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Newsmaker Interview: Delaware Governor Jack Markell

Newsmaker Interview: Delaware Governor Jack Markell

By RealClearPolitics - February 23, 2010

RCP: To start, just give me a sense of what we’re going to hear from the DGA this weekend?

Markell: Voters throughout the country are going to have significant choices. That’s what elections are always about. But the elections this year present some very stark choices between governors and candidates on the Democratic side who are trying to lead forward and take the country to a better place, and Republicans who want to just turn the clock back. It really is just incredible, some of these choices in places like Ohio. Governor Strickland’s really been a very good governor in a tough time, running against a guy that has proposed getting rid of the entire state income tax, which is a third of Ohio’s budget, with no suggestions about how to replace it or how to cut spending. A suggestion that Rob Portman, a fellow Republican in Ohio, has said doesn’t make any sense.
 
A similar kind of choice in Florida.
 
So first of all it’s about choices. Secondly, we really believe that the governor’s races could be a bright spot for Democrats in November. One of the great things about governor’s races is that voters vote based on what’s happening in their states, and who is it that’s going to be most likely to put people back to work and manage spending well to improve schools. So if you look at the map, we’ve got a good shot in some big states: California, Texas, Florida. We’ve got a good shot in those big states, but it goes well beyond that. We’ve got a good shot in Georgia because of Governor Barnes getting in the race. We’ve got a good shot in Hawaii. And of course, these are all pickup opportunities I’m talking about. In Arizona, in Minnesota, in Vermont, in Connecticut, in Rhode Island. So we think we’ve got a good shot in all of those, including some of the biggest states.
 
RCP: One of my favorite bits of political spin ever was after the 2002 elections, when Terry McAuliffe said more people will wake up with a Democratic Governor – ignoring all the other losses in Congress.

Markell: And I have the benefit of being able to focus on governor’s races, and that could still well be true.
 
RCP: There’s so much talk now that Washington is broken, that nothing is getting done, everything is gridlocked. What can we expect to hear from Democrats about that as far as governors are concerned. Will there be an effort to differentiate Washington Democrats from Democrats in the states?

Markell: Well here’s how I’d put it. There is something that is likely to occur that is both positive but also lamentably rare, which is that we believe that there are going to be Democrats who leave this weekend bringing ideas that they got from Republicans. We believe that there are going to be Republicans going home this weekend who take ideas from Democrats. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.
 
But we also know that we have been, and Washington in particular – you can’t lead simply by saying no. and when it comes down to putting people to work, there are a lot of things that we’re doing in the states. But there are some things that they ought to be doing in Washington, too. And Democrats have put a lot of good ideas forward, and Republicans have made this totally about partisanship. Partisanship may work when it comes to scoring political points in Washington. But it doesn’t work when it comes to putting people back to work back in our states. That’s a very big deal, and I think you’re going to be hearing about that.
 
RCP: The Republican Governors Association wants governors, from both parties, to be involved. Should the White House include them?

Markell: I’m not going to tell the White House how to set up their summit. I think the good news here is, Secretary Sebelius has reached out frequently to governors including just this past week to talk to us about the clawback on Medicaid. So we have frequent communications. We do think that it’s important that gubernatorial voices be heard when it comes to what’s going on in health care, because we’ve got a lot at stake. We think that the White House has reached out to us a lot.
 
RCP: There was a letter signed by Democratic governors generally supportive of health care legislation. There have been some that Republicans are pointing to that have been critical of it. Where do you see this process now?

Markell: We got to get something done. We’ve got to get something done on several different levels. The best way for me to explain this is to talk about what I hear from my constituents in Delaware. The status quo is absolutely not acceptable. It’s not acceptable to people who are struggling to get insurance in the first place. It’s not acceptable to small businesses, and I hear a lot from small businesses who are really struggling with increasing rates. And they want to cover their people. It becomes more and more difficult for them to do so. And I think there was a report out yesterday – I think it came from Health and Human Services – about health increases in California, a 40 percent increase in health care rates. This is not sustainable. And what people have got to understand is that dealing with health care is about dealing with jobs. These are not two separate issues.
 
RCP: You say we have to get something done. There’s a school of thought that Democrats are better off passing something rather than nothing. Would you agree with that?

Markell: To me this is not about the politics of it. Let me be a little more specific, because it’s not just about passing something. It’s about passing something that addresses two major issues: one is about access, and one is about cost. I am personally -- and I’ve felt this way from the very beginning – I thought the discussion about the public option was sort of a red herring. To me, what the mechanics are and whether there’s any, for example, public option or not is less important than whether we address those two issues. I think one of the important things is, there’s been so much disinformation from the other side. It’s been a little difficult to break through the clutter of that disinformation about why in fact these reforms could contain health costs.
 
