A look back at Markell’s eight years as Delaware governor

DOVER — Jack Markell decided to run for governor in June 2007, when the economy was booming. The United States had an unemployment rate of 4.6, and Delaware was even better, with just 3.4 percent of its population out of work.

By the time he won election in November of the following year, “everything was falling apart.”

That assessment, coming from the outgoing two-term governor, in many ways characterizes his eight years in office, with the state still feeling reverberations from the recession. Even some leading Republicans say the Democrat did about as well as he could have given the fiscal and economic challenges Delaware has confronted since 2008.

During his tenure, Delaware legalized first civil unions and then gay marriage, created a medical marijuana program, decriminalized cannabis, embraced Common Core educational standards, formally apologized for slavery, imposed additional gun restrictions and raised taxes on personal income and cigarettes.

Of course, not everybody sees those acts as positives — even among Democrats.

Gov. Markell entered office in the Obama wave, with Delaware Democrats winning control of the state House for the first time in 24 years. The governor will leave with a Democratic successor and with Democrats still in charge of the House but in danger of losing the Senate after 44 consecutive years of control.

In a largely blue state, Gov. Markell won the general elections with ease in 2008 and 2012, topping two-thirds in both years, and remains popular. A University of Delaware survey conducted in September found 62 percent of Delawareans see Gov. Markell favorably, versus 25 who do not. That jibes with a May poll from Morning Consult, which found he is the fourth most popular governor in the country.

The fifth consecutive two-term governor of the state, he will be succeeded by Democrat John Carney, the former congressman and lieutenant governor, who takes over Jan. 17.

Noting Gov. Markell’s high popularity ratings, Delaware State University history professor Sam Hoff credited him for remaining well-liked. The good reputation the Markell administration holds with many Delawareans played a role in Gov.-elect Carney winning, Dr. Hoff said.

The governor leaves office intent on finding another job, and although he declined to run for the open seat in the U.S. House this year, he said recently he won’t completely rule out a future congressional campaign.

Perhaps ironically, he departs with the state facing a budget shortfall of hundreds of millions, just like it did eight years ago.

The early years

It’s easy to forget now that Gov. Markell was not supposed to be governor. John Carney, who served as lieutenant governor from 2001 to 2009, had the backing of most of the party establishment going into the 2008 election.

In fact, the dean of Delaware politics, U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, even tried to convince then Treasurer Markell not to pursue the office, letting then Lt. Gov. Carney run.

Of course, things often don’t go how they are supposed to.

“In the end, I think everything worked out for everybody,” Gov. Markell said.

He made the remark last month at his office in the Tatnall Building, which already had been stripped of many decorations and personal possessions in preparation for Jan. 17, his final day as governor.

A native Delawarean, Gov. Markell, 56, graduated from Newark High School before leaving the state at age 17 to attend Brown University. He spent the next 19 years living in Rhode Island, Illinois, New Jersey, Washington D.C., Chile and England before settling back in Delaware with his wife, Carla.

Before running for treasurer in 1998, he worked in the private sector, including a stint as one of the first employees of Nextel Communications — a name he came up with. At Nextel, he was senior vice president of corporate development.

In his first foray for public office, he unseated incumbent Treasurer Janet Rzewnicki and then won re-election handily in 2002 and 2006.

In 2007, he decided to run for governor, and the rest is history.

His interest in politics dates to a brief trip to India nearly 40 years ago.

“Getting off the bus in New Delhi, I found myself immediately surrounded by impoverished children. That visit — and my shock at what I saw — started me on a lifelong journey,” he wrote in a 2015 Atlantic article.

“I was especially struck by the dichotomy in wealth that I saw in India. It was unlike anything that I had ever experienced in the U.S. The streets seemed to be full of either successful businesspeople scurrying to work or beggars.

“I didn’t see much in between. Overwhelmed by what I saw, I asked family friends in New Delhi to explain what I was seeing.

