Lisa Blunt Rochester is Ready to Shake Things Up
Get to know Delaware’s first black, first female congresswoman.
Just one look. That’s all it takes to know that Lisa Blunt Rochester is unlike anyone Delaware voters have ever elected to represent them in Washington, D.C.
The surface differences—she’s African-American and she’s a woman—may be obvious, but the larger question is whether those differences will translate into a voting pattern that varies significantly from her predecessor in the U.S. House of Representatives, Gov. John Carney, and the man who gave Blunt Rochester her first two jobs in government, U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, the onetime congressman and governor.
“There are a lot of things we do share, a lot of Democratic ideals we believe—children, families, increasing the minimum wage, equal pay for equal work—and the Affordable Care Act is a huge one,” Blunt Rochester says.
“There are a lot of things that are similar, but our life experiences are different,” she continues. “I’m someone who had to go to Planned Parenthood, someone whose son has been stopped by the police. I think, as we go through the next two years, there will be decisions that will be made where we might not always agree.”
It didn’t take long for the similarities to show up. Just two weeks into her term, Blunt Rochester felt some pressure from the left, as she was urged to join the more than 50 senators and representatives who boycotted President Trump’s inauguration ceremony. But she was there, as were the state’s two senators, Carper and Chris Coons, not to mention the departing vice president, Delaware’s Joe Biden, and Trump’s vanquished Democratic foe, Hillary Clinton.
But on Inauguration Day she also joined 174 other lawmakers in signing a letter to Trump, encouraging him to reconsider his position on repealing the Affordable Care Act and defunding Planned Parenthood. The next day, she joined hundreds of thousands, including Coons, to participate in the Women’s March on Washington.
A week later, she and Carper traveled to Philadelphia International Airport to join protests against Trump’s executive order halting the admission of refugees from Syria and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations.
Yet Blunt Rochester, like Carper and Coons, has made a commitment to bipartisanship, even if some Democrats don’t see reaching across the aisle as being in their best interests. “One of the big things I talked about on the campaign trail was bringing people together. That will not change,” she says. “The freshman class in Congress, we’ve made that commitment. We might not always like each other but we have to work together on the issues.”
When she reaches out to Republicans, she’s just as likely to build friendships as political alliances.
That’s the view of Bebe Coker, the longtime Wilmington community leader and education activist, who has known the new congresswoman since her childhood.
“Building relationships, that’s her strength,” Coker says. “There’s no effort to it. When you meet Lisa, she’s your friend.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden celebrates with Blunt Rochester during her swearing in reception.
Born in Philadelphia, Lisa Blunt Rochester was just 7 years old when she arrived in Wilmington in 1969, when her father, Ted Blunt, came to work at the Peoples Settlement Association on the city’s East Side. The family rented an apartment off Maryland Avenue just outside the city limits for a couple of years before moving into Wilmington’s old Ninth Ward. They eventually settled on West 39th Street, a couple of blocks from what was then P.S. du Pont High School.
Ted Blunt would leave Peoples Settlement to become an administrator in the pre-desegregation Wilmington school system, and Lisa found herself growing up on a block filled with educators.
“It was a neighborhood full of teachers,” she recalls. “Next to us were Mr. and Mrs. Corpening. At the end of the block were the Sherrills.” Bebe Coker, too.
There were four families on the block, Coker recalls, “who had nothing but girls, and they were very close together.” Coker had three daughters and so did the Blunts. The two other families had six girls between them.
“They pretty much stayed together, doing positive things in the neighborhood,” says Ted Blunt, whose public service stretched beyond public education to include 16 years on Wilmington City Council and eight more as council president.
Though her father was a public school administrator, Lisa didn’t spend much time in the city schools. After fifth grade, she transferred to St. Peter’s Cathedral School, at Sixth and West streets downtown. “It was one of the most diverse schools I ever attended,” she says. “Economically, racially, there was a lot of diversity in that little school.”
For high school, she chose another Catholic school, Padua Academy. “Lisa wanted to go to an all-girls school,” her father says.
As a teenager, her father recalls, Lisa became the designated babysitter in the neighborhood, taking care of the younger kids on the block when their parents went out.
Like most teens, she loved talking on the phone—back in the day when having your own phone meant having one on the nightstand in your bedroom.
“My dad said, ‘You want a phone, go get a job,’” Blunt Rochester says.
“That’s right,” her father echoes, “a pink princess phone.”
She headed down to the McDonald’s, at 41st and Market streets, owned by Dr. Lozelle De Luz, a family friend, and got a job sweeping the lobby and serving as a hostess. “McDonald’s had a program then promoting family reunions. I was too young to be making burgers, but I’d take the orders, get all the food, do all the decorating in the party area,” she says.
Throughout her life, but especially during her childhood, her parents were her role models.
Her mother, Alice LaTrelle, “was a strong woman,” she says, who balanced raising a family with working in retail, primarily at the old Strawbridge & Clothier department store in the Merchandise Mart on Governor Printz Boulevard. Lisa would follow that path, leaving McDonald’s to work at Strawbridge’s, then at Wanamaker’s on the Augustine Cut-Off.
Watching her father campaign for office—and helping him out—gave her inspiration and valuable knowledge. “I was no stranger to running for office, even as a kid, and I think it helped me immensely on the trail,” she says.
Watching her father, Ted Blunt, campaign for office—and helping him out—gave Blunt Rochester inspiration and valuable knowledge.
After Padua, she started college as an international relations major at Villanova University. “I had a desire to seek world peace, to understand different cultures,” she says.
