What Will Be Gov. Jack Markell's Legacy?

Delawareans weigh in on our 73rd governor’s time in office.

When 2009 drew to a close, there were few smiles in Delaware. 

The economy had tanked—here and across the nation. Chrysler’s Newark assembly plant had shut down in December 2008. Seven months later, General Motors closed its plant on Boxwood Road near Newport. In November 2009 Valero Energy Corp. announced it was closing its Delaware City refinery. The state’s unemployment rate stood at 8.7 percent.

It was hardly the first year of “Moving Delaware Forward” that Gov. Jack Markell had hoped for.

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“He said, ‘I wanted to be governor in the worst way—and I got a chance to do it,’” recalls Brian Selander, the governor’s chief strategy officer during his first term.

Markell had charged into office in stunning fashion. Midway through his third term as state treasurer in 2008, he challenged Lt. Gov. John Carney for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, despite polling scenarios that gave him a very slim chance of winning. In a bruising primary, Markell bested Carney by 1,737 votes, forcing the favorite to wait eight years to claim the office. Markell then went on to rout Republican William Swain Lee by a more than 2-to-1 margin in the general election.

As Markell’s second term nears its conclusion, improving the state’s finances stands as top priority for his successor, but liberals, moderates and conservatives agree that Markell deserves kudos for his handling of the state’s economy. “He led us through the most difficult economic times many of us have seen in our lifetimes, certainly the most difficult of the last 80 years,” says Mark Turner, CEO of WSFS Bank and chairman of the Delaware Business Roundtable.

“He kept the ship moving forward when he got it in the middle of the storm,” says state Rep. Paul Baumbach, a progressive Democrat from Newark.

Indeed, the state’s unemployment rate stood at a healthy 4.3 percent in September 2016 and, since 2010, the overall job growth rate was 15.9 percent, significantly above the national average of 13.1 percent and better than that in the nearby states of Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Virginia. On top of that, only nine states posted increases in labor force participation during the same time frame, and Delaware showed the second-best growth of those nine.

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Though it might seem easy to assess Markell’s performance in handling year-to-year economic and budget issues, predicting how history might remember him is another matter. “The problem with any legacy is that you have to wait to see what happens,” says state Senate Minority Leader Greg Lavelle, a Republican from Sharpley.

While future developments might impact a legacy, so do people’s memories. “Ten years from now, we may have a hard time remembering who started what,” Selander says.

Markell chats with a supporter.

Asked to assess his own achievements, Markell is reluctant to label one accomplishment as most significant. Though he’s willing to talk about specifics, a broad statement is most compelling. “I’m very proud of the progress we’ve made putting people in a position to be more successful in the future,” he says.

In economic development, for example, the two-year-old Downtown Development District program has leveraged $14 million into $290 million of private investment statewide, and redevelopment initiatives at the former National Vulcanized Fiber site in Yorklyn and at Fort DuPont in Delaware City will provide new housing, business and recreational opportunities. Markell also quarterbacked a successful effort to find a new owner for the Delaware City refinery and proposed legislation, approved early in 2016, that was instrumental in the announcement that two of the three companies to grow out of the merger of the DuPont Co. and Dow Chemical would locate headquarters in Delaware.

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The Stand by Me financial empowerment program has helped nearly 10,500 Delawareans raise their credit scores through financial coaching, and it has assisted 7,400 people who sought college financial aid. 

Markell signs Executive Order Nineteen promoting healthy lifestyles and creating a Council on Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

In education, high school graduation rates increased from 78 percent in 2011 to 84 percent in 2015, and, in the past two years, the number of high school students taking college-level courses increased from 800 to 2,700. About 10 percent of the state’s public school kindergarten students are enrolled in a dual-language immersion program that was launched four years ago, so nearly 3,000 students are on track to be proficient in Spanish or Mandarin Chinese by the time they finish fourth grade.

Efforts to improve the quality of care for low-income children have resulted in an increase in youngsters enrolled in Delaware Stars programs from 5 percent to 70 percent of this demographic. And expanding the state’s network of bicycle trails drew praise from environmentalists, the tourism industry and ordinary citizens seeking healthy recreational opportunities.

