory to Castle’s defeat, Coons believes he could have beaten Castle, for many of the same reasons that O’Donnell did, including strong anti-incumbent sentiment and Castle’s wavering stance. Wilson agrees. When the university polled voters on election day about whether they’d voted for Coons or against O’Donnell, the majority had voted for Coons. New York Times surveys showed that if Coons had run against Castle, “the race would have been nearly even.”

Even before O’Donnell’s primary victory, Coons kept in mind a historic moment that he hoped presaged his own. “[In 1972], Joe Biden, utterly unexpectedly, defeated a guy who was a household name: J. Caleb Boggs. [Boggs] was governor, he was senator, he’d been elected forever, everyone knew him, everybody loved him, but, with energy, a much younger man beat him unexpectedly when nobody else was willing to run against him.

“I’m not trying to compare myself to Joe Biden,” Coons adds hastily, and I’m not sure whether it’s modesty or political caution.

Time will tell whether it’s fair to compare Coons to Biden. Coons has only just begun laying out the issues that will define his time in Washington and determine how long his stay lasts. But of Coons’ first months in the Senate, Delaware’s senior senator, Democrat Tom Carper, says, “None of us takes the place by storm, but he has won people over left and right—very liberal folks, very conservative people.It’s hard not to like him and, frankly, to respect him.”

The people of Delaware thought so. They gave Coons a big vote of confidence at a moment when faith in politicians was at an all-time low. Perhaps they foresaw what is evident to anyone who spends a day in his company—that in a city where power, charm and polish rule and where it’s easy to forget where, and who, you’ve come from, Chris Coons still whips out that pencil and paper when he hears his boss talking.

Sarah Auerbach is a freelance journalist based near Boston.

Top photo: Brendan Smialowski/New York Times/Redux
Middle photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Bottom photo: Drew Angerer/New York Times/Redux