A native of Hockessin, Delaware, Coons graduated from Amherst College and received graduate degrees from Yale Divinity School and Yale Law School. He went to work as a volunteer relief worker in Kenya, where he had taken classes in the University of Nairobi, later returning to the U.S. to work for the Coalition for the Homeless in New York. He spent some time as a legal clerk in New York before returning to Delaware in 1996, where he spent eight years as in-house counsel for a materials manufacturing company. In the interim he worked for several nonprofit organizations.
He worked on several political campaigns in his early career, including Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign. In college he switched from being a Republican to a Democrat, and in 1996 he became a delegate from Wilmington to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. His political career began in earnest on the New Castle County Council in 2000, where he served as council president. He was elected county executive in 2004 and served for six years. There he balanced the county budget with a surplus in fiscal year 2010 by cutting spending and raising taxes, and the county maintained a AAA bond rating.
Coons won the 2010 special election against the Republican candidate Christine O'Donnell for the U.S. Senate seat then held by Ted Kaufman, who was appointed after Joe Biden resigned in order to become Vice President. Coons was elected to a full term in 2014 and serves on the Appropriations, Budget, Foreign Relations and Judiciary committees, chairing the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs and the Judiciary Subcommittee on Bankruptcy and the Courts.
Coons was born in Greenwich, Connecticut, the son of Sarah Louise "Sally" (née Ives) and Kenelm Winslow "Ken" Coons. His ancestry includes English and Irish. Coons grew up in Hockessin, Delaware. He graduated from the Tower Hill School and then Amherst College in 1985 with a Bachelor of Arts in chemistry and political science. While in college, he was a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon Fraternity (Sigma Chapter). In 1983, Chris Coons was awarded the Truman Scholarship. During his junior year of college, Coons studied abroad at the University of Nairobi in Kenya. He earned a Master of Arts in Religion from Yale Divinity School and a J.D. from Yale Law School.
After college, Coons worked in Washington, D.C., for the Investor Responsibility Research Center, where he wrote a book on South Africa and the U.S. divestment movement. He then worked as a volunteer for the South African Council of Churches and as a relief worker in Kenya, before returning to the U.S. to work for the Coalition for the Homeless in New York. In 1992, he earned a J.D. degree from Yale Law School, and a master's degree in ethics from Yale Divinity School.
Coons clerked for Judge Jane Richards Roth on the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and then worked for the National "I Have a Dream" Foundation in New York. After returning to Delaware in 1996, Coons began his eight-year career as in-house counsel for W.L. Gore & Associates, Inc., Newark, Delaware-based makers of Gore-Tex fabrics and other high-tech materials. There he was responsible for the ethics training program, federal government relations, e-commerce legal work, and for general commercial contracting.
He has also worked with several nonprofits, including the Council for the Homeless, the education-oriented “I Have a Dream” Foundation of Delaware, and the South African Council of Churches, and serves on several boards including First State Innovation, the Bear/Glasgow Boys & Girls Club, and the Delaware College of Art & Design.
Coons is on the Board of Selectors of Jefferson Awards for Public Service.
Coons first became involved in politics working on behalf of Republican politicians, first for Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign in 1980 and then for Bill Roth's Senate campaign in 1982. During college, he switched from being a Republican to a Democrat and in 1988, Coons worked as a volunteer for the Senate campaign of Democratic Delaware Lt. Gov. Shien Biau Woo. He was a delegate from Wilmington to the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
His first elected office was president of the New Castle County Council, elected in 2000 and serving four years before being elected county executive in 2004. He was the endorsed candidate of the New Castle County Democratic Party in 2008, and was re-nominated by the party on September 9, 2008. Coons was re-elected on November 4, 2008, unopposed in the general election. In his six years in office as county executive, Coons balanced the budget with a surplus in fiscal year 2010 by cutting spending and raising taxes. As New Castle county executive, Coons raised taxes despite having campaigned on a promise not to increase them. New Castle County maintained a AAA bond rating throughout his tenure.
Coons ran in the 2010 special election for the U.S. Senate seat then held by Ted Kaufman, who was appointed after Joe Biden resigned. He was initially set to face Republican Congressman and former Governor Mike Castle in the general election. Coons was initially a decided underdog in part due to Castle's moderate profile and longstanding popularity in the state. However, the dynamics of the race were significantly altered when Christine O'Donnell, a considerably more conservative Republican who had been Biden's opponent in 2008, upset Castle in the Republican primary.
In the first post-primary polls, Rasmussen Reports showed Coons with a double-digit lead over O'Donnell, describing this as a "remarkable turnaround" given that the race had leaned Republican before O'Donnell's primary victory. In the first week of October, Fairleigh Dickinson University's PublicMind Poll released the results of its research, showing Coons with a 17-point lead, 53%-36%, over O'Donnell, and pointing out that 85% of self-identified Democratic voters had united behind Coons, while only 68% of Republican voters endorsed O'Donnell. Days before the election, a second Fairleigh Dickinson poll showed Coons leading 57% to 36% among likely voters, and leading 72% to 20% among voters who described themselves as moderates. As polls closed at 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, multiple news sources announced that Coons had defeated O'Donnell based on exit poll data. Final results gave Coons close to a 17-point margin over O'Donnell, capturing 56.6% of the vote to her 40%.