These programs, and others initiated in the past eight years, Markell says, “have a very specific purpose: to enable the people of Delaware to have a brighter future.”

Markell will ultimately be remembered as “a governor who tried and succeeded in making progress in a number of areas, despite the most difficult economic headwinds we’ve had in a generation,” predicts Bob Perkins, executive director of the Delaware Business Roundtable.

For some, Markell’s most significant achievement was his leadership on social issues, especially those associated with gender equality. 

“On rights for the LGBT community, he did a good job on the issue once it became an issue. He didn’t initiate it, but he embraced it,” says Steve Tanzer, a blogger for Delaware Liberal.

“Jack was unwavering in his support and encouragement of civil unions and then marriage for everyone,” says Senate Majority Leader Patti Blevins, a Democrat from Elsmere. “It probably wouldn’t have happened on his watch if he hadn’t been so strongly supportive.” 

Gay marriage wasn’t the only social reform that drew Markell’s attention.

Paul Calistro, executive director of the West End Neighborhood House in Wilmington, salutes Markell’s efforts to improve the state’s foster care system, including services to young men and women who are aging out of the system. And Orlando J. George Jr., a former Democratic speaker of the House, says Markell “was very instrumental in changing the stigma of drug users and heroin users so that it’s now pretty acceptable to talk about them as patients in need of medical help rather than criminals, and he’s funded more treatment rather than incarceration.”

Wayne Smith, a former Republican majority leader in the state House of Representatives who is now president and CEO of the Delaware Healthcare Association, says Markell “successfully transformed himself from a ‘third way’ DLC [Democratic Leadership Council] Democrat of the 1990s to a progressive champion of the early 21st century, bringing mandated recycling, marriage equality, minimum wage hikes and higher clean energy requirements to Delawareans.” 

And Brian DiSabatino, president and CEO of the EDiS construction company, describes the governor, with the support of first lady Carla Markell, as an “unsung hero” in strengthening the arts community in the state. “What few people know is that the arts in Delaware could have easily tipped over into oblivion, forcing Delawareans to reach into other communities for inspiration, creativity, humor and solace,” he says. “Instead, Jack and Carla galvanized us all, and we not only fixed some ailing institutions, we moved many of them into leadership positions within the region.”

Paul Weagraff, director of the Division of the Arts, agrees. “The arts in Delaware have not only weathered a tumultuous economic climate, but have emerged as stronger,” Weagraff says. “By doubling the arts budget for the Delaware Division of the Arts during his tenure, the governor leaves a legacy in the arts of sustaining a creative sector that supports nearly 4,000 jobs, $150 million in economic activity, and state and local revenues nearing $10 million. More than 1 million individuals benefit from the arts in Delaware annually, including nearly a quarter million school-aged youth.”

Though Markell draws praise for many initiatives, there have been several large disappointments, notably the Fisker Automotive and Bloom Energy economic development ventures and the battles over teacher evaluations and priority schools.

In October 2009, with much fanfare, Markell and Vice President Joe Biden announced that Fisker would take over the GM Boxwood Road plant and begin production of plug-in, hybrid electric cars. The state, through the Delaware Economic Development Office, approved $21.5 million in loans and other incentives to Fisker to help refurbish the plant. But Fisker, beset with financial miscalculations and quality control issues, never built a single car in Delaware. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2013. Fisker’s assets, including the Boxwood Road plant, were purchased by Wanxiang America Inc., an arm of China’s largest auto components manufacturer, in February 2014. The state recovered little of its investment, and the plant remains idle.

When GM pulled out, “I called every car manufacturer in the world,” Markell says. “None of them were interested. Fisker was on its way to raising $1 billion. We thought it was our best chance to get people back to work.”

