Meet Delaware’s first lady: Tracey Carney born into politics, public service

Tracy Carney, wife of Delaware Governor John Carney at the Woodburn mansion in Dover. Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

DOVER — In 1984, former Delaware Supreme Court Justice William Quillen lost the race for governor to Mike Castle, a Republican then serving as lieutenant governor who would go on to hold the state’s highest office for the constitutional maximum of eight years.

Mr. Quillen’s youngest daughter, Tracey, was 22 at the time.

Thirty-two years later, Tracey Quillen’s husband was elected governor of Delaware.

Mr. Quillen wasn’t around to see it, however: He died at age 81 less than three months before the November election.

“He would have loved it,” Tracey Quillen Carney said of her father seeing his son-in-law being governor.

The wife of Gov. John Carney is certainly no stranger to politics and government service.

In addition to her father’s tenure as a Supreme Court justice and his bid for office, he served on the Superior and Chancery courts and held the office of secretary of state. Mrs. Carney herself worked for then Sen. Joe Biden for 15 years, writing speeches and press releases. (She estimated Sen. Biden gave a speech as written just three times in all her years working for him.)

It’s while working for Sen. Biden she met fellow staffer John Carney.

Both are native Delawareans: Mrs. Carney was born at Dover Air Force Base and raised in New Castle, while Gov. Carney hails from Claymont. He graduated from Dartmouth and Mrs. Carney earned a degree in English from the University of Pennsylvania, going to night school while working for Sen. Biden.

John Carney makes remarks at a statewide Democratic Party election gathering at the Wilmington Doubletree Hotel on North King Street on Tuesday, November 8, 2016. Special to The Delaware State News / Doug Curran

The two married in 1993, and at the end of the millennium, Mr. Carney, then the Delaware secretary of finance, decided to launch a bid for office.

Although the couple had two young children at the time, Mrs. Carney said she didn’t need much convincing to get behind her husband’s bid.

He served eight years as lieutenant governor and six years as Delaware’s lone congressman — with an unsuccessful run for governor and a two-year stint in the private sector in between — before getting elected governor last year. Mrs. Carney, meanwhile, left Sen. Biden’s office in 2002 and spent the next 14-plus years as an administrator at Wilmington Friends School until she retired in February.

“I didn’t want to miss the opportunity,” she said of her husband serving as governor. “It’s such a unique opportunity and I wanted to take full advantage of it.”

It was the right time to leave for other reasons too, she said, noting the two Carney children are both past high school.

After spending nearly all her adult life working, retirement has been a bigger change than being first lady.

Mrs. Carney doesn’t plan to sit idle. Although the governor’s spouse holds no constitutional duties, the first lady has a chance to make a difference in other ways. Mrs. Carney’s predecessor, Carla Markell, concentrated on helping at-risk children and promoting volunteerism. She also led efforts to renovate Woodburn, the state-owned governor’s mansion.

Mrs. Carney has three main areas of focus, all centered around children: promoting efforts to wipe out childhood hunger, boosting literacy rates and providing support for kids impacted by trauma.

While she has no special training in these fields, Mrs. Carney believes Delaware has “an obligation to give kids a chance.”

She’s also partly motivated by her own experiences. Mrs. Carney said she would have benefited from additional assistance when she was learning to read. She was also “affected deeply” by her father injuring his fingers in an incident with a lawnmower — “and that isn’t even one of the big problems” among the trauma some children experience, she admitted.

Married to politics

While her husband has been an elected official for 15 years, Mrs. Carney noted there’s a difference between being married to a congressman or lieutenant governor and being married to a governor. The spouse of a lieutenant governor and a member of Congress isn’t a public figure. The spouse of a governor, however, does receive attention (and a security detail for official state business).

Despite that, Mrs. Carney said she has not felt pressure in assuming the role of first lady of the First State.

“Just be myself and see how I can contribute, so I didn’t have any expectations about the specifics,” she said.

Although her husband spends more time in Delaware as governor than he did as congressman, his calendar still “has no rhythm,” subject to change at the drop of a hat, Mrs. Carney said.

Few things better illustrate the unpredictable life of a governor than an incident that occurred just two weeks after the gubernatorial inauguration.

In February, inmates at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center rebelled, taking several correctional officers hostage. The standoff ended 19 hours later when authorities breached the building the inmates had taken control of, and Lt. Steven Floyd was found dead.

While that’s been the biggest issue, it has not been the only one. The governor’s first 10 months have been greatly impacted in part by events out of his control, such as the Vaughn uprising and the April shooting of Delaware State Police Cpl. Stephen Ballard. Cpl. Ballard is the first Delaware state trooper to be killed by gunfire since 1972.

In the legislative arena, lawmakers failed to reach an agreement to balance the budget by June 30, the last regularly scheduled day of the 2017 legislative session.

They were finally able to compromise, and the budget was signed into law on July 3, but it was the first time since 1977 the state didn’t have a budget passed by July 1.

“It was a very stressful start to his term,” Mrs. Carney said, noting Gov. Carney bore most of the weight. “That first six months was adventurous. Tragic, in some incidences.”

As the state’s chief executive, Gov. Carney is constantly in the spotlight, meaning he sometimes faces intense flak, certainly more so than he did as lieutenant governor and U.S. representative.

“You can’t miss it and you understand that you’re probably not doing your job if you don’t get some criticism, so take it in context is what I try to do,” Mrs. Carney said. “I’m not always successful. Sometimes I get mad. John doesn’t get mad, but I get mad.”

When the couples’ two children were younger, Mrs. Carney said, she would try to shield them from the criticism to a degree, turning off the TV when negative campaign ads ran.

Their children are older now — Sam Carney graduated from Clemson this spring, and Jimmy Carney is a junior at Tufts University — with eyes toward their own lives and activities, and that enables them to enjoy Gov. Carney’s career more than when they were kids, Mrs. Carney said.

Throughout their marriage, Mrs. Carney and her husband have lived in the same Wilmington home, very close to the Brandywine Zoo and less than two miles from Wilmington Friends School.

An admirer of Quaker education, Mrs. Carney has deep ties to Wilmington Friends School. Not only did she graduate from and work there, but her children, her parents and her sister, Carol, who is now the president of Davidson College in North Carolina, call the school their alma mater.

The Carneys now have access to the governor’s mansion but continue to reside in Wilmington, although Mrs. Carney said she stays at Woodburn “sometimes.” The couples’ four pets — one dog and three cats — probably wouldn’t enjoy Woodburn too much, she said with a laugh.

She doesn’t plan to do much redecorating to the historic home, as the Markells did a lot of renovating and updating the home, though the Carneys have added a small personal touch in the form of family photos and several sculptures from acclaimed Delaware artist Charles Parks.

On Halloween, the governor and first lady handed out candy to trick-or-treaters at Woodburn, Gov. Carney dressed as a chef and Mrs. Carney as Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz.

While she’s been around politics for virtually her entire adult life (and some as a child), Mrs. Carney never seriously considered running for office: “I think I have some lovely characteristics, but I don’t think I have that magical combination of qualities, patience being one of them.”

That doesn’t mean a young Tracey Quillen never had any political ambitions, however. Asked what she might think if told as a child she would one day be married to the governor of her home state, she replied, laughing: “I think I would have said, ‘Well, that’s good.’ I probably would have said, when I was growing up, ‘Why can’t I be (governor)?’”

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