Photo By Luigi Ciuffetelli
We chatted with Carla Markell, the first lady of the First State, in early December 2014. She discussed the legacy of her husband, Gov. Jack Markell, as his second and final term winds down, as well as her mentoring and volunteer work. She also admitted that the couple enjoys binge-watching certain TV shows.
DT: How do you feel about the title of “first lady?”
CM: Well, I can’t say that I’m comfortable with it because it sounds so formal and I’m a very informal person. But what I’ve learned through time is that it’s very traditional and people really appreciate the tradition that goes with it. And with that comes, from my side, an opportunity to really try to leverage the position to do good things to help organizations, especially nonprofits and efforts around trying to help Delaware be a better place. It is an incredible privilege to be in the situation to be able to help people do good things. So I just go with the tradition.
DT: When you’re out and about, how do people treat you?
CM: People are incredibly nice and respectful and complimentary of Jack. They’re grateful for what we try to do to help Delaware. I’ve never had anything negative. Never. Not one negative thing. People will ask you for things. They’re very nice, very respectful, but they might say, “By the way, can you tell Jack that I feel this way about something, or that way about something.” I get input from people about how they think we can improve things.
DT: What’s the best part of being first lady?
CM: I’ve been privileged to be able to try to help people.
DT: Aren’t there other cool things, like getting to re-decorate Woodburn?
CM: To me, it was necessary and it was sort of symbolic in a way of what can be possible with a public-private partnership. We turned it into a beautiful place that I think every Delawarean can be proud of. And we did it on a very, very low budget with a lot of volunteer effort and a lot of donations from the private sector. I feel really good about the way we did it. And I do feel really good that we’re leaving it in much better condition than we got it. I think it’s symbolic of what we’ve tried to do with the whole state.
DT: What if the next person comes along and wants to change things?
CM: It’s their right and I hope they will be as respectful with taxpayer dollars as we were, and that it will move the house forward in a positive direction. All of the artwork that we brought in is from local museums. We consulted with Winterthur Museum and Gardens and they gave us their expertise, which is excellent. We’ve tried to showcase some of the nicer antiques that are from the state collection. So we tried to do it very tastefully and also very inclusive to the local museums and gaining the expertise of people in our own community.
DT: If there were any one piece that you could take with you when you go, what would it be?
CM: I like a lot of the paintings. I like the paintings that are on loan from the museums, for sure. There is one N.C. Wyeth (“Walden Wood Revisited”), in particular, that is in the dining room that’s really spectacular.
DT: What’s been your biggest challenge as first lady?
CM: I think the challenge for me, personally, was just realizing that I might actually like this opportunity and to take it and do something good with it. My initial reaction, when Jack first got elected, was to go get a job in Philadelphia and kind of escape from it all and not really get involved. So I decided what I could do was go and tour the state facilities and thank the state workers for what they were doing, because I genuinely felt appreciative of them. They have hard jobs. The first place that I went was Ferris School for Boys. I noticed that they really needed books. So when I left there, I thought, I know what I can do. I can do a book drive. So I emailed my friends and before you know it, we had several thousand books that were donated to Ferris. And then that turned into a construction company coming in to build bookshelves. And I just realized, with that process, that this was an amazing opportunity to try and do good things. And I also realized that there was no pressure on me to try to be anybody that I wasn’t, or to try to be perfect at this. I could just do what came from my heart and what felt natural. And there was no pressure on me to do any more than that. So, once I realized that, it took all the pressure off of me. The hardest part, for me, was getting comfortable with the idea of being in this position. And once I got comfortable with it, it’s really been a natural fit. I’ve enjoyed it a lot. You’re probably the same way, you see people from high school and college all the time, just like I do. It is kind of the Delaware Way for all of us who live here. It’s always been that way—going to the mall or even growing up in high school and college. You would always see people you knew from work or from high school. So it’s like that for all of us, only for Jack and me, it’s definitely on steroids. It’s more intense. But it’s like that for all of us who grew up here.
DT: What do you spend most of your time doing?
CM: I have a lot of variety, which I really like. It’s different every single day and that really appeals to me. I’d say primarily championing volunteerism and promoting mentoring and trying to recognize the great work that the people in our nonprofit community are doing. Also, our corporate community is incredibly engaged in volunteerism and nonprofit work. I’m very excited about the work in many of our companies who reach out to the community to try to do good things. So I try to champion those efforts on that side as well.
DT: When you and the governor go home at night, do you talk shop or do you have rules against that kind of thing?
CM: No rules. We’re very open with each other. If we’ve got something about work stuff, we say it. But we also like our down time. We like to go biking. We like to hike. We like to go to Brandywine Creek State Park—down to the woods with the dog. We like to travel. We enjoy healthy food and good times with the kids and our moms and our families. We have a couple of shows we watch. We binge-watched “Homeland” and “Orange Is the New Black.” We do watch “Survivor.” (She laughs.) We’ve been watching “Survivor” with the kids since they were little. We’re empty nesters this year. Molly is a senior at Penn and Michael is a freshman at Brown.
DT: How has that affected you guys?
CM: First of all, what we want for our kids is for them to be happy and productive and excited about what they’re doing. And they’re both incredibly enthusiastic about what they’re doing, what they’re involved with. They make good choices and they’re, luckily, on a good path. So there’s nothing more we want for our kids than to be on a healthy, good path. They love coming home. We love having them come home, but they’re also really excited to go back to school and keep doing what they’re doing. And we see them regularly. Molly is in Philadelphia, so we see her every couple weeks. And Michael’s been home for his fall break and Thanksgiving and the holidays. We went up there for Parents Weekend, so we’ve seen them every couple weeks. We’re very close and we love them dearly and we’re just really glad that they’re happy and doing well. And we’re busy, so that’s good. But I’ll have to say, we have a dog in the house and the kids are home regularly, so it doesn’t feel that different. So, it’s really good.