In June 2011, Markell’s office announced a deal with Bloom Energy, a California-based manufacturer of fuel cell devices. The deal was predicted to create up to 1,500 high-tech jobs for the company and its suppliers at its manufacturing site on the University of Delaware’s STAR Campus, where the Chrysler plant once stood. Within a year, enabling legislation and a package from DEDO provided Bloom with $12 million from the state’s Strategic Fund, a dollar-a-year lease at UD for 25 years, and a surcharge on the utility bills of Delmarva Power customers. Bloom promised to create, by October 2017, 900 new jobs that paid a total of $108 million. As of the end of September, Bloom had created only 277 jobs, with total earnings of $45 million. Meanwhile, under a complex formula, the surcharges on Delmarva bills have steadily increased, from 65 cents a month in 2012 to $5.55 per month in late 2016 for the average ratepayer.

If Bloom fails to meet its employment goals, the state can claw back some of its investment, but how much remains unclear.

Markell, acknowledging that Fisker and Bloom have not played out as well as hoped, points to other recruiting efforts that have worked, such as 1,800 new jobs at JPMorgan Chase and hundreds more at other financial services companies. 

Today’s banking and financial services positions are much different than those created after passage of the landmark Financial Center Development Act in 1981, Markell says. Call-center jobs are a thing of the past; banks now need employees skilled in computer technology. 

Looking at overall economic development efforts, Markell’s office says that, since 2010, companies that received state grants created nearly 32,300 jobs, some 25 percent more than the 25,740 they promised. 

“He took some risks. Some paid off, and some didn’t,” Baumbach says. “Overall, he used his business background to run the state in a very responsible way. He’s been a good leader.”

Markell visits the Charles W. Bush Early Education Center to congratulate students for collecting donations for Delaware’s sister state of Miyagi, Japan.

On the education front, Markell draws mixed reviews. Tanzer, the Delaware Liberal blogger, rates him as “a disaster.” “That’s ironic,” Tanzer says, “seeing that he set himself up as ‘the education governor.’” 

On the other side, David S. Swayze, legal counsel to former Gov. Pete du Pont, contends that Markell’s “unstinting efforts in the cause of classroom excellence—including the introduction and expansion of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and intensive language arts, his push for access to pre-kindergarten education, his successful garnering of the Race to the Top funds and his revamping of the standardized testing program—will, if sustained by his successor, result in a paradigm shift” in both educational opportunities and measurable student performance.

Paul Herdman, president and CEO of the Rodel Foundation, an education reform group, credits Markell with establishing “good building blocks,” including advancement in early learning programs, development of higher and more consistent academic standards, creation of the career-oriented Pathways to Prosperity program in 10 subject areas, and identifying first-generation college-ready students and encouraging them to apply for and enroll in higher education programs.

Mike Matthews, former president of the Red Clay Education Association and a frequent critic of both the governor and the state’s education hierarchy, believes Markell has the best interests of Delaware’s students in mind. “Where we differ,” he says, “is how we get to providing the schools our children deserve.”

Matthews salutes Pathways to Prosperity and improving access to advanced-placement and dual-enrollment classes for high school students, but he criticizes the “really punitive and draconian accountability measures” the governor put into play as an outcome of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation and the $119 million Race to the Top grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

During Markell’s administration, standardized testing programs often seemed to be less a measurement of individual student growth than it was a tool to evaluate the performance of schools and individual teachers. A uniform teacher evaluation program still hasn’t been developed, and a firestorm erupted in the fall of 2014 when Markell and the Department of Education placed the “priority school” label on Wilmington schools in the Red Clay and Christina districts that had high percentages of low-income students and performance significantly below state averages on standardized tests. 

The move angered teachers and triggered a months-long battle between the state and Christina. A proposal to replace school leaders and many teachers at the priority schools was blocked, and the stalemate ultimately led to legislation creating the Wilmington Education Advisory Committee and its successor, the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission, which would propose, among other things, moving the Christina’s Wilmington schools into the Red Clay district and providing supplemental funding, first in those districts then, ultimately, statewide for schools with large numbers of students from low-income families, English-language learners or those have special educational needs while in kindergarten through third grade. 

It took Markell’s intervention last spring to get the State Board of Education to narrowly approve the WEIC proposal, but it stalled in the General Assembly.

