Who is Tracey Quillen Carney?
We sat down with the First Lady of Delaware to talk childhood hunger, Quaker education and her family's political history.
Tracy Quillen Carney is the First Lady of Delaware// Photos courtesy of Tracey Quillen Carney's staff
Tracey Quillen Carney is near giddy as she reaches into a leather satchel and proffers a cache of euros that followed her from France to Italy to home. "To remember my trip by," Carney explains, pushing her amber-rimmed eyeglasses on top of her head, a go-to look for her. "My girls trip—John wasn't invited."
While husband Gov. John Carney was busy last September on official business, Carney and a few girlfriends took France and Italy by storm.
"It was my 'happy retirement to me' trip," says Carney, who left Wilmington Friends School—where she was the director of communications for 15 years—last February ahead of her husband's governorship.
"Europe's greatest hits were the greatest hits," she says. "But it was the little moments that resonate."
Like the WWII commemorative plaques she'd come across in Paris. "Someone's name would be there, someone who died a hero," she says. The 'Mona Lisa' was majestic, naturally, but it was what was underneath the Louvre Museum that spoke volumes. "We went downstairs and saw the original foundation," she says. "It was so cool. You could still see the sign of the craftsmen. They were paid by the brick, so their signatures were marked." As she scrolls through trip photos, her fascination with leaving one's mark remains evident. "Look," she says. "Monet's signature. Right there. I actually saw that."
Which makes it all the more interesting when the wife of the governor—she’ll take "First Tracey" or "Governess," thank you very much—states her thesis: "I have no goal to have my name attached to anything," she says. "To feel like I used my power and microphone to do stuff for good? That's important. But that 'Tracey did it?' … I'd rather my signature be that I wrapped my arms around an issue to improve the lives of children."
Carney, all earth-tones and artistic touches (the minimalist satchel; her hammered silver earrings), is quick-humored, with most of her quips boomeranging back at herself. It's an organic, heartening kind of funny. She offers book recommendations (Min Jin Lee's "Pachinko"), shares her dream scenario ("We live in a world where Quaker school education is for the masses.") and is not easily thrown off stride.
Take, for instance, a truly Delaware moment straight from central casting: First Tracey is mid-sentence at the Greenville Brew HaHa!, where she's tucked into a cozy nook when First Carla shows up tableside. Carney compliments Carla Markell (whose husband beat Carney's in the 2008 election) on her hairstyle; Markell tells Carney how lovely it is to see her. They exchange warm goodbyes. "We didn't know each other before politics, but it's nice to commiserate," Carney says.
For Carney, "before politics" might be a misnomer.
Before Carney (née Quillen) would meet a young John Carney while both were serving as staffers for then-Sen. Joe Biden, her father, former Delaware Supreme Court Justice William Quillen, lost the 1984 race for governor to Mike Castle. Her father also served on the Superior and Chancery courts and was secretary of state. (For her part in politics, Carney spent 15 years with Biden, writing speeches and press releases.)
Carney's mother, Marcia, earned her college degree while raising Carney and her older sister, Carol. When the girls were in their teens, Marcia worked in development at Friends School in Wilmington, where both her daughters would attend.
The Quillen home was one dedicated to public service.
Carney is passionate about combating childhood hunger, trauma, and challenges to early literacy//
"Neither of my parents ever had a sense of entitlement," Carney says. "They thought humble roots stayed true. That ethic was a cornerstone."
Born on Dover Air Force Base, Carney fondly recalls growing up in Old New Castle. "I love the river, I love the feel of the place," she says.
Carney’s mother died in 2015; her father soon after, in 2016. "It has been a tough few years," she says.
A shy kid who was "clingy to mom," Carney says, "getting from that shy kid to a teenager was a complicated evolution." Further complicated by "hyper-achievement mode."
"Healthy in some ways, unhealthy in others," Carney says. In high school, she fell in love with sports and theater, and, although it wasn't a conviction yet fully matured, with Quaker education.
"I spend a lot of time daydreaming about how to create a Quaker charter school," she says. "People say, 'It can't be done.' Even though it’s not a religious education, the foundations are faith, tradition—so it can't be done. But a Quaker education teaches students to think about the world, pay attention. Let your life speak to your values."
With her First Chance initiative, a three-pronged program that advocates for Delaware children, Carney's doing just that.
"When I became governor, Tracey and I sat down and talked about the issues that mean a lot to her," says John Carney. "They're mostly an extension of what she did in raising our two sons—she wants to make sure every child has the same opportunities Sam and Jimmy did growing up. She's developed a platform as First Lady that's really impactful and meaningful."
The platform emphasizes a collaborative approach to combat childhood hunger, childhood trauma and challenges to early literacy.
"Twenty-first century problems cannot be solved with people working in silos, even if they're the best-intentioned people in the world," she says. "There's a distinct difference between experts and enthusiasts. I approach it like: 'You tell me what you need me to do so you can do your job.' I've been given a convenient power and a microphone and told, 'Go use them both.' But I'm not the expert, and I recognize that."
"She's developed a platform as first lady that's really impactful and meaningful," Said Gov. John carney
In her crusade against child hunger, Carney cites progress she's seeing at Delaware schools, including Seaford High, where breakfast is served in an alternative-service model, meaning there's not just one time and place for breakfast. "If there's a bus-dependent child who maybe gets to school late, and has to choose between getting to the cafeteria or to class, now he doesn't need to go hungry until lunch," she says.
