Markell mixes business with pleasure at Delaware State Fair

HARRINGTON — For Gov. Jack Markell, the annual visit to the Delaware State Fair is one of his favorite days of the year.

In fact, he joked Thursday, it’s topped only by July 1, when the General Assembly finishes meeting for the year.

Gov. Markell met with agriculture supporters, engaged in watermelon-eating and egg-toss contests, marveled at handmade crafts and signed a bill as he stopped by the state fair for Governor’s Day.

The visit — his seventh and next-to-last as the state’s chief executive — was clearly enjoyable for the governor, who spent the entire day in Harrington meeting hordes of people.

He came prepared and dressed informally, wearing a hat, a red polo shirt, khaki shorts and sneakers.

Gov. Markell began by stopping by the Centre Ice Rink at 9 a.m. For the past week, the rink has not contained ice but has instead been filled with projects completed by Delaware Future Farmers of America (FFA) and 4-H members. The two groups focus on teaching children and teens about agriculture.

Accompanied by a small entourage, including Mikaila Ryan, the Miss Delaware first runner-up, the governor traversed the rows of tables topped by wood carvings, posters, wreaths, mini circuit boards and other works completed by 4-H members.

Stopping by one poster that provided facts on ladybugs, Gov. Markell quizzed the five students — high schoolers and recent graduates — on the insect.

“How many eggs do you think a ladybug lays per year?” he asked.

“Two thousand,” one girl replied.

“Did you just read that?” the governor said with a smile, pointing to the poster.

He seemed particularly interested in some large fruits and vegetables, including a 42-pound watermelon that he challenged one student to hold.

After meeting two FFA participants and looking at furniture crafted by members of the FFA, he headed outside to take part in one of his favorites events: the watermelon-eating and egg-throwing competitions.

In the first event, the governor was upstaged by an 8-year-old. Although Gov. Markell chomped into a watermelon with aplomb, he finished just behind young Jason Timpson of Townsend.

Gov. Markell also did well in the egg toss, an event he has won twice before. The competition features two people lobbing an egg back and forth, with the partners regularly stepping back to increase the difficulty.

Pairing up with Ms. Ryan, he made it through about five throws before the egg broke. The pair was one of the last groups to falter.

Noting he is very competitive, Gov. Markell said afterward he always enjoys taking part in the events, particularly when challenging children.

Traveling to various tents and buildings on the fairgrounds, the governor and his small group of aides, fair personnel, reporters and Miss Delaware representatives made numerous stops. Gov. Markell was quick to engage in conversation with individuals he encountered during the day, particularly students, and he took photos with people while his staff snapped shots of various displays and scenes.

The governor, who occasionally visited the fair as a child and has come by every year since he was campaigning for state treasurer in 1998, said he enjoys meeting the students presenting their projects.

“I get to see people who I may not have seen for a whole year,” Gov. Markell said. “I mean, it’s the place where people of Delaware come together. It’s a celebration of Delaware agriculture, which is so important to our state, but it really goes well beyond that, too.”

In the Dover Building, he was visibly impressed upon meeting a 13-year-old girl displaying her sewing, woodwork and painted gourds.

“She’s unbelievable,” he exclaimed.

The girl, Jenna Anger, of Bridgeville, said she was excited to meet the governor and enjoyed showing her work.

From there, the group progressed to a much more formal setting: a bill signing.

The governor put pen to paper to sign Senate Bill 69, which requires children under 18 wear helmets when operating an All-Terrain Vehicle and bars operators younger than 18 from having passengers.

Several state lawmakers and cabinet secretaries were on hand for the ceremony, and Gov. Markell took advantage of the opportunity to poke fun at agriculture Secretary Ed Kee. After the two donned football jerseys from their high schools — Newark for the governor and William Penn for Mr. Kee — in honor of Delaware FFA, the governor ribbed Mr. Kee, joking about calling him old.

He also unveiled proclamations to Canada and Chile, two important business partners of the state. Gov. Markell, who spent six months living in Santiago, Chile, in his 20s, showed off his Spanish fluency as he honored several Chileans in attendance.

After lunch, the governor took part in a Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control awards ceremony and toured the poultry barn.

Gov. Markell picked up a chick and tested out a rumor he’d heard: a chick that is put on its back and has its sides petted will fall asleep. But despite the best efforts of the state’s top executive, the chick refused to doze off.

After walking past chickens, pigeons, rabbits and turkeys in the barn, the governor was stopped by a young man who asked his thoughts on gun control. Noting he supported the Second Amendment but believed guns needed to be kept out of the hands of potentially dangerous people, the Democrat detailed his views to the young man.

The man, who was wearing a Confederate flag belt buckle, appeared to disagree but thanked the governor for his explanation.

“When you’re in an elected office in Delaware, people feel very comfortable coming up and asking your opinion,” the governor said afterward, noting that’s “how it should be.”

He made two quick stops in the camping area, greeting a staffer and U.S. Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services in the Department of Agriculture, Michael Scuse. Mr. Scuse, the former Delaware Secretary of Agriculture, praised the fair for its focus on farm issues. “This one’s really, really good,” he said.

After touring the midway and visiting more displays, the governor headed to the grandstand to watch harness racing.

Taking part in photo opportunities, viewing educational displays, even schmoozing with some lawmakers — it was a long but clearly enjoyable day for the governor, who will make his final appearance as the state’s chief executive at Governor’s Day next year.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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