During the campaign, a controversy arose surrounding an article Coons wrote in 1985 for his college newspaper, entitled "Chris Coons: The Making of a Bearded Marxist". In it, he describes his transformation from a Republican to what Fox News described as a "Democrat suspicious of America's power and ideals." Dave Hoffman, a Coons campaign spokesman, said the title of the article was designed as a humorous take-off on a joke Coons' college friends had made about how his time outside the country had affected his outlook. "After witnessing crushing poverty and the consequences of the Reagan Administration's 'constructive engagement' with the South African apartheid regime, he rethought his political views, returned to the America he loved and proudly registered as a Democrat," Hoffman said in a statement to Politico.
According to Fox News, Coons was "targeted by Republicans" over the 25-year-old piece. Coons himself downplayed the article, as well as controversial past statements by O'Donnell, saying that voters were interested in current issues such as job creation and the national debt and were not "particularly interested in statements that either of us made 20 or 30 years ago." David Weigel, writing in Slate, opined: "If the Tea Party Express slings the 'bearded Marxist' nonsense, I doubt it will work."
Coons won re-election to a first full term in 2014.
Coons was sworn in-as on November 15, 2010, by Vice President Joe Biden, the former occupant of Coons' seat in the Senate. Joe Manchin of West Virginia was sworn in on the same day, though he took an advantage in seniority over Coons, as the former Governor of West Virginia.
The Affordable Care Act (commonly called Obamacare) had already been passed when Coons took office, but he has voted against repealing it, emphasizing that seniors in Delaware would have to pay higher prescription drug prices if it was repealed. In a May 8, 2017 appearance on Morning Joe, Coons predicted the final product of the Republican health care bill would not be produced until after the 2018 midterm elections. During an interview in September 2017, Coons said the Graham-Cassidy bill, meant to replace the Affordable Care Act, would be playing "Russian roulette with the American health care system."
On the issue of abortion, Coons has received a 100% rating from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and 0% rating from the National Right to Life Committee.
In June 2013, after the death of Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Coons was appointed to his seat on the influential Committee on Appropriations, becoming the first Senator from Delaware to serve on the Committee in 40 years. As a result, Coons gave up his seat on the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
In October 2013, Coons announced the formation of the inaugural Senate Chicken Caucus in the United States Senate. He stated, "I hope that the Senate Chicken Caucus will give America’s chicken producers a platform to better inform legislators about the industry’s vital contributions to our economy, and promote policy solutions that help their businesses grow and thrive."
On December 11, 2013, Coons introduced the Victims of Child Abuse Act Reauthorization Act of 2013 (S. 1799; 113th Congress), a bill that would reauthorize the Victims of Child Abuse Act of 1990 and would authorize funding through 2018 to help child abuse victims. Coons said that "we have a responsibility to protect our children from violence and abuse."
In March 2014, Coons voted against President Obama's nomination of civil rights lawyer Debo Adegbile to be Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, even though he believed that Adegbile would have been "an asset to the Justice Department." He stated that voting for a nominee "who would face such visceral opposition from law enforcement on his first day on the job" was troubling and the vote was "one of the most difficult I have taken since joining the Senate". President Obama described the Senate's vote against Adegbile as "a travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks against a good and qualified public servant." An open letter to Coons from students, faculty and alumni of the Yale Law and Divinity Schools, of which Coons is an alumnus, criticized his vote as "alarm[ing]" and "signal[ing] a lack of respect for the fundamental American legal principle that all parties have a right to zealous representation."
Coons was mentioned as a possible replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016.Committee on Appropriations
Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies
Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government
Subcommittee on Homeland Security
Subcommittee on Legislative Branch
Subcommittee on the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs
Committee on Foreign Relations
Subcommittee on African Affairs (Ranking Member)
Subcommittee on International Development and Foreign Assistance, Economic Affairs and International Environmental Protection, and Peace Corps
Subcommittee on International Operations and Organizations, Human Rights, Democracy and Global Women's Issues
Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs
Committee on the Judiciary
Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights
Subcommittee on Bankruptcy and the Courts (Ranking Member)
Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights
Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law
Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
Subcommittee on Energy
Subcommittee on National Parks
Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests
Source: United States Senate
Senate Oceans Caucus
Coons is married to the former Annie Lingenfelter. They have three children: Mike, Maggie and Jack. They live in Wilmington, Delaware. Although Coons is Presbyterian, his wife is Catholic, and they attend St. Ann's Catholic Church in Wilmington. Coons describes himself as "someone who is, privately, fairly religious," though he has never thought "that needs to be a big part of [campaigning]."
In 1999, he was awarded the Governor's Outstanding Volunteer Award for his work with the "I Have a Dream" Foundation, the Governor's Mentoring Council, and the United Way of Delaware.