“Their answer included some discussion of the caste system and the barriers it created for so many Indians. But they also boiled poverty down to one main cause: a profound lack of decent jobs.”

Campaigning and governing

The 2008 gubernatorial race between the treasurer and lieutenant governor was bitter, with occasional insults, but in the end, buoyed by the fact he outspent Lt. Gov. Carney by more than $3 million, Mr. Markell won, garnering 51.2 percent of the vote.

Despite the jubilation that came with being elected governor, there was plenty of bad news two months later. When he took office in January 2009, Delaware’s unemployment was 7.2 percent. It would continue to climb for another year.

In 2008, the Newark Assembly shut down, and then the Wilmington Assembly and Delaware City Refinery closed in 2009.

“I think the first term, the first couple years especially, was about getting things stabilized,” Gov. Markell said. “I mean, the first six months now are somewhat of a blur because we faced that massive budget shortfall and we have tens of thousands of people losing their jobs, and so the first thing was to get everything stabilized.”

The state faced a budget shortfall in excess of $800 million in 2009.

Part of Gov. Markell’s proposal to erase that gap included an 8 percent pay cut for state employees, a push that angered many. In the end, all workers saw their salary slashed by 2.5 percent in his first year.

Lawmakers also raised cigarette taxes by 45 cents for each pack of 20 cigarettes and created a new income tax bracket, taxing all earnings above $60,000 at 6.95 percent. The new rate was supposed to expire after four years, but in 2013, legislators eliminated the sunset provisions.

Currently, earnings above $60,000 are taxed at 6.6 percent.

State workers had their original salaries restored the following year, fiscal 2011, and received a 2 percent pay increase after that. In fiscal year 2013, they were given a 1 percent hike, and in fiscal year 2015 employees received a flat $500 increase.

This past General Assembly gave workers a raise of the greater of 1.5 percent or $750.

The proposal was intended as carrot to counterbalance the stick of health-care reform, which would have locked all new workers into a Health Savings Account rather than choosing from several different plans.

Health-care costs are a rapidly rising expense, and Gov. Markell has identified state employee care as an issue state officials will have to deal with soon.

In the eyes of state GOP Chairman Charlie Copeland, the governor failed to tackle employee benefits with the needed enthusiasm — and, more importantly, muscle.

“Jack Markell didn’t want to burn any political capital on health care,” Mr. Copeland said.

As for the governor himself, he is disappointed those issues remain unsolved.

“I think (Gov.-elect Carney is) not going to have any choice and I think the General Assembly won’t have any choice to tackle some of these issues,” he said. “How they choose to do it will be up to them. My aim in the last budget I present is going to be to produce somewhat of a road map that they can follow in terms of specifics.”

Gov. Markell will draft a budget to be released later this month, but Gov.-elect Carney will have the opportunity to modify it once he is in office.

Jobs

The governor frequently touts employment statistics, noting the state regained all jobs lost during the Great Recession two years ago and now has a better-than-average unemployment rate.

Gov. Jack Markell takes questions during a town hall in 2013. (Delaware State News file photo)

That trip to India at age 17, as recounted by the governor in The Atlantic, explains much of his philosophy: Growing the economy and creating jobs can solve so many of the world’s problems.

But Republicans believe growth over the past eight years has been in low-wage jobs and note the state has seen DuPont, a Delaware icon and long a reliable supplier of middle- and upper-class jobs, shrink during Gov. Markell’s tenure.

“If our economy was banging on all cylinders and he had run the government well and he had kept costs in line with economic growth, we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in, and most states across the country are better than us,” Mr. Copeland said, noting the expected budget deficit of around $300 million.

The budget, $3.35 billion in Gov. Ruth Ann Minner’s final year, has grown to $4.08 billion this fiscal year.

However, even Gov. Markell’s political opponents point out he was facing circumstances beyond his control.

“I think his aspirations were hindered tremendously by the economic condition of the state,” House Minority Leader Danny Short, R-Seaford, said.