First Chance works with the Compassionate Connections Partnership to better serve children experiencing trauma. "I had a chance to participate in the first-ever trauma-informed training for faculty and staff of the Red Clay School District," she says. "I played the role of a utility provider in a poverty simulation. Good work is being done there. Another area of trauma where I think there is great promise to build partnerships is centered on violence—especially gun violence—in our communities."
Her focus on early literacy has ties to her personal life: "I was a reluctant and slow reader, especially in a family of super readers," she says. "I also had to work on figuring out how to express myself, to really develop the skill and approach to write my way into understanding myself." Ultimately, she nurtured a deep love of language, and although it took her longer, she found her transformative book: "Catch 22." "It made me realize the power of language in a way that I had not before—the power of fiction to convey truth," she says. "The correlation of early vocabulary exposure to success way down the road is beyond striking. So it's about reading to very young children as well as supporting early readers."
A sense of justice and fairness
Denise Rosaio—one of the lucky globetrotters on Carney's girls-only trip—worked with Carney at the U.S. Senate office before leaving to pursue a 26-year-career in Delaware public education.
"She has such a sense of justice and fairness, it rubs off. At Biden's office, we were some of the youngest, but she had an understanding that comes from years of experience. She also could see from the sadness to the hilarity in a situation and speak about it appropriately and without stepping on other people's points of view or feelings," Rosaio says. "Some of our older colleagues would forget her age and really listen. I know I did, and stretched my understanding of local, national and international politics."
Rosaio and Carney are going on 30 years of friendship. "Tracey has had to deal with a few of us teasing her about this new title. But Tracey does everything with grace. She reminds me of the characters that Katherine Hepburn played: smart, energetic, classic, determined and able to see humanity and humor. Her approach to first lady is slow, methodical and low-key. Emphasis on low-key. If the people of Delaware will listen and learn from her, children and families will benefit tremendously, and for a long time."
"If the people of Delaware will listen and learn from her, children and families will benefit tremendously,
While First Chance officially kicked off in April 2018, Carney has her eyes set on 2020. "If the program sustains itself—considering the caliber of people behind it, I don’t see how it can't—then we will have hopefully reached our child hunger goals by 2020," she says. "But my highest margin of success would be that a parent says, 'Boy, that woman loves my child.'"
While his wife may have her eyes set on the future, John sees immediate impact. "Tracey doesn't like to waste a lot of time with pomp and circumstance or busywork, so I'm positive that what she accomplishes will help real people, right away," he says. "Tracey is funny, interesting and smart and looks at the world in way that's different from anyone else I know. That's what drew me to her to begin with."
When Carney's not out forging partnerships for First Chance, she has a front row seat to the governorship. The view isn't always great. Just a few months into her husband's term, the inmate takeover and ensuing standoff at Smyrna's Vaughn Correctional Center left Lt. Steven Floyd dead. A few months later, Cpl. Stephen Ballard was gunned down in the parking lot of a Wawa in Bear.
"John had an incredibly stressful start to his term," she says. "These were true tragedies, just heartbreaking stuff. Anyone managing any situation like this would draw criticism. I would never say, 'So, how’s it going?' knowing that it's going kind of like crap. In these kinds of situations, my approach is: I will do anything at all that I can do for you, the least of which is to make things easy at home. After 25 years of marriage, I can tell the kind of support he needs from me, how and when."
Then there was the 2008 election loss. "I was feeling very sorry for myself. For all of the people for whom the world was still spinning, I wanted to say, 'Do you not realize what we've sacrificed?' But of course they didn't. Why should they?" she says. "That lasted for all of two days. Then you just wake up and realize nothing is wrong. No one owes you anything. John was going to continue to find a way to serve, our children were healthy, we had our beautiful twin home in Wilmington that we love… everything is fine."
"Tracey and I have always made it a point to keep my public jobs separate from our home life," Gov. Carney says. "We try not to talk shop too much at home. For me, that helps me maintain a sense of normalcy, particularly under difficult circumstances. It also helps make sure the public issues don't overwhelm life at home. Tracey made it clear to me that if I wanted to run for office, she wanted to make sure our boys had a happy, normal life. That seemed like a pretty good idea to me."
Her toughest challenge
For Carney, the transition to retirement and empty-nester might have been tougher than becoming First Tracey. "One thing I love about the house is the marks on the living room ceiling left by balls—yes, we played ball in the house," Carney says. "John painted the living room walls recently, but I wouldn't let him paint the ceiling."
The Carneys have two sons, Sam and Jimmy. "I'm not sure I suspected I'd love raising kids as much as I did. I always thought I'd be the person who emphasized work. But as soon as those kids were born, I just knew that was by far the most important job I'd ever have."
The Carneys have two sons, Sam and Jimmy.// Photo courtesy of carney's staff
While she calls her husband a "policy wonk who dives into the details of things at a depth others wouldn't," she says he has a deep spirituality. He also digs yoga, music, history, and—much to the benefit of their eventual 1993 marriage—art.
"It's hokey, but while we were both working for Sen. Biden—at this point we had known each other for years—I came to work in a skirt one day and he said, 'That skirt looks like a Keith Haring painting.'" She laughs. "That was the moment."
What’s the next chapter look like? Maybe a lot of day dreaming.
"I love Quaker education, and it breaks my heart that it's not accessible," Carney says. "When Friends was founded, the idea was to educate the kids in the neighborhood. Wouldn't it be lovely if that was possible again? But a public charter would necessitate a secular curriculum," she notes. "How do you find a moral and ethical equivalent to God? So that spins my wheels a lot," she says.
"'You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.' Mostly, when I think about when this is 'over,' I think I'd like to sit still with John for a little while."