State’s Secretary of Labor still not confirmed by Senate

Patrice Gilliam-Johnson

DOVER — Seven months after Gov. John Carney took office the state’s secretary of labor remains unconfirmed by the Senate without a clear timetable for when a formal confirmation might happen.

Thirteen members of the governor’s cabinet were approved by senators in January, leaving the heads of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, the Department of Labor and the Delaware Economic Development Office unconfirmed at the time.

The DNREC secretary was blocked by Republican opposition but was confirmed in March after Democrats won a February special election, giving them the majority in the Senate.

As for DEDO, lawmakers and other government officials were operating under an assumption the body might be eliminated or re-organized as part of the governor’s economic development efforts, which happened in June.

That leaves just the Department of Labor’s chief. The fact that Dr. Patrice Gilliam-Johnson’s name — or anyone else’s — has not come before the Senate has some legislators asking why.

Jonathan Starkey, a spokesman for Gov. Carney, said in January Dr. Gilliam-Johnson, who was confirmed by the Senate in January 2016 under then Gov. Jack Markell and is one of five holdovers from his administration, would continue serving as secretary of labor while a review of discrimination within in the agency is conducted.

Once that examination is finished, Mr. Starkey said, the governor would select a permanent secretary, which could be Dr. Gilliam-Johnson. That person would then be confirmed by the Senate. Mr. Starkey said at the time he did not know when that would be.

Contacted recently, he reiterated those statements.

John Carney

Senate Minority Whip Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, said this month the governor’s chief of staff told him Gov. Carney will choose a nominee in January. The governor’s office could not be immediately reached for comment.

Although the governor’s office said officials view Dr. Gilliam-Johnson as secretary of labor rather than acting or interim secretary, she still has not been formally nominated.

That fact has Senate Minority Leader Gary Simpson, R-Milford, questioning why.

“I’ve been perplexed because I don’t ever remember in my 19 years a confirmation that’s gone on almost a year now, or will be by the time we return, and maybe longer,” he said.

The Senate, on break since the beginning of July, is not scheduled to return until January. Unless senators are forced to call a special session for one day to fill judicial vacancies, a confirmation could not take place until 2018 even if Gov. Carney were to nominate someone for labor secretary today.

The governor last month selected Sandy Johnson to serve as acting secretary of the newly created Department of Human Resources, with the intention of sending her name before the Senate as soon as possible.

But Dr. Gilliam-Johnson’s status remains in limbo.

According to the governor’s office, there is no requirement to renominate cabinet secretaries who are not changing their position from one administration to another, but senators say they are unaware of a secretary never being renominated before.

“It’s certainly a statistical anomaly,” Sen. Lavelle said.

Dr. Gilliam-Johnson took the post following the abrupt departure of John McMahon in January 2016. Allegations of racism in state government popped up in the summer of 2015, and much of the public criticism centered on the Labor Department. After Mr. John McMahon retired “to spend more time with his family,” Gov. Markell selected Dr. Gilliam-Johnson.

Meanwhile, the state hired Ivy Planning Group to review discrimination throughout Delaware government, and when the firm finished its statewide analysis in December, Dr. Gilliam-Johnson retained it to examine the Department of Labor’s culture.

“The Department of Labor is working directly with the Ivy Group to further its efforts to reinforce a workplace culture conducive to the success of our team,” Dr. Gilliam-Johnson, who the department did not make available for comment directly, said in a statement. “Bringing in the group also helps us refine our path forward by aligning our cultural transformation with the state-wide recommendations made by Ivy to foster work environments across the state free of discrimination, and focused on diversity and inclusion.”

Sen. Simpson speculated a “conflict” among Democratic senators has prevented her from being formally nominated.

“If (Senate Democrats) were supportive of her and the governor was supportive of her we would have been voting six months ago on her confirmation,” he said.

Whether that is due to influence from the executive branch, forces outside government or in-fighting among Senate Democrats, he does not know, although he said both the governor and members of the majority caucus have failed to offer complete answers as to why Dr. Gilliam-Johnson’s name has not been sent to the Senate.
President Pro Tempore David McBride, D-Wilmington Manor, said he has not asked the governor why he has not nominated a labor secretary.

Sen. Simpson said he would likely vote for Dr. Gilliam-Johnson, although he expects some members of his caucus might oppose her selection. That opposition would be largely due to issues Republicans have with prevailing wage, which governs how much laborers on state-funded contracts are paid and is overseen by the agency.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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