If you think about the struggles that states – that governors and state legislatures are dealing with, with respect to their own budgets, the health care costs crowd out so much. I can tell you, in our state we have a $3 billion budget. A little more than $500 million of that is Medicaid, increasing rapidly. That’s not even to mention the cost of paying for health care for state employees and our retirees. Given the increasing costs – I mean I just found myself a couple weeks ago having to propose a new tier of both health care and pensions for state employees. And certainly the escalating costs, the rapidly escalating costs of health care is a big reason why.
 
RCP: Governor Barbour said last night that if the federal government would eliminate the unfunded mandate in the health care legislation, Republican governors would probably withdraw some of their reservations. Is that an option, something you would want to see?

Markell: The way that I look at this is not simply what is the effect on state government. The more important issue is, what’s the effect on Americans. And on businesses. So it is my hope and my expectation that the access and the cost will be addressed. As it relates to the states, certainly one of the promises of health care reform is that some of the issues that I talked about a moment ago, particularly the escalating costs of health care for state employees and the like, when you control cost we’re a direct beneficiary of that.
 
RCP: Last year at this time the stimulus was still a major topic of discussion. From the perspective of governors, how much has that made your job easier, and what do you think of the current pushback we’re seeing from Democrats in terms of hypocrisy – is that something that can be helpful this fall.

Markell: The stimulus has been helpful in a couple of main ways. We balanced our very significant shortfall last year through a combination of budget cuts, revenue increases – both of which were very painful – and the use of the federal stimulus money. Over $220 million of the federal stimulus money. And there are a lot of states who are in the same boat. So that was incredibly helpful. And in our case, when you think about $220 million, it is thousands – that’s the equivalent of thousands and thousands of state employees who would have had to been laid off. Teachers, police officers,  workers in our state hospitals and the like. So that was just incredibly important.
 
One of the things that people have got to focus on is that at the state level, because we have to balance our budgets, we – although we did use the stimulus money to help out – we have also been incredibly aggressive about cutting costs. So in Delaware, for instance, we’re down from the day I took office in January of ’09 to this coming June, we will be down by 1,000 positions in state government out of 15,000. We are significantly reducing the number of cars in our state fleet. We are moving out of leased space. We are renegotiating real estate leases. We have renegotiated cell phone bills that saved $500,000 there. We’re reducing the administrative costs of education. So we have – when I introduced my budget a few weeks ago, there were literally a couple hundred things that we have proposed, where we’re having to make some tough decisions and tough cuts.
 
So I think that context is important when you talk about the stimulus to your question specifically, a lot of states did use and continue to use this year the money from the stimulus. And, there a bunch of states, I want to say 17 Democratic and Republican governors alike,, who have actually proposed their budgets for next year with a plug number of what they’re expecting in terms of additional help. I think there are eight Republicans on that list. We didn’t do that in Delaware, and I’m not editorializing about what other states did, but I’m making that point. So in terms of the stimulus, that’s one place that it was helpful.
 
And the other place it was helpful, it put people back to work. You can pretend that it didn’t, but it did. And so, every state’s got it’s numbers about how many people got put back to work. The numbers are important. but so are the real people. And so one of the great things – one of the things I love about being governor of Delaware is that I get to meet the people. I met a guy named Bruce. Bruce works at Amtrak. Delaware, besides having the Wilmington train station, Amtrak has two facilities where they refurbish passenger cars and locomotives.
 
RCP: Thank you, Mr. Vice President.

Markell: So I met a guy who had been laid off Chrysler and went back to work refurbishing passenger cars. I met another guy, 40 year old guy who lives in Claymont Delaware. Has a wife and two kids. … And he told me he lost his job – he was an operating engineer. He lost his job. And he said the most difficult conversation he had ever had to have is to go home and tell his wife and two boys that he was out of work. I met him a couple weeks later when he was back on the job. He was doing an expansion of a parking lot for park and ride in mass transit. Tell that guy the stimulus didn’t work.
 
So I do believe, first of all, that it’s been helpful. I also think that it has absolutely pulled us back from the brink. A year ago at this NGA meeting, it was disconcerting. We were at the abyss. And it really wasn’t clear which way we were going to go. We’ve got a long way to go. We’ve got a long way to go at the federal level, we’ve got a long way to go at the state level. But we have stepped back from that abyss.
 
In terms of it as a political issue, I do think it’s quite interesting when Republicans in Congress voted as a bloc against it and now are going out all over their states claiming [credit], getting their pictures taken and all that.
 
RCP: The Democratic push from the national party seems to have been one of their more successful efforts, at being on offense. Do you think there’s been too much defensive posture?

