Jack Markell's Politics, Personality, and His Future In (or Out of) Office
Heavy hitter: Jack Markell racked up early victories as governor, but he’s taken some tough shots of late. Could the likable leader have his sights set on an even bigger prize?
All other photos courtesy of Markell Administration
It was one of those photo-op events that dot Jack Markell’s schedule. Wearing sneakers, shorts and a T-shirt, the governor was playing his favorite sport, table tennis, for charity in the lobby of the Barclaycard US building on Wilmington’s Riverfront.
Markell mastered table tennis in the basement of his childhood home in Newark, besting first his father, Dr. William Markell, who taught accounting at UD, and then the family champ, his mother, Leni, a social worker. He went on to win the under-15 Delaware tournament when he was 10, and was “the sixth man on a six-man team” at his alma mater, Brown University.
On this day in mid-March, the 52-year-old chief executive was losing to the Barclay’s champion, but he was having fun and displaying his full repertoire—and not just his forehand smash and backhand topspin. As scores of Barclay employees looked on, some of Markell’s considerable political skills were apparent as well. He was by turns serious—fist-pumping, grunting, occasionally leaving his feet to return a ball—and funny.
When the crowd applauded a point by his opponent, he stopped, smiled and said, “I’ve got armed troopers with me, you know.”
In a sense, he approached the game the way he approaches his job—a job he loves, and takes very seriously, while not taking himself too seriously. After the match he was gracious, pointing out that the champ had stopped using a backspin serve once he realized Markell couldn’t handle it.
It’s this winning combination of traits that makes most Delawareans, including those who disagree with his policies, view their governor as likable, a “good guy.”
At one point during the match, a man in the crowd muttered, “He can only play to his left”—a good-natured suggestion that Markell is a liberal.
That assumption would be inaccurate. Now in his second (and, by law, last) term as governor, the Democrat who once interned for the late Republican Sen. Bill Roth has straddled the line between liberal and conservative while frustrating and irritating extremists on both sides. On the left, he has been a major disappointment to environmentalists and some others. Right-wingers criticize him for being a “gun-grabber” and supporter of gay marriage, among other grievances.
But Markell has received plaudits from both sides of the political spectrum while broadening his profile nationwide. He is chair of the National Governors Association, a position that, among other duties, took him in January to the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in the Swiss Alps. Last December, he led a weeklong trade delegation to Korea and Japan, and in February he spent 10 days in India, speaking at an IT trade conference and attempting to drum up business for Delaware.
His appearances on national media outlets are increasing, largely due to Hinton Communications, a Washington, D.C., public relations firm hired last year by his political action committee, the Committee for a Better Future, with $90,000 in campaign funds. Since then, he has appeared in the Wall Street Journal and on CNN, CNBC, MSNBC and Bloomberg.
Noting the high-powered public relations firm, the increased national exposure and Markell’s—for the most part—middle-of-the-road political tack, Nancy Willing, author of the Delaware Way blog, says, “Everybody strongly feels he has ambitions beyond Delaware.”
Markell denies this. His media appearances, he says, are limited to “vehicles that appeal to people who make decisions about where to invest and where to hire. I look for every opportunity to tell the Delaware story to those people.”
He insists he has given no thought about what he will do when his term ends, never mind any designs on national office. “I happen to be in a job here which demands 100 percent of my attention. I want to be the best governor I can possibly be, and that is all I’m focused on. I do no thinking whatsoever about what happens in 2017.”
If Markell does decide to run for elective office, the timing somewhat limits his options. Democrat Chris Coons’ Senate term ends in January 2015, two years before Markell’s term expires in January 2017. Coons probably will run for re-election, and almost certainly will win a six-year term in what is fast becoming a one-party state, especially at the top of the ballot. Democratic Sen. Tom Carper’s term ends in January, 2019, two years after Markell leaves office.
That leaves John Carney, whose seat in the U.S. House is up for election every two years. It’s conceivable, but unlikely, that Markell could run against him in the 2016 Democratic primary. (Markell bested then party-backed Lt. Gov. Carney in the hard-fought 2008 gubernatorial primary.) There is a feeling that the House isn’t a big enough enticement.
Some even say Markell may have presidential potential, or a shot at vice president (See: Biden, Joe). Perhaps more realistic is a cabinet position for the former three-term state treasurer: Secretary of the treasury? Secretary of commerce?
Then again, he could return to the private sector, which he left in 1998 to run for state treasurer. At the time he was a driving force behind Nextel Communications, serving as vice president for corporate development. Or he could follow his father’s footsteps into the academic world. And he could write a book, as most public figures seem compelled to do.
All is speculation right now, but given his obvious joy in serving as governor, not to mention his competence, abandoning public office doesn’t seem to fit Markell’s DNA. What’s more, he loves campaigning. On the trail, he’s personable but low-key, articulate, self-deprecating and hard-working—skills that garnered 67 percent of the vote in 2008 and 69 percent last year—both higher than what the Obama-Biden ticket got in Delaware.
Any bid for national office will of course spur the national punditocracy to dissect his record as governor. It’s a record boasting early victories despite daunting odds, followed by recent body blows to the state and its chief executive.
