Delaware Governor Jack Markell: An Inside Peek Into His 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?
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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.