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Leading the Leaders

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Terry and Sandy Strine are working with some very fine fellows through their Leadership Delaware program. Photograph by Luigi CiuffetelliThey are enthusiastic, fresh-faced, young—or, at least, youngish—10 men and seven women, all well turned out in tailored suits or dresses. There are no long-hairs among the men, and only two sport beards, neatly trimmed. There is one African-American, a woman.

They have gathered in the main house of Terry Strine’s gentleman’s farm, which straddles the Delaware-Pennsylvania line at the end of a lane off Del. 52. As they introduce themselves in two minutes of articulate, precise language, it’s easy to see why Strine calls the 17 “fellows” in this, the second of his Leadership Delaware programs, “the cream of the crop” among young Delawareans.

Fit and trim, Strine appears at least a decade younger than his 73 years, despite a crop of snow-white hair. He is a commercial real estate mogul who assumed chairmanship of the Delaware State Republican Committee in 2003, resigned in 2008, then ran for national committeeman. He was defeated in that effort, which he calls “an incredibly good break for me, and frankly, I think, a good move for the state.”

The defeat afforded him time to reflect on his next move. Successful, wealthy, the father of three and doting grandfather of five, he might reasonably have been expected to retire with Sandy, his wife of 48 years, to the 13-acre Centreville farm or their house in St. George, Maine. (The apartment above his Investors Realty at 1207 Delaware Ave. in Wilmington would be a bit cramped.)

But for Strine, who makes the Energizer Bunny look like a slacker, retirement was never in the picture. Instead, he says, “I began writing letters to myself.” The letters reflected his concern for the country and the course it was on—a course set by a free-spending federal government that he was convinced would lead to disaster, a course that ran counter to his core conservative principles of self-reliance, limited government and paying as you go.

Growing up on a small farm near York, Pennsylvania, young Strine learned those principles from his union-member father and a widowed grandmother with whom he peddled chickens and eggs door-to-door.

He was troubled too by the long-standing tendency of elected officials who, he says, “may have entered office for the right reasons but quickly become members of the I Party—I being incumbent.” This is especially so, he says, for members of both the state and U.S. Houses of Representatives, who serve two-year terms.

Strine soon fashioned his letters into a seven-page document that outlined a year-long program of issue-oriented forums aimed at informing and training young Delawareans to be leaders in their communities, whether in politics, business or the non-profit sector. He took the proposal to his friend, former governor Pete du Pont.

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“He did an excellent job,” says du Pont. “I made a few comments, but I would give it an A-plus.” The ex-governor was especially impressed by the list of more than 100 prospective speakers Strine had targeted—but had not yet signed up—thanks to his years in politics and business.

Encouraged by du Pont and others, including Governor Jack Markell, Strine fleshed out the program, talking to organizers of similar efforts in Maine, Virginia, Colorado, Oklahoma and Florida. He recruited a board of directors, formed a 501(c)(3) non-profit charitable foundation, then sought nominations for participants in the program from local leaders in business, industry and politics. For the first class, he says, he and Sandy—his partner in business as well as life—talked to “35 or 40 candidates, offered slots to maybe 20, and 17 said yes.”

“We wanted people who were in the 25 to 40 age bracket,” Strine says, “people who had been in the real world making a living for a while, had their first level of education under their belt, and had 30 or 40 years ahead of them to make a difference—people who are bright, articulate, principled, have the stuff of leadership.”

Requiring a significant time commitment, the program comprises 10 monthly sessions in board rooms, public buildings and private homes across the state. It begins with an orientation in January and ends with graduation in December. A typical month includes three sessions, the first running from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on a Thursday, the second on Thursday evening, typically hosted by a Leadership Delaware supporter and featuring a keynote speaker, then an all-day session on Friday.

The wide-ranging subject matter includes charter schools, organized labor, medical malpractice reform, Delaware agriculture, global warming, term limits and redistricting. Among the speakers: State Secretary of Education Lillian Lowery; Bob Byrd, chair of the Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council during former Governor Ruth Ann Minner’s administration; Sam Asher, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Delaware; John Byrne, professor and director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy at UD; John Sweeney, editorial page editor of The News Journal; Congressman Mike Castle; several state and county officials; and, of course, Pete du Pont. The group travels to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Aberdeen, Maryland, and other places to gain insights from individuals and programs not available in Delaware.

Graduating fellows, Strine says, “are more informed than our elected officials in Dover, or certainly in Washington.”