When Markell entered office in 2009, he faced an unprecedented $800 million budget deficit. Delaware’s two major industries—banking and auto manufacturing—were reeling. Unemployment was at 9 percent.
He signaled the gravity of the situation by taking a 20 percent cut in his $171,000 salary in his first year in office, and a 10 percent cut the second year. His initial budget contained several bold actions, including an 8 percent pay cut for state employees (a proposal he said he came to after literally getting sick to his stomach), and a tax on alcohol that would’ve added two cents to the cost of a can of beer. He got neither, settling for a 2.5 percent cut in state employees’ pay. Joining Republicans in opposition to the alcohol tax was state Rep. John Kowalko, a Newark Democrat who said the tax would cost jobs among brewers and liquor distributors.
The new governor did win a 45-cent tax increase on each pack of cigarettes, a 1 percent income tax increase on taxable income over $60,000, and increases in the corporate franchise tax, the gross receipts tax and the public utility tax.
After three months of wrangling over the numbers with Republicans and some in his own party, Markell signed the $3.091 billion budget just before the deadline at sunrise on July 1.
Also in that first year, Markell and his right-hand man, director of Economic Development Alan Levin (a Republican), were scrambling to staunch the bleeding economy. They made the closed Newark Chrysler Plant a particular target, and soon found a buyer in the University of Delaware. In October 2009, UD signed an agreement to pay $24.25 million for the 272-acre facility, which became the Science, Technology and Advanced Research (STAR) campus.
Then another white knight appeared to help save Delaware’s automotive industry: Fisker Automotive, a California-based builder of plug-in hybrid cars, had eyes for the Boxwood production site after General Motors shuttered the 142-acre facility in July 2009, leaving 450 jobless. Markell’s administration quickly recruited the state’s congressional delegation and other officials and put on a full-court press. They hammered out an offer to Fisker that included grants and loans totaling $21.5 million. With the prospect of more than 2,000 jobs at the plant, New Castle County sweetened the pot with a five-year abatement of taxes, equaling about $1.3 million.
Things went swimmingly at first, with officials from Fisker, the Markell administration and the United Auto Workers meeting frequently. Then expected federal funds failed to materialize, other problems developed, and Fisker halted operations in April 2012.
Insisting the deal is not dead, Markell says Fisker is “seeking a strategic partner. We’re in touch with them all the time.”
Others have written off the project as a calculated risk that failed. Says John Flaherty, a lobbyist and president of the Delaware Coalition for Open Government, “I’m pretty impressed with Markell, but Fisker was his biggest failure.”
The roller-coaster ride continued for the Markell-Levin tag team when Valero shut down the Delaware City Refinery in November 2009, costing the state hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenues. Undaunted, the two veteran businessmen (Levin is former president and CEO of the Happy Harry’s drugstore chain), working with Carper and Coons, went looking for a buyer for the refinery. Seven months later, they found one: PBF Energy, which, after a $450 million investment, reopened the facility to much fanfare in October 2011.
Casting about for more big fish, the administration reeled in another California-based company, Bloom Energy, which makes fuel cells using a process that doesn’t produce greenhouse gases. Last April, Bloom broke ground to become the first tenant of the STAR campus, lured by up to $16.5 million in state funding tied to creation of as many as 900 jobs. At the ceremony, Bloom’s CEO said his company chose Delaware over other East Coast suitors because of the educated workforce, a business-friendly climate, and the governor’s “integrity and transparency.”
Markell’s whirlwind first four years earned him high marks from most observers. That would include the man himself.
“We relentlessly focused on three major things: doing everything we could to improve the economic climate, improving our schools, and being financially responsible,” he says. “And I think by all three measures, we made really excellent progress.
“I think we did a good job to get the refinery to reopen, to get the Chrysler site [sold] and see Bloom putting steel in the ground, to see JPMorgan Chase add 1,200 jobs, to see Bank of America, which was cutting 30,000 people across the country, adding 500 in Delaware. I’m also proud of the small stories, companies that grew by two-to-five employees, or the five-person business that started because of real entrepreneurial focus, but also because of some training and technical assistance from the state.”
He says there also has been significant progress in education—“and we’re seeing it in real data. I am more excited about what’s going on in Delaware schools than I’ve ever been. I think we have a very solid foundation to build on.”
Not surprisingly, the Caesar Rodney Institute, a conservative think tank, disagrees. Dr. John Stapleford, a member of the Institute’s board and a principal of DECON First, wrote a broad attack on the administration in a March 6 “Delaware Voice” column in The News Journal. Titled “Delaware is on its way to a lackluster future,” the piece claimed higher state and local taxes and energy costs have deterred economic growth, and noted that a recent survey ranks Delaware “27th in job creation from startups and 50th in job creation by existing firms.”
Stapleford also found fault with education: “Two-thirds of Delaware’s public school eighth-graders are not proficient in reading or math. Delaware ranks in the bottom half of all states and these test scores are essentially unchanged since 2007.”
