The Art of Carper-mise

In a polarized Congress, U.S. Sen. Tom Carper reaches across party lines to get things done.

The folks in the U.S. Senate sandbox have not been playing nicely this June Thursday during the hearing regarding the Supreme Court’s extraordinary stay of the nation’s Clean Power Plan. So far, Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat, has said that the fossil fuel industry has affected “a virtual takeover of the Republican Party,” a comment that infuriated Mississippi’s Roger Wicker, a Republican, who called Whitehouse’s remark “insulting.” 

Alaska’s Dan Sullivan later questioned—aggressively—New York University professor Richard Revesz, who had testified at the beginning of the hearing about the need to reverse the stay. Sullivan interrupted Revesz repeatedly and wondered why 31 states have sued the Environmental Protection Agency. Later, Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey poked Sullivan by saying, “There might have been 31 states that weren’t happy with Brown vs. Board of Education,” an attempt to show that unpopular decisions of the past often look pretty good in hindsight.

While the partisans stake their positions, Tom Carper sits quietly, several times deferring his opportunity to speak—“a strategic move,” he says later. Since the ranking Democrat on the committee, California’s Barbara Boxer, is not present, he has the opportunity to defer. When he does take a turn, Carper chooses not a sharp edge or a partisan slant. He begins by crediting committee chair Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, a Republican, for working with Carper to add to the Energy Modernization Act a pair of amendments that helped redefine the concept of renewable energy.

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Then Carper tells some stories. When making the point that businesses will accept government regulation so long as the limits are clearly set, he references an “old curmudgeon Southern power plant owner” who simply wanted to know what the rules were, asked for some flexibility, then requested that the government “get out of the way.” After reminding the assembled legislators, aides, experts, media and interested bystanders that “Delaware is the lowest-lying state in America,” he reports that a concrete bunker 500 feet out in the bay, plainly visible in 1947, is now submerged, thanks to rising sea level due to climate change. He name checks Stephen Stills by paraphrasing a line from Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”: “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear,” and after the hearing says he saw Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in concert in the 1960s for a four-dollar admission fee.

Classic Carper—making his point about the dangers of climate change without bombast or anger. A man who has spent his life in government working to create solutions instead of battling senselessly with opponents or staking out territory on the fringes of the political spectrum to let everyone know that something must be done, but that it can’t be achieved in an ideological vacuum. Addressing climate change is important, he says, but it must not be accomplished totally at the expense of business. That’s why he mentioned the power plant chief, who wanted to know what he had to do to continue operating.

“One of the things I do is build the middle and create public policy that represents the best elements of the left and right,” he says after the hearing in his “hideaway office” in the Capitol building. “I want to help provide a nurturing environment for job creation. Businesses tell us that they want certainty and predictability.”

Carper has provided both of those qualities during his 39 years of public service, first as state treasurer, then U.S. representative, governor and, now, U.S. senator. He has devoted himself to Delaware and to causes he believes in, and has done it with an understanding that the aim of those in office should be to produce results, not fight philosophical battles with the goal of maintaining power.

Carper attends a Little League ceremony.

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During the past two years, Carper has achieved a lot while continuing to make friends and influence policy. In 2015, he authored several bills that have bolstered federal cyber defenses. He was a leader on the Toxic Substances Control Act reform legislation, which President Obama signed into law in June. Carper wrote a bipartisan postal reform bill during the most recent congressional session, and he has led several delegations to Central America to discuss and learn about immigration issues. Unlike some who choose to stake out partisan ground on Capitol Hill, Carper prefers to get results.

Carper’s style recalls the days of compromise, when legislators were able to be both loyal to their constituents and capable of working with the Other Side in pursuit of solutions. He hearkens back to a time when liberal Democrat Ted Kennedy and conservative Republican Orrin Hatch were able to find common ground and when former House Speaker Tip O’Neill, a Democrat, worked with Ronald Reagan.

Yet no matter how much he avoids partisan rhetoric, Carper is no pushover. He tries to build relationships that enable him to make progress, a talent that seems to be missing in Washington these days.

“It takes patience and persistence,” says Chris Coons, Delaware’s junior senator. “It’s less hard than you think, because there are some really good people here, but it’s harder than you think, because there is some division in the Senate and plenty of partisanship.”