Markell: I’ll put it this way. I think when people understand the specific components and they get to see the real jobs that have been created – one thing I know, people want to protect teacher positions. People want more small business lending. And when you translate it away from the amorphous ‘Stimulus,’ and you say it’s about getting small businesses better access to capital, when it’s about protecting teacher jobs, when it’s about continuing to invest in our infrastructure, people get that. So I think the focus really needs to be there, not talking about it at 30,000 feet. But talking about it in terms of the real, concrete things that this money can do – has done and can do.
 
RCP: There’s a lot still to be paid out. But has the program been as effective as it could be? And should infrastructure have been a larger part of it?

Markell: It’s interesting; you say a lot of it hasn’t been spent out yet. In Delaware, for instance, the single biggest chunk of our transportation money is $40 million that we are spending to put in a high-speed EZ Pass lane on I-95.

RCP: Good.
 
Markell: I thought you’d like that. So I think there have been many useful components. I’m not sure I’m qualified to say that one is better than another. But there’s no question that Governor Rendell and Governor Schwarzenegger, for that matter, as well as Mayor Bloomberg – the three of them have really taken on a leadership role in talking about infrastructure.
 
And we are significantly behind. When you can go to China and take a train that goes 253 miles per hour, when you can go to Germany and take a train that’s 220 miles per hour from city to city – we don’t come close to that. We do have significant issues. So I think that kind of investment [is needed] -- particularly because it does have a long-term benefit. We need a strong transportation infrastructure, we need a strong broadband infrastructure – all those things to be economically competitive.

RCP: You’ve mentioned that you’ve had to make some very difficult choices. Democrats are defending a lot of seats, many incumbents have had to make the same kind of choices. … Where do you see that as far as elections this fall? How do they sell those in the election?

Markell: It’s a challenging landscape. It’s my view that in either party, the governors who are out there and they are directly communicating with their constituents and not hiding behind the trappings of the office, people get it. If you’re out there and you listen to them – let me just give you some specifics.
 
In Delaware in the past 14 months, we have lost two car plants and a refinery. I think – I know we’ve got a happy outcome for both car plants because the University of Delaware bought the Chrysler facility and Fisker Automotive is buying the general motors facility. The refinery I think we’ve actually got a decent chance of saving as well.
 
But I have been – the day after the GM plant was closed I went to the plant and met with the 300 workers who were there that day. And it was like a funeral. I walked in there sick to my stomach, and I left absolutely inspired because they were not done fighting for their jobs and I was not done fighting for them.
 
About a month ago there were a couple hundred members of our building trades who went to Dover to protest at Legislative Hall. They were concerned about jobs. It got to the point where they were throwing shoes at Legislative Hall. I was scheduled to be in the area for a press conference, and I went. I got up on an SUV, a Durango. And the head of the building trades held up a microphone for me to speak to the crowd. And I spoke to them. And I told them, we were waking up every single day focused on jobs. That I was not, just as I had not given up on GM and Valero, I wasn’t giving up on any of them.
 
This is a very tough environment. But that being said, those governors who are out there, who are making the tough decisions and who also – it’s not just about making tough decisions. People vote on their aspirations and their future rather than on their fear. So people have got to have a sense that you get it, that you’re going to fight for them, and that you have a plan. And that plan has got to be in these days, it’s very much about jobs but it’s also about spending money wisely and about schools.
 
RCP: How much do you expect the White House to be an asset and the president to be an asset this year, and how active do you think he’ll be.

Markell: I think the president will be a big asset. When you put it in the context of where were we a year ago, we are back from that abyss. And so I think that’s critically important. And I would absolutely welcome him into Delaware to talk not only about where we were, where we’ve been, but most importantly where we’re going. He laid out recently a number of very specific proposals with respect to jobs. And I know that governors – he reached out to us for some of our best ideas about jobs and certainly the DGA provided a list to him and he took us up on some of those ideas. There’s a lot of overlap. He’s focused on small business lending, expanding some of the SBA lending and the like. Tax credits to get people back to work. So I think he can be a help.
 
RCP: There’s been nothing but surprises it seems for Democrats here in DC, this week Evan Bayh being the latest. Are there any shoes still to drop?

Markell: Not that I know of, no.
 
RCP: So you think the field is set with your incumbents?

Markell: I think so. We have a lot of primaries still to sort out in places like Maine.
 
RCP: One of the pickup opportunities you talked about was Florida. There was a recent piece in the St. Petersburg Times quoting Democrats concerned about Alex Sink’s campaign so far.  Is there any concern about how engaged she’s been?

Markell: The DGA’s involved in that. We feel good about her campaign. And since you pointed that article out, I’ll point another article out which was in the Orlando Sentinel. I don’t know if you’ve seen that one – about McCollum. It is quite an article.
 
Look: here you’ve got a choice between a Democratic candidate who has been the chief financial officer of that state. Very engaged in the tough financial decisions and all of those issues. Running against a guy who runs over and over