DT: There have been some things that haven’t gone as well as could be hoped for your husband, especially in recent years. And there’s always going to be vocal critics. How much does that stuff affect you?
CM: I have learned a lot from him. The kids and I have learned a lot. Our philosophy is: We know who he is. He is a wonderful person who tries as hard as he can every single day to try to make Delaware a better place. He does everything in his power to try to make good things happen. And at the end of the day that’s really all any one person can do. So he sleeps well at night. I sleep well at night. When you are grounded in that sense of well being and that sense of confidence in somebody, I can let it all go because they can say anything they want, but they’re not doing the job and they’re not out there trying to make it happen. If they really want to be critical, step up and take the risk yourself. It takes a lot of guts to run for elected office. I give him a lot of credit for it.
DT: Looking back six years or so, could you ever have predicted how challenging things could be?
CM: It’s been very interesting to see how government works, to see how things get done. I’ve learned a lot in this process. It’s been a very fascinating experience, for sure. I’ve met a lot of wonderful people. I feel really blessed that we’re doing this in Delaware. There are so many good people here who really care about our community and want to make it better. And that’s whether they’re in business or leadership positions of all kinds. Our nonprofit community is really connected at the heart. So, I feel lucky that we have so many people pulling together in these various efforts. Whether it’s trying to help our at-risk youth, or to try to help the arts. I am constantly working with the private sector to come together with the public sector to do good things. So, I guess my strength in all of this is really trying to build those relationships to accomplish what we want to accomplish. I’m thrilled that I have partners all over, and I don’t care if they’re Republicans or Democrats, they’re just good people. So I feel really blessed that I’m in a state that has that. It is part of the Delaware Way because we are small and nimble and, within a day, I can connect with every one of the people that I need to connect with to see if something’s possible and to try to make it happen. I don’t think you could do that in other states. So I feel really lucky that we’re so nimble, whether it’s our federal delegation or the head of a nonprofit. You can almost get a phone call back from anybody the same day that you try to reach him or her. People are really receptive and open to try to be part of the solution here and they really care.
DT: Is there anything you haven’t been able to accomplish that you would like to get done in the next couple years?
CM: The biggest thing we’re working on now is revamping addiction recovery issues in our state. They are very complex and it’s a much bigger challenge than I anticipated it would be. But we’re really working hard at it. We have a fantastic Secretary of Health and Social Services [Rita Landgraf] who is working on that. I know it’s a goal of both Jack and her to achieve positive change in that arena before he’s finished. That’s probably weighing heaviest on my mind. I think that addiction is the root cause of so many of our other societal problems. And if we can make a dent with that and educate our young people more on the risks and challenges of addiction. If they come from families that have issues, they have a much higher chance of addiction. Prescription drug addiction is a big problem. Heroin is a big problem now. Opiate addictions are huge. So I feel that’s an area that’s important that we try to make a dent in, but it’s a big problem. I’m hopeful that we’ll do everything in our power to try and make a difference, but it’s hard to say how much of a difference we can really make, given how big the problem is. We can start some things on the right path, for sure.
DT: What is the next step for you and the governor?
CM: I wish I knew. We don’t know. He’s open to anything. He’s so focused on his job now that he doesn’t have time to think about that. But knowing Jack, when he’s finished, and not until he’s finished, he’ll sit down and very thoughtfully start thinking about what the possibilities are. And something will feel right and he’ll go in that direction. We’re both open to all kinds of possibilities.
DT: Maybe it’s your turn to do something?
CM: He’s always made me feel like it’s my turn, just as much as his turn. So he would absolutely want me to do whatever I’m excited to do. But I’m also very flexible, so I feel like I can find my way, wherever we end up. He’s always encouraged me to be true to what I want to do and never hold me back.
DT: You have also worked on behalf of the arts in Delaware.
CM: I guess I don’t have any favorite children, so to say. And there are a lot of volunteers in the arts world, but I feel very strongly that the arts are a part of our community being healthy. I think if you are trying to attract businesses to Delaware and you’re trying to raise kids here and trying to have an interesting population that lives here, you want to have a variety of arts. The arts, in my mind, make life worth living—music, dance, theater. We have the Delaware Theatre Company with the fantastic plays they do. We have our own symphony. If everybody has to leave the state to get their arts, why live here? So if we have a very strong arts community here, it gives people the opportunity to expose their kids, expose our students, our elderly. My mother, for example, is living in a retirement community and the Delaware Theatre Company comes in and works with the residents on how to do playwriting and acting. For somebody like my mother, who has never had a chance to tell her stories in a public way, it’s really an amazing thing for her. She’s writing dialogue in her play and they perform them on the stage. It’s given her a really exciting and interesting thing at this point in her life—she’s 84. And she gets excited when they come. I think the arts are just critical to making our community healthy. When you are trying to pitch a company about why they should be here, it’s really great to be able to say, we have our own opera, we have our own theater, we have our own symphony, museums, a ballet company. They are great economic development tools.
DT: Do you ever think about your legacy and the governor’s legacy?
CM: I’d like to be remembered for our focus on public service and volunteerism and education. My side of it would be the mentoring and working to try to reach our at-risk youth in a constructive way to transform lives. And certainly Jack’s work on education and trying to improve the performance in the schools. He’s done some neat stuff around language immersion programs—kids learning Chinese. That will make our kids much more competitive in the long run. Eighteen or 20 years from now, when they are trying to get a job and they can speak Chinese in a global workplace, that’s going to be pretty powerful. There has been lot of exciting things around improving education for our kids.