On the morning after the hearing on the Supreme Court stay, Carper enters the tram that runs between Capitol Hill buildings, heading to vote on a Senate measure. As all sorts of government types rumble about, trying to find spaces in the cramped cars, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker spots Carper. “Delaware in the house,” Booker exclaims. Carper smiles, even when Booker says, “We’re thinking about invading Delaware.” Carper responds, “And we may invade Maryland.” 

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As Carper stands in the tramcar, he notices Booker is standing with a mother and her two daughters. “How old are you?” he asks the girls. One is 9, and the other is 11. “I’m 69 1/2,” Carper says, “and my wife is still waiting for me to grow up.” Everybody laughs, and Carper is clearly pleased to have connected with the youngsters.

“I like people,” he says later.

Yes, he does. Coons marvels at Carper’s energy, but not just because of the senior Delaware Senator’s daily workouts or eight-mile weekend runs. He’s more impressed with Carper’s dedication to his state and the pace he maintains on weekends and whenever he is able to dislodge himself from the D.C. muddle. 

“One of the challenges of being the junior senator is that [Carper] goes to everything,” Coons says, laughing. “I try to juggle being a good husband and father, and I often find myself on a Saturday at an event in Dover with 50 kids and two U.S. senators. He’s the Energizer Bunny.”

Having a dynamic approach to life isn’t enough to become beloved within a state, however. That requires commitment to the people. Though Carper was born in West Virginia, he is as Delaware as a du Pont, thanks to the long hours he has spent meeting people, learning their concerns and working to craft solutions on their behalf. As the vast majority of the senate delegation retires to apartments and brownstones in D.C. every evening, Carper is usually on the 6:08 out of Union Station, heading back home.

Left to right: Carper, shown here in Iwakuni, Japan, in 1972, served 23 years in the Navy; Carper and former Pennsylvania Congressman Tom Ridge in the U.S. House; Martha and Tom with their sons Chris and Ben.

It’s a luxury that Alaska’s Sullivan certainly cannot enjoy, and it allows Carper to remain rooted to his home state in a way few of his colleagues can replicate. “It keeps him connected to things on the ground,” Delaware Rep. John Carney says. Carper is just like everyone else—except that he has been a congressman, governor and senator. Though he has a driver when he is on official business in Delaware, he can often be spotted driving himself to the supermarket in his 2001 Chrysler Town & Country van that has logged a whopping 422,000 miles. Carper is as close to an everyman character that a senator can be, and his passion keeps him moving forward.

“I see him at the Y several times a week, and it doesn’t seem like he’s any older than I am,” says the 60-year-old Carney. “When other senators his age kick back, he is as dogged as he was when he was a 29-year-old state treasurer.”

Carper’s workouts refuel him, but it’s obvious his passion is people. It’s not as if he can connect easily with every senator across the aisle, but his commitment to producing legislation, rather than engaging in political scrums, is due to his willingness to discover commonalities with others as much as it is practical. Delaware Secretary of State Jeff Bullock, who served nine years as chief of staff when Carper was a congressman and six-plus during Carper’s two terms as governor, cautions those who see the smiling senator and think he is too quick to compromise or befriend “the enemy.” 

Carper campaigns during his time as a congressman. 

“Sometimes, people mistake his humor and disarming nature for something it’s not,” Bullock says. “It’s the way he does his craft and draws people in. He lets them have their say and then incorporates that into his own point of view, so they can move forward. His natural pragmatic nature doesn’t allow him to put his opinion ahead of everyone else’s.”

Carper’s work with Inhofe on amendments to the Energy Modernization Act demonstrates his ability to form productive alliances. Inhofe is consistently rated as one of the most conservative senators in Washington, but he and Carper were able to craft codicils to the act that are expected to save money, help the country wean itself somewhat from foreign energy and protect the environment. It is exactly the type of compromise that Carper favors. During the June meeting, each man praised the other for cooperating, and though the two have their differences, it was clear both were happy with the outcome.

“He’s a problem solver,” Coons says. “He looks at things as a governor. He’s much less concerned with being known to viewers of MSNBC than he is in solving a problem.”

When Carper and his sister, Sheila, were growing up in West Virginia, their mother used to take them to church every Sunday morning and night, each Wednesday and most Thursdays. “She wanted us to learn the difference between right and wrong and the golden rule,” Carper says. “She wanted us to put ourselves in other people’s shoes.”