Such an ambitious program is not inexpensive. Strine estimates the cost at about $4,000 per fellow. The inaugural class was charged nothing. This year, the fee was $1,000 per person. The remainder is covered by foundations and individual contributions. The Strines take no income from the program. This year they were, in fact, the second-largest contributors—behind the Longwood Foundation—at $14,250. “This is our way of giving back,” Strine says.

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The inaugural class gave the program rave reviews and helped recruit candidates for the current group. With additional nominees coming from board members, sponsors and hosts, the Strines were forced to winnow the candidates to a manageable 16 to 20. After they completed a seven-page application, candidates visited the Strines’ barn in groups of 10 to 12 for intensive, one-on-one, 90-minute interviews conducted by board members and fellows. Typical questions: What are you not that you would like to be? If you were a key adviser to Governor Markell, and he asked you how he could turn the state around economically, what would you recommend?

“The goal,” says Strine, “was to recruit an outstanding class who would be complementary, who would bring very different perspectives and backgrounds to the class. While I’m very much opposed to quotas, I also believe diversity of background—geographic, gender, sexual preference, occupation—adds enormously to the class.”

While one fellow campaigned for Barrack Obama and at least one worked for John McCain, the former Republican state chair says, “The vast majority are apolitical.”

“I would be equally happy if our fellows, in the years ahead, ran for office or were active in campaigns for Rs or Ds,” he says. “I believe in the two-party system. I believe principled, visionary leaders are so important to our nation. I believe graduates of our class will agree in any area you mention, on two-thirds if not three-quarters of the points.”

Strine makes no bones about his own conservative beliefs. “The debt is out of control. The earmarks are positively wrong. In our family, if your pay is cut—your tax revenue is cut—you spend less. You find ways of reducing expenditures. You don’t rip the people with higher taxes. You don’t hide them in higher fees. There should be no increase in taxes until we cut spending. And the government needs to get out of the way and let these bright young folks go for it.”

One of those bright lights in the soon-to-graduate second class is S. Renee Smith of Dover, a former model, actress, TV talk show host, producer and spokesperson with nearly 20 years of experience in image development. Smith feels “blessed and honored” to be a fellow. “I absolutely love it,” she says. “I look forward to the two days of intense learning every month. We’re all in our own little world, and the program really opens your mind. It’s almost like you’ve been sleeping. It amazes me that there are these great thinkers and doers right in my own backyard.”

A Democrat, Smith says that, though some of the discussion has a political edge, “Terry doesn’t lean one way or the other. He probably says the least of anyone.”

As a result of their training, says Smith, fellows “will come out of it not being straight Democrat or straight Republican, and they’ll look at candidates closely.”

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Another member of the class, Matt Terrell, 38, says Leadership Delaware has “far exceeded” his expectations. “It’s been a great chance to learn from experts on various issues, and the Q-and-A sessions are especially good,” says the Wilmington resident.

Terrell, the son of Allen Terrell, a member of the program’s board, is founder of Vision Creations, which markets branded merchandise and apparel. He finds the time commitment—group projects and extensive reading, in addition to the two full days per month—to be a bit more than he anticipated, but worthwhile.

Though his father is a long-time Republican supporter, Terrell describes himself as a Democrat who is “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.” He knew of Strine’s role as Republican state chairman. “My greatest reservation going into the program
was that it wouldn’t be politically balanced, but I haven’t found that,” Terrell says. “We’re all aware, engaged, so we have some sort of political leaning, but I would say we’re about evenly divided, one-third Democrats, one-third Republicans and one-third Independents.”

The governor’s office would probably dispute that breakdown. Markell and his chief strategy officer, Brian Selander, believe a GOP undertone pervades the program. “While the governor has said that leadership programs have the potential of having a very positive impact, he would be a lot more enthusiastic about Leadership Delaware if it was more bipartisan, with a broader range of ideologies presented,” Selander says.

He points to the board of directors, which is made up almost entirely of leading Republicans: du Pont, Ernie Dianastasis, Robert Hill, John Rollins Jr., Skip Schoenhals, Kim Hoey Stevenson, Terrell and, of course, the Strines. The lone Democrat is David Singleton, Minner’s former secretary of finance.

“Because of who’s behind it, the board tends to be Terry’s friends,” Selander says. “These are folks who are clear about where they’re at. While they may have Delaware’s best interest at heart, they certainly have a Republican background.”

Strine insists his only goal is “to identify, recruit, tutor, mentor and network the best and brightest young leaders, give them the tools, the contacts, and the know-how they will need to earn and win higher levels of leadership in every area of the state.”

“Whether they come down on the R side or the D side, I’m confident they will come down on the right side,” he says. “We are filling the pipeline for leaders in Delaware.”

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