Dave Sokola has served more than 30 years in the Delaware Senate and just over one year as president pro tempore. A Democrat and former teacher who sits on the Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council—a panel of state officials and economists who study the state’s fiscal outlook—Sokola’s passions include education, the environment and, recently, beekeeping. NCSL caught up with him to talk about the challenges facing his state.
What are the main opportunities and challenges ahead for Delaware?
Delaware is a coastal state, so climate change is getting quite a bit more focus, recognizing that what we do right now might not benefit us a whole lot unless other people around the world take similar actions.
For not quite as long term, I think fiscal. I serve on Delaware’s Financial Advisory Council, and we do the revenue estimates for the state. My challenge is to try to see if we can get more fiscal stability moving forward. We have 25 line items of revenue. Some of them are big and some of them are very volatile. So, we’re trying to do things to mitigate volatility. One is that we recently established a reserve fund. I think the reserve fund gives us a lot more flexibility.
How do you aspire to strengthen Delaware during your tenure as leader? And what’s your advice for new legislators?
I had the privilege of serving on an NCSL study group that presented the report “No Time to Lose: How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State” in 2015, and I’m pressing for greater enactment of the recommendations here in Delaware. I still have copies, and every time a new person gets elected, I give them one. They look at it and they’re like, “Why haven’t we already done this?” But we’re going to get it done.
A very high percentage of people, when they run for office, run with education as at least one of their top three issues. And I’ve found that so many of them are appreciative when I share that document with them. I think especially with language learners, people from poverty, people with other special education needs, we can do better in Delaware, and we are taking steps. Some would argue they’re baby steps. But I’m at least cautiously optimistic that we’re going to get where we need to be.
How does your teaching background influence the way you lead the Senate today?
There are kind of two models that are sometimes referred to, one where teaching is kind of siloed off and the other where teaching is thought more of as a team sport. Fortunately, we’re moving away from that siloed element, and I think the main lesson is, we need to do things as a team, and we need to do them with stakeholder engagement and involvement.
Do you approach decision-making from a team perspective?
Yes. The majority leader and the majority whip work very closely with me, and we stay in constant touch with the minority leader and whip. But I also feel I have an obligation to recognize the unique skill set of each member of our caucus and of the entire chamber and try to figure out ways, not just through committee assignments, to get the most out of everybody. The skill sets, by the way, are not always intuitively obvious, so it’s good to communicate in ways that will help you draw out some of those things.
And it’s not just legislators; it’s staff members. We had a guy who in college took a course that involved (data mapping), and when we were getting ready to do redistricting, I asked who wanted to go to the NCSL conference on redistricting and this staff member said, “I did this in my past, and I’d like to take part.” He had a nice skill set that we were able to take advantage of. He and others with decades of experience worked as a team.
What traits do you think make a good legislative leader?
You want to be able to work with others, and a good leader lets others lead where they can lead. You play the hand you’re dealt. Good leaders use the information they have to make decisions. But you also have to be willing to listen. When you recognize that others might have something to offer, you give them that opportunity.
What book is on your nightstand?
I’m a new beekeeper. I’m reading a book called “The History of Bees.” We can learn a lot from the bees. They work real hard together, and the benefits of their work ultimately accrue to others. My longer term passion has been astronomy. I read a book recently by Brian Green, “The Elegant Universe.” I really liked it, so got another one, “The Hidden Reality.” I have a telescope, and I really like it when I get somewhere there’s a dark sky and not a lot of light pollution, so you can get a better look at where we are in the universe.
Stacy Householder directs NCSL’s Leaders and International programs. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.