With such a strong base of churching, it’s no surprise Carper is a part of the Senate’s prayer group, which meets weekly. It’s an ecumenical bunch that includes the Presbyterian Carper—his mother took them to Southern Baptist services because “there weren’t any Presbyterian churches near,” he says—and those of other faiths. A little while ago, the chaplain reminded them that preserving the environment wasn’t just a political cause. “He said we had a moral obligation to protect the planet,” Carper says. “We have a moral obligation to protect its resources.”

The mandate reinforced Carper’s approach to environmental issues, which has been a key part of his work throughout his career. Though he is most identified here in Delaware for his help in securing our national park, it was hardly a one-and-done for him. The League of Conservation Voters gives Carper an 89 percent for his record of voting on pro-environment issues, and he has been consistently in favor of promoting clean air and water issues. After Carney helped guide the Delaware River Basin Conservation Act through the House, Carper attached it to the Senate’s Water Resources Development Act in 2015 and helped it become a reality.

In March 2012, Carper was joined by Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar
in Old New Castle to celebrate Delaware’s inclusion in the National Park System.

Richie Jones, director of the Delaware chapter of The Nature Conservancy, praises Carper for having “a deep understanding and passion for nature and its ability to define the First State.” Jones counts Carper as someone the Conservancy can call when it needs help in Washington. 

“Any time The Nature Conservancy has a legislative priority on Capitol Hill, it always has a strong partner in Senator Carper,” Jones says.

Blaine Phillips, senior vice president of The Conservation Fund, considers Carper’s ability to build coalitions and support for key issues an important part of the Delaware environmental equation. Carper combines a strong knowledge of the issues with his trademark engagement of diverse populations to serve as a powerful protector of the environment.

“Senator Carper is a resource in our state, not only as a good diplomat and senator but as a mentor,” Phillips says. “He brings others along and helps coach people on how to approach issues and resolve negative disputes. He has been invaluable on multiple fronts for the environmental community.”

That’s not Carper’s only focus. He is a staunch advocate for increased transportation funding, though his preferred method—a gradual increase in the gasoline tax—runs counter to the bill passed late last year to finance construction and improvement of highways, transit and bridges that relies on a hodgepodge of federal monies. Carper was quite eager to criticize the bill. 

“To be clear, pick-pocketing revenues from unrelated programs for years to come in order to pay for today’s potholes and failing bridges is as cowardly as it is illogical,” he said in a statement. 

Carper remains committed to Delaware causes, too. Mike Purzycki, longtime executive director of the Wilmington Riverfront Development Corporation, lauds Carper for his work while governor to help the city develop its riverfront—“In eight years, he never missed a meeting,” Purzycki says—and marvels at how well Carper continues to effect legislative change in a way that is nonconfrontational. 

“He’s an easy guy to like,” Purzycki says. “He has no big ego. Everybody has an ego, but his is under control.”

Carper met with President Obama on a trip to Vietnam in May.

In late May, after arriving in Washington at 6 a.m. after 20 hours of flying back from Vietnam as part of the delegation that accompanied President Obama there, Carper went straight to his office and began working. Later that morning, he walked onto the Senate floor to discuss a new defense bill. Before he addressed the business of the day, Carper went over to Arizona Sen. John McCain, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and told him he had visited the notorious Hanoi Hilton prison where McCain was held and tortured and that he had run around the lake where McCain’s plane had crash landed. “I told him there is a memorial to him there,” Carper says.

Carper served three tours of duty in Southeast Asia from 1968-73 as a Navy flight officer, so the opportunity to travel to Vietnam with Obama held great personal significance. It wasn’t Carper’s first trip back. In 1991, he was part of a group of six congressmen charged with beginning the process that led to normalization of relations with the Communist nation. In 1998, he brought a Delaware trade delegation to the country.

While in Vietnam in ’91, Carper met Do Muoi, who had just been named general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The congressmen outlined for Do Muoi their ideas for engagement with Vietnam, and some progress was made. During the May visit, a man approached Carper and said, “You don’t remember me, but I was one of the aides to Do Muoi when you were here in 1991.” Carper smiles at the memory. “That was magic,” he says.

It turns out Do Muoi, now 99, had only two weeks earlier been to the same palace that Obama and his delegation visited. When Carper returned to Washington, he wrote a note to Do Muoi, expressing his sadness about missing the opportunity to see him again.

It was another case of the senator doing what he does best: reaching across the aisle to connect with someone with whom he had worked to solve a problem.

And making the relationship stronger for the time when more work needs to be done.

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