She made the dean’s list, but Villanova just cost too much. “I couldn’t find real scholarships, and I felt like my family had to eat Hamburger Helper to send me to college.”
In the middle of her sophomore year, she transferred to the University of Delaware. But that didn’t last long because, at Villanova, she fell in love with basketball star Alex Bradley, who played briefly in the NBA before joining professional teams in Europe. They married and, after promising her father that she would return to school to get her degree, she joined her husband overseas, living in Italy and France. “For an international relations major, I thought, wow, this was great,” she says. Their first child, Alex, was born in Paris in 1985.
Returning to the states, she resumed her education at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, earned her bachelor’s degree and started taking graduate classes at the University of Delaware.
In the spring of 1988, with young Alex sitting on her lap and pregnant with her second child, Alyssa, she attended one of Carper’s town hall meetings. When it was over, she struck up a conversation with the congressman. The conversation led to a summer internship, followed by full-time work as a constituent relations caseworker. She dealt with everything from housing matters to Social Security and the Internal Revenue Service.
“What a joy,” Carper says. “We liked her and she liked us. She is so full of love, so full of life, so full of energy.”
Blunt Rochester visits with Star Hill Elementary School students at Delaware Public Archives in Dover.
Blunt Rochester was moving on up, broadening her skills and cultivating relationships with influential mentors. She earned a promotion to special projects coordinator and, after Carper was elected governor in 1992, served on his transition team and moved into his office as a special assistant in charge of family issues. Less than a year into that assignment, she was named deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Social Services, a position she held until 1998, when Carper appointed her as secretary of labor.
Blunt Rochester, who kept the letter she wrote when she applied for the internship in Carper’s office, says working for him helped her own service, not only her career path but also “in terms of deciding who I wanted to be and what I wanted to give back to Delaware.”
When Ruth Ann Minner became governor in 2001, she named Blunt Rochester state personnel director. She was immediately drawn into controversy, writing a report that examined allegations of racial discrimination within the state police. Her report concluded that the agency was in “technical compliance” with the relevant laws but recommended numerous changes in policies and procedures to reduce the perception of bias. Work on the report demonstrated Blunt Rochester’s strength in collaboration and building positive relationships.
“What was great,” she says, “is that the police were involved with coming up with a report that was a plan forward.”
While working in Minner’s cabinet, her marriage to Bradley broke up. They divorced amicably in 2003. Shortly after, she found her new love, businessman Charles Rochester. They met over the 2003-04 Christmas holidays, at a brunch at Coker’s house. Blunt Rochester had heard about Rochester for years, going back to their University of Delaware days. They had even attended the same social events, but they had never been introduced.
Coker’s daughter Laurie invited Lisa to the brunch, and Laurie’s husband invited Charles, who had just returned from his first year of work in China, Coker says. “I always thought Lisa knew Charles, so I didn’t pay attention when they met.”
To Coker, it was a “fairy-tale romance.” To Lisa, the meeting was “like I was talking with my best friend, like we had known each other for our whole lives.”
He flew back to China. They exchanged letters, emails and phone calls, then decided to meet that summer in San Francisco. “We had an incredible long weekend,” she says.
The courtship coincided with Lisa’s departure from state government, and taking over as CEO of the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, where she could broaden her impact in finding solutions to issues affecting minority communities.
Lisa and Charles would decide to marry and set a date for one month after her daughter Alyssa started college in the fall of 2006. “My son gave me away, walked me down the aisle. My daughter was my maid of honor,” she says, “and I moved to China.”
She would spend seven years there and took the time to collaborate with two other women in writing a book, “Thrive: Thirty-four Women, Eighteen Countries, One Goal,” about women who reinvented themselves.
And then her world crashed. In 2014, Charles ruptured his Achilles tendon. Complications resulted in fatal blood clots lodging in his heart and lungs.
Lisa moved back to Delaware and soon entered the political arena. She would win a four-way Democratic primary in September before besting Republican Hans Reigle in the general election.
Wilmington civic leader Tony Allen, who preceded Blunt Rochester as Urban League CEO and served as finance director for her campaign, agrees with other associates who say her strength is in building relationships, but he also praises her ability to remain keenly focused on her goals.
“I’ve always found her to be warm, caring and smart, and with an eye toward a goal,” he says. “The best thing you can do is to do the thing that is in front of you extraordinarily well, and Lisa has always done what was in front of her extraordinarily well.”
Now her focus is on representing Delaware in Congress, taking positions and being held accountable for them. Much of her work will be concentrated on the two House committees to which she has been assigned: Education and Workforce, and Agriculture. “Education and Workforce is right in my wheelhouse,” she says. Agriculture gives her a chance to focus on issues important to Kent and Sussex counties, as well as on nutrition and food assistance programs.
Mentored by Carper, and linked to Carney, who was lieutenant governor while she served in Minner’s cabinet, how will her stands on the issues compare?
“They’re not necessarily different,” Allen says, “with one exception. They come from completely different perspectives, because she comes from Wilmington, she’s a strong African-American and a strong woman. But that might not change how she votes.”
Carper describes her as a blend of compassion and practicality. Citing the biblical exhortation to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, he says, “Lisa understands our obligation to the least of these people, and she also understands that we do not have unlimited financial resources.”
As a member of the minority party in the house, Blunt Rochester knows she cannot end up on the winning side of votes unless she and some Republicans find themselves in agreement.
The question then becomes, when she reaches out to the opposition party, will she persuade or be persuaded?
Carper is hopeful about the outcome.
“She will reach across the aisle,” he says, “and she will bring people in.”