Pete du Pont, the scion of one of America’s richest families and a two-time Republican governor of Delaware who led an economic recovery in his indebted state and ran for presidency in 1988, died Saturday at his Wilmington home. Del. He was 86 years old.
His death was confirmed by his former chief of staff, Robert Perkins. No reason was given.
Pierre Samuel du Pont IV, known as Pete, was the great-great-great-grandson of Éleuthère Irénée du Pont, who arrived on January 1 with his father, Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, a Huguenot royalist refugee from revolutionary France Land went two years later, Éleuthère founded a gunpowder mill in Wilmington that became one of the largest chemical empires in the world.
Like most of his male ancestors, Pete du Pont was trained as an engineer. But after graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy and Princeton and serving in the Navy, he turned off course and attended Harvard Law School.
After studying law, Mr. du Pont dutifully joined the family company E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, first in marketing, then as quality control officer overseeing the production of a new magnetic tape and then testing an aerosol can that sprays a mixture of peanut butter and jelly. (The company decided against it.)
“I was a little bored,” he told The Boston Globe years later. “At 34, I was on the right track to become Senior Vice President at 63. And somehow, I thought, there must be more in life than 30 years of carefully climbing the ladder.”
He entered politics in 1968 and ran unhindered for a new seat in the Delaware House of Representatives. He was a famous multimillionaire in a legislature made up of teachers, housewives, farmers, retirees, small business owners and some du Pont employees – but not a single lawyer. Many of the lawmakers relied on their $ 9,000 salaries to make ends meet.
It was a part-time position and there was no need for Mr du Pont to leave the family business immediately. But in 1970 he quit his job and rose to political prominence to propose a Democratic labor leader for Delaware’s only seat in Congress. He was easily re-elected for two more terms.
When he ran for governor in 1976, he was a seasoned politician with a lithe but powerful speaking style and quick, polished humor on the stump. He had voted for the 1973 War Powers Act, restricting the president’s authority to engage the United States in armed conflict without the approval of Congress. And he had been one of the last Republicans loyal to Richard Nixon when the president resigned in 1974 and was charged with impeachment over the Watergate scandal.
Mr du Pont’s decision to seek governorship was more problematic. The state was heavily indebted, its tax base shrank, and its unemployment and tax rates were among the highest in the country. No governor in 20 years had survived more than one term, and Mr du Pont’s opponent, the Democratic incumbent, Governor Sherman W. Tribbitt, was no exception.
Mr du Pont won governorship by a margin of 57 to 42 percent and got off to a bad start. He called for spending cuts, called the average voter “Joe Six-Pack” – a gaffe that earned him the sobriquets “Champagne Pete” and “Pierre S. Six-Pacque IV” – and advocated the democratically controlled legislature that was repealed became his veto to pass a budget. Faced with a stalemate that had often crippled the state before, Mr du Pont and lawmakers struck a deal: a long-term partnership that brought real change.
He signed two income tax cuts, the first in modern Delaware history, and a constitutional amendment that limited government spending and future tax increases. Mr. du Pont also recruited talented professionals for top positions in the state and aggressively pursued new business for the state with generous tax incentives and deregulation to create the conditions for prosperity.
Mr. du Pont was re-elected in 1980 with 71 percent of the vote and helped establish Delaware as a haven for the credit card industry. In 1981 a law was passed that removed restrictions on usury on state banks and allowed high interest rates to be valued for credit customers regardless of where they live. A bill designed to bring two banks and 1,000 jobs to Delaware eventually drew 30 banks into the state and created 43,000 financial services jobs.
The governor’s approval ratings were approaching 90 percent. When he stepped down in 1985, the state’s economy was humming. Unemployment fell from 13 percent to 7 percent. The highest tax rate was cut in half and the state budgets were balanced each year during his tenure. Even the Democrats praised his performance.
Barred by law from a third term as governor, Mr. du Pont was widely expected to challenge incumbent Democratic Senator from Delaware, Joseph R. Biden Jr. Instead, he started preparing for a presidential race. In 1986, almost a year and a half before the main season, he announced his candidacy as the first candidate for one of the two parties.
His agenda was a mix of conservative and libertarian ideas. The focus was on an alternative pension system that offers social security recipients private savings in exchange for cuts in state benefits. He also called for agricultural subsidies to be phased out; require welfare recipients to work; Providing parenting vouchers to send their children to schools of their choice; and random drug tests for high school students that result in offenders losing their driver’s license.
The proposals made headlines, but his 1988 campaign never caught on. He finished the Iowa Caucuses and New Hampshire Primary near the bottom and was eliminated from the race. He made no excuses, but remembered saying from the start that his campaign was “not for the faint of heart”.
Mr du Pont was born in Wilmington on January 22, 1935, the youngest of three children of Pierre S. du Pont III and the former Jane Holcomb. His father was executive vice president (and later chairman) of du Pont, and his mother was involved in amateur theaters. Pete was a shy boy. He and his sisters Jane, known as Dedo and Michele, grew up in a mansion in Rockland, Del.
The family raised cocker spaniels and summered on Fishers Island off the southeastern coast of Connecticut. Like his father, Pete became an avid sailor, especially deep-sea sailing. In the 1956 Olympic Trials he was a risky helmsman on a 5.5-meter keelboat, and in the summer of 1962 he was navigator on the 12-meter yacht Nefertiti in the America’s Cup trials off Newport, R.I.
He was a mediocre student at Phillips Exeter, where he graduated in 1952, and at Princeton, where he graduated in 1956 as a mechanical engineer.
His classmates said he drove a Chevrolet and once went to New York on a blind date with Jane Fonda, then a Vassar student. He didn’t know who she was until her father Henry rang the doorbell. “I was speechless,” he told The Associated Press.
At a dance in Princeton, Mr. du Pont met Elise Ravenel Wood, a student at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. They were married in 1957. The couple had a daughter, Elise, and three sons, Pierre 5th, Benjamin and Éleuthère. They survive with 10 grandchildren and a sister, Michele Goss. Another sister, Dedo Kidd, died in 2020.
From 1957 to 1960 he was a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve. At a naval aviation station in Brunswick, Maine, he became interested in law. “It was my turn, along with the other officials, to prosecute and defend minor cases through military justice,” he told the Washington Post. “And I kind of liked it.”
He was academically outstanding for the first time when he got into Harvard Law School, winning the Ames Moot Court competition in his senior year. He received his law degree in 1963.
After his political career, Mr. du Pont was the chairman of the National Review Institute, a think tank, and director of the law firm Richards, Layton & Finger in Wilmington from 1994 to 1997. He retired in 2007 but wrote “Outside the Box” for many years until 2014, a monthly column for the Wall Street Journal covering topics such as global warming, health care, the economy and presidential politics.