Matthews questions whether Markell went all out to push the measure in the closing days of the legislative session, but acknowledges that passage would have been difficult. In addition to funding questions, there were “so many divergent opinions—opposition from Red Clay legislators, opposition from Kent and Sussex,” he says. “Maybe he knew it was dead on arrival.” 

“I’m disappointed it didn’t go further. I don’t underestimate how difficult it is” to implement a significant education reform, Markell says. “I don’t know where it shakes out from here.”

“Most of the things that are important to change take more than one cycle to change,” Herdman says. Whether it’s improved education for students in poverty, better access to college or strengthened career-oriented programs, he says, “it may be five or 10 years before you see significant impacts.”

Ultimately, the long-term outcomes of Markell’s efforts in economic development and education will likely determine how he is remembered. Given his priorities, that’s a fair basis for making the assessment.

For eight years, he says, his focus has been on “how do you build an economy for the 21st century,” a task that includes “having skilled workers, an affordable place to do business, investing in quality of life through bike trails and walking paths, connecting businesses to institutions of higher education.”

Sure, he adds, controversies such as Fisker, Bloom and priority schools may have made big news stories, “but the big work is all about how to make the state better for the future.”

The big challenges

Every new governor inherits some problems—and the great expectations of others. From finance on down, here’s the list.

As John Carney prepares to take the oath of office, we asked a cross-section of political and business leaders for their thoughts on the major challenges he will face as Delaware’s 74th governor.

It should come as no surprise that financial issues top the list. “It’s all about the money,” says Senate Minority Leader Greg Lavelle.

Delaware faces a structural challenge in its budgeting: Several key spending categories, notably state employee benefits and Medicaid, are rising rapidly, while prime revenue sources, such as casinos, abandoned property and corporation fees and taxes, are unreliable. “It’s not sustainable. We’ve kicked the can down the road some, and we’re close to the end of that,” says state Rep. Paul Baumbach, a Newark Democrat.

The new governor will have to exert some leadership in developing a budget that incorporates both tax hikes and spending cuts.

On a larger scale, economic development challenges revolve around creating a growth model focused on innovation and technology. Dollar for dollar, Delaware cannot match larger states in offering financial incentives to businesses on the move, so it must offer other perks—a talented workforce, a clean environment and a strong education system.

Related issues that drew mentions: improving pay for state employees, increasing the minimum wage, increasing the state income tax rate for high earners and making the necessary financial commitments to rebuild the state’s infrastructure—its roads, bridges, brownfields and water supply.

Education reform will also rank high for the new governor. While Gov. Jack Markell initiated many reforms, Delaware remains one of the few states that do not provide supplemental funding for schools with high concentrations of students from low-income families, English-language learners and children with special needs in the early elementary grades. The Wilmington Education Improvement Commission, whose proposals for strengthening educational opportunities for city residents languished in the General Assembly, emphasized that providing weighted funding for high-need students is a statewide issue, not one limited to Wilmington.

Delaware relies on a school funding system created more than 60 years ago, then repeatedly amended to the point that few outside of school finance offices understand it. Despite repeated calls for reform in the past 10 years, nothing has changed. But the Wilmington issue, controversial referendums, statewide imbalances in property assessments and episodes of misspending at several charter schools may push school finance reform higher up on the to-do list.

Other key education needs: reducing time spent on testing, developing a consistent teacher evaluation system, and blending technology with traditional instruction to provide more personalized learning opportunities for individual students.

Many suggest that the governor address the death penalty issue now that the state Supreme Court has declared the current state law unconstitutional; that he pay greater attention to the needs of the middle class and the working poor; that he work with healthcare providers to ensure that the state’s residents can live healthy lives and receive high-value care; and that he streamline and reduce inconsistencies in environmental permitting processes. 

As Carney sets his priorities, he should recognize that he will have many allies willing to offer support.

“Nobody is sitting on the sidelines,” says Brian DiSabatino, president and CEO of the EDiS Company. “He needs to remember that we are all here to help.”

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