Senate Minority Leader Gary Simpson, R-Milford, said, “I think they will remember him as fair, I think they will remember him as having a good heart, I think they will remember that from the beginning of his term to the end there was no money in the budget for extra-special things that he would have liked to have done.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Delaware’s unemployment rate has been below the U.S. average every month of Gov. Markell’s tenure. By the end of 2014, the state had regained all the jobs lost during the recession, the governor noted.

Much of what Gov. Markell has done over the past eight years has centered on preparing Delawareans for the workforce.

He is fond of saying that workers today are competing in a global economy, meaning they are not just going up against other Delawareans or people from Maryland or Pennsylvania but also residents of California, Texas and even other countries.

“There’s never been a better time to be somebody with the right skills, and there’s probably never been a worse time to be somebody without the right skills,” he said.

The state has developed programs, such as Pathways to Prosperity, to give students some career education in public high school, allowing them to learn skills in fields like computer science, engineering and hospitality management.

About 6,000 students are participating in Pathways to Prosperity for the current school year.

While Gov. Markell is a Democrat, he’s not in the mold of Sen. Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts, a fiery champion of many liberal causes. Instead, he is, in the words of University of Delaware communication professor Paul Brewer, a “corporate-friendly, establishment but socially liberal Democrat.”

Gov. Markell did not take a public stance on a bill that would raise the state’s minimum wage from $8.25 to $10.25 last year. Gov.-elect Carney, in contrast, supported legislation in Congress to increase the national wage floor to $10.10.

Gov. Markell did sign a bill increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.25 in 2014.

He was very cooperative with the business community, Delaware Chamber of Commerce President Rich Heffron said.

“He’s focused on training high schools for the future, for jobs for the future, and why is that successful? Because he went to the business community and asked,” Mr. Heffron said.

Just as one can note Gov. Markell came into difficult circumstances that were beyond his control, one can also question how much of the state’s recovery can be traced directly to him.

DSU’s Dr. Hoff, for instance, believes more credit should go to President Obama than to Gov. Markell for the state’s economic improvement.

Although he does give Gov. Markell credit for helping with the recovery, he noted the state’s budget picture has been “up and down” over the past eight years.

While part of that can be traced to the economic climate the governor inherited, the state has also seen a continued decrease in revenue from slots and challenges to its abandoned property program. Unclaimed property annually brings in hundreds of millions owing to the state’s status as a national incorporation leader, but other states have argued Delaware is overstepping its bounds.

It is under this cloud that Gov. Markell hands the reins to John Carney.

Dark clouds

For all the things he points to as successes, Gov. Markell admits some efforts fell short.

“I wanted to increase starting teacher salaries, but we didn’t get that done, and then we made some proposals on the budget this past session around health care for state employees. Although we made progress five years ago on that, we need to make additional progress and I’m disappointed that didn’t get done,” he said.

Others go much further in their criticism.

Comparing the state to a car, Republican state senator and 2016 gubernatorial nominee Colin Bonini said last year “Delaware is broken down on the side of the road.”

The state has faced budget challenges nearly every year of Gov. Markell’s tenure, and while the economy is much stronger than it was eight years ago, it has not reached the pre-Recession peak. However, both Democrats and Republicans caution some of the things the governor has struggled with are beyond his control, such as the closure of two auto plants and the loss of DuPont.

Gov. Markell has used the state’s Strategic Fund aggressively at times, offering incentives to entice companies to settle in or expand to Delaware with the promise of creating jobs. That hasn’t always gone over well with lawmakers and people outside Legislative Hall, who argue the state should not pick winners and losers in the private sector.

As of Aug. 31, there were 109 active Strategic Fund grants totaling nearly $147 million. According to the Delaware Economic Development Office, those grants — also known as incentives in this case — created 32,819 full-time jobs, more than anticipated.

“He’s certainly tried hard in terms of economic development,” former Gov. and U.S. Rep. Mike Castle, a Republican, said. “That’s always a big hit or miss situation. You win some, you don’t win others.”