A few days later, in another “Delaware Voice,” Levin responded, recounting the administration’s success in attracting new businesses, noting educational awards and achievements, and concluding, “Far from lackluster, Delaware’s future is bright.” Tellingly, however, he did not dispute any of Stapleford’s statistics.
From the left, the labor-friendly John Kowalko frequently finds fault with Markell’s economic and education policies. He’s particularly concerned that the administration’s support of charter schools tends to drain funds and attention from public schools. In an email, Kowalko writes: “The existing Charter School law has major flaws that include, but are not limited to, creating a publicly funded private school system that can be geographically exclusive and not adequately reflect the diversity of those neighboring traditional school populations. I personally feel the governor’s approach to education in general is too heavily influenced by federal guidelines, demands and competitions (such as Race to the Top) to adequately reform and ultimately improve public education.”
Perhaps the most dissatisfied members of the left are environmentalists, who believe the governor is too cozy with industry. Dave Carter, conservation chairman of the Audubon Society, calls Markell “the worst environmental governor in a generation.”
“I campaigned for him, and there was a lot of rhetoric during the campaign, but he didn’t live up to it with actions,” Carter says. As an example, he cites the Delaware City Refinery. Carter says that the value of the fish killed at the refinery is greater than the value of commercial fishing in Delaware last year.
Says Nancy Willing: “A lot of enviros have peeled off him, one by one.”
Aside from the environment, however, Markell has positioned himself as a social liberal. He recently introduced five gun-control proposals, and championed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage that was headed to the House floor for a vote in mid-April.
While some on the left perceive the governor to be drifting right, Republican state Sen. Greg Lavelle takes the opposite view, especially when it comes to economic issues like the Affordable Care Act. “With the governor’s clear interest in national politics,” says Lavelle, “one of my concerns over the next four years is that he will continue to move further left in order to be successful in that realm. And his policies will reflect that. I don’t begrudge him the interest; I just wonder about the effect on Delaware.”
Markell’s liberal or conservative tendencies aside, Delaware’s major problem continues to be the weak economy, especially unemployment. In March, the state absorbed two staggering blows. First, the negotiations for Kinder Morgan to take over the Port of Wilmington fell through. Union resistance was the primary reason, and some put much of the blame on Levin, but Markell’s street cred took a hit. Jason Scott of Delaware Liberal blogged: “One cautionary note for the governor: Even those of us who disagree with you on occasion respect your reputation for competence. The port fiasco put a couple of dents in that.”
Two weeks later, AstraZeneca announced it would be laying off 1,200 employees over the next two years, a crippling number in a state where unemployment is already at 32,000. The News Journal recently reported that South Korean poultry producer Allen Harim could add 700 Delaware jobs by November 2014. This would depend on the completion of a deal to buy the former Pinnacle Foods pickle plant and complete a $100 million expansion.
Despite such jolts and criticism from all sides of the political spectrum, Markell remains the happy warrior, listing his major second-term goals: “Continue making sure our schools are the very best possible; investing in workforce development so there’s a strong linkage between skills valued in the marketplace today and skills that will be valued a couple years from now, and skills that are embodied in the people of Delaware; continuing to improve the economic climate, and making sure we can tell the story effectively about all that Delaware has to offer.
“We’re in a global war for jobs,” he says, “which really means we’re in a global war for talent because the jobs are going to go where the talent is, so we need to be a place that is really attractive to talented workers, to entrepreneurs, and the like. And that’s the filter we need to use in many of the decisions we make.”
In all of his decision-making, Markell is supported by his wife, with whom he celebrates 23 years of marriage this month. Carla Markell appears with her husband at many public events, meanwhile pursuing at-risk children issues and encouraging volunteerism. Their daughter, Molly, 20, is at the University of Pennsylvania, and son Michael, 17, attends the Charter School of Wilmington.
The governor has to be one of the few fathers over the age of 50 who can (almost) match their children’s knowledge of social media. He’s on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest. He’s also proficient with his iPad, using it for work and pleasure. On long plane rides, he might alternate between reading a book and watching downloads of his favorite TV show, “Parks & Recreation.” He became a fan of the sitcom after meeting Aubrey Plaza, a Delawarean who’s in the cast. Markell calls P&R star Amy Poehler “a comedic genius.”
Whatever he may accomplish in his second term, he already has made history: Markell and his probable successor, Matt Denn, are the first Jewish governor-lieutenant-governor team in the country’s history. This fact is noted with some pride in the Jewish community, says Rabbi Micah Becker-Klein of Temple Beth El in Newark, where the mothers of Markell and Denn are members. Becker-Klein suggests that the duo’s ethnic-neutral names are an advantage. “Because neither of them gives off an obvious ethnicity—it’s not Cohen or Goldberg, or something like that—they’re able to practice politics without people assuming things about them,” he says. “It lets people see both of them for who they are, and not just as a Jewish person.”
Who Jack Markell will be beyond his final term as governor of Delaware is a chapter yet to be written. In the meantime, he undoubtedly will continue to roil the waters on both the left and right while forging a legacy marked by hard work, and dedication to the job—leavened with a touch of humor.
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