In 2010, the state gave $20 million to Fisker Automotive, which planned to work out of the old GM plant in Wilmington. Although Delaware officials expected jobs to come out of the investment, the decision was a failure, as Fisker filed for bankruptcy just a few years later.

Meanwhile, an effort to bring Bloom Energy to Delaware with the promise of creating 900 jobs has cost taxpayers around $132 million in energy surcharges — and resulted in just 277 jobs as of September.

The deal, which took effect nearly five years ago, has been heavily criticized since, as some of the expected benefits have failed to materialize.

Rep. John Kowalko, a Newark Democrat who has been a frequent thorn in the governor’s side despite their shared party affiliation, has referred to policies giving money, tax breaks or other benefits to big companies as “a corporate extortion racket.”

In a recent letter to the editor, he wrote: “It is well past time to re-evaluate our corporate policies of giveaways and cuts. There has invariably been little to no return on investment, and the outflow of money must be staunched. If this particular circumstance were the exception, perhaps we could look at it in a different light, but this unfortunate outcome has become the rule.”

In 2014, Gov. Markell proposed adding a 10-cent increase to the state’s gasoline tax, as well as creating a new property tax to fund water improvements.

Neither idea gained any traction, and lawmakers later said the governor unveiled the plans without giving them prior notice.

The governor even managed to poke fun at himself and the plans’ failures at the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce’s 2015 Legislative Luncheon.

“If anything could have been less popular to the gas tax, this thing was even less popular than the gas tax,” Gov. Markell said of the water fee. “I set a pretty high bar in terms of unpopular proposals, and this one like exceeded that.”

He said last month he did not know why the water proposal failed.

However, time has at least somewhat vindicated him.

Lawmakers agreed to raise some Division of Motor Vehicles costs in 2015 to bring in more money for road and bridges projects, and a committee formed through legislation met several times in 2015 and 2016 to discuss a water fee.

Gov. Markell has also faced challenges in the health-care realm. State employee health-care costs, currently at around $800 million, are predicted to climb to $1.2 billion in five years, putting serious pressure on the budget.

Gov. Markell proposed raising premiums, copays and deductibles in 2015, but the idea led to an outcry from state workers and lawmakers. Ultimately, modest changes were made.

Last year, the governor’s Health Savings Account proposal faced stiff opposition and failed to pass.

Gov. Markell has noted since the issue will have to be dealt with soon by decision-makers.

Some state workers believe he has not looked out for them enough, pointing to the temporary 2.5 percent pay cut and the attempts to change health care.

A 2013 report from Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Veasey, commissioned by the state after New Castle County businessman Christopher Tigani was sentenced to jail time for violating federal law in regard to campaign contributions, found Gov. Markell’s campaign received some illegal donations.

The governor maintained he knew nothing of the contributions, and his campaign said it later gave the questionable donations to charities.

Education

Gov. Markell had bold goals for educational reform, and while he may have achieved some of them, it appears he overstepped his bounds on others.

“The first four years were more productive and positive than the second four years,” Frederika Jenner, president of the Delaware State Education Association, said of Gov. Markell’s two terms.

While his first term was mostly positive, his second has been full of “potential lost opportunity,” Ms. Jenner said.

In January, some lawmakers — led in the effort by Rep. Kowalko — attempted to override Gov. Markell’s veto of a bill guaranteeing parents the right to opt their children out of standardized testing. It was the first veto override try since 1977.

Although the attempt failed, it is a symbol of the issues the governor has faced in his education policy in his second term.

Legislators from both parties have criticized the Department of Education, saying it has become too big. Under Gov. Markell and former Secretary of Education Mark Murphy, some lawmakers, parents and teachers charged, the agency was becoming bloated and overcentralized.

Mr. Murphy received a vote of no confidence from the DSEA in 2015 and later resigned, although the governor’s office insisted, as Gov. Markell said in a statement at the time, “We have made tremendous strides in the past few years, while laying the groundwork for more progress in our never-ending mission to ensure every Delaware child receives the best possible education.”

The criticism has centered around the Department of Education and the state’s Smarter Balanced Assessment.

“I may be wrong, but I think this country got to the pinnacle of its existence through parents, local school board and teacher control,” Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Marydel, said in a budget hearing last year. “I believe it started downhill and continued to go downhill when government got involved.”

Delaware was an early adopter of Race to the Top, a federal drive designed to improve states’ education systems. However, some Delawareans grew tired of Race to the Top by the time the funding ran out in 2015.

“The Race to the Top courtship — and that includes engaging all the community — seemed very collaborative and like the partnership was on a level playing field. However, once the award was made, in our mind the power shifted,” Ms. Jenner said.

Although much of the directives come directly from the department, not Gov. Markell, he has ultimate control over the agency and its boss. Many educators feel the Department of Education changed from a support unit to one that dictated policy.

The Smarter Balanced test does not give teachers a chance to review it to see if their curricula matches what is on the test. In other words, they do not know if they are teaching concepts that do not appear on the test, or vice versa.

Smarter Balanced is the third different statewide test used during Gov. Markell’s tenure to measure students’ knowledge.

“No matter what this third test would be that’s sort of a problem,” Ms. Jenner said.

There have been positives. Gov. Markell has maintained a passion for education and helping children, both Ms. Jenner and Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, D-Wilmington Manor, said.

The state has increased its graduation rate by several percentage points over the past eight years — per the U.S. Department of Education, Delaware saw the largest increase from 2013 to 2014. More students are taking Advanced Placement tests, and participation in early childhood education has also seen a large jump, as Gov. Markell has made preparing young children for school — and eventually, careers — a priority.

However, many students still struggle.

According to the state Department of Education, 42 percent of Delaware high school graduates attending an in-state school will begin college “several steps behind their peers.”

This year’s Smarter Balanced results said 55 percent of students in grades three through eight were “proficient” in the subject of English and language arts. Forty-four percent were proficient in math.

“The expectation, certainly, is that it gets better and better,” Mr. Murphy said in 2015 after the first round of scores were revealed. “If you look at the fact that kids in third grade generally did the best, you’ve got to remember … this new assessment, it’s not just a new way of testing, it’s testing different standards.”

Gov. Jack A. Markell, center, met with families of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2013. (Delaware State News file photo)

Social issues

Though so much of his tenure has been defined by the economy, Gov. Markell has also led or been a supporter of several important pushes in other fields. Most notably, he has been a strong backer of LGBT rights, signing into law legislation to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, create civil unions and legalize gay marriage.

On gay marriage, the First State was ahead of the curve, becoming the 11th state to allow same-sex couples to marry when Gov. Markell signed the landmark bill in 2013.

“Delaware should be, is and will be a welcoming place to live, to love and raise a family for all who call our great state home,” he said at the bill-signing.

The proposals became law despite opposition from many members of the right, as well as some Democrats.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, Gov. Markell, along with then-Attorney General Beau Biden, pushed legislation that mandated criminal background checks for anyone purchasing a gun. The bill was successful.

In 2011, lawmakers approved medical marijuana, although Gov. Markell halted the program in 2012 due to the threat of federal intervention. The state opened its first dispensary in 2015.

That same year, Gov. Markell watched as the General Assembly voted along party lines to decriminalize marijuana. Although the governor remained reticent on the topic at first, he did announce his support for it.

One year later, he signed a measure formally apologizing for slavery, despite criticism from some Delawareans, who saw it as unnecessary.

The governor officially backed abolishing the death penalty in 2015, although efforts to repeal it through legislation fell short.

He’s played a part in successful criminal justice reforms, supporting efforts to reduce mandatory minimum sentences and allow ex-felons to vote.

“The social stuff could very well be his legacy,” Rep. Short said.

However, Mr. Copeland, the GOP chairman, does not see gay marriage and similar changes as particularly important parts of the governor’s legacy, saying he was “sort of along for the ride” as public opinion shifted in favor.

Rep. Short did say he thought debates over gay marriage, marijuana and the death penalty were “distractions” that took focus away from strengthening the economy and creating jobs. Mr. Heffron, with the Chamber of Commerce, took a similar stance, saying some business owners believe too much focus was placed on social, rather than economic, subjects.

Wilmington has seen an increase in crime under Gov. Markell’s tenure, although one can debate whether blame for that should fall on the governor’s shoulders. Mayor Dennis Williams, who served from 2013 to 2017, declined to cooperate with the state at times and was unpopular with many Delawareans.

Some of that crime has also trickled down to Dover, leading to more gun violence in the capital city.

Heroin has also spread, and so the state has with renewed focus begun tackling substance addiction, seeking to treat it as a disease rather than a crime

Private life

Although he represents one of the nation’s smallest states, Gov. Markell has gained some national prominence.

He led the National Governors Association from 2012 to 2013 and the Democratic Governors Association in 2010, and was mentioned as a possible candidate for Hillary Clinton’s cabinet, perhaps leading the Department of Education, although any chance of that collapsed when Mrs. Clinton lost the presidential election in November.

As a two-term governor popular in his own state, he seemed to some like a potential presidential candidate. The governor, however, said he was not interested and did not want to put his family through the rigors of a national campaign. He threw his support behind Mrs. Clinton after Vice President Joe Biden, a friend, announced he would not seek the presidency.

While most people know Gov. Markell as the chief executive of the state of Delaware, he insists life in that role has been surprisingly similar to life before he was elected.

The Markells remained in their Wilmington-area home (interestingly, both their state senator and representative are Republicans), although the governor stays overnight at Woodburn, the Governor’s Mansion, in Dover about 20 times a year.

Friends and neighbors still “know us as Jack and Carla from Newark,” First Lady Carla Markell said.

Mrs. Markell was initially hesitant when her husband expressed interest in seeking the state’s top job. Gov. Markell said she knew he would “always regret” turning down the opportunity so she threw her support behind him.

At the time, the couple’s children, Molly and Michael, were in high school and middle school, respectively, and they continued to live their lives even once their father was elected governor.

They’ve also had their fill of politics — Gov. Markell does not expect either of them to go into the field.

Although he’s been in public office consecutively for 18 years, it has not detracted from his life or relationship with his family.

“There are governors across the country who don’t drive their cars for eight years. I drive all the time,” he said.

“My wife, Carla, and I go out on walks by ourselves. We go to the grocery store, we go to restaurants. I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to have this fantastic responsibility as governor while also living a normal life.”

Although he describes the governorship as a dream job, he did offer that he will not miss “waking up at 4 in the morning when it’s snowing outside to figure out, ‘Do we need to call a state of emergency, do we need to open up late?’”

An avid cyclist, he may embark on a cross-country bike ride this year — perhaps a first among U.S. governors.

He’s excited for Gov.-elect Carney to become Gov. Carney. Once rivals, the two have become friends and allies, although Gov. Markell plans to give his successor a wide berth, much as previous Gov. Ruth Ann Minner did for him.

While he has not started looking for a new job, he expects to do so soon.

Like Sen. Carper, he will be a “recovering governor,” although it will at least for now be in a non-elected office.

“Once you’ve been governor… I mean, this is such a great job,” Gov. Markell said. “The legislature doesn’t always agree with you but you can be certain that if you think something is important and you want to put it on the agenda, it’s going to be focused on.”

So, how will Jack Alan Markell be remembered?

It depends who you talk to, but if you ask the outgoing governor himself, he’ll point to one thing: preparing Delawareans for a changing world.

“So I think we’ve really — and this is what I set out to do — really positioned the people of the state for more prosperity in the future, and what’s why I ran for office and looking back, I think that’s what we’ve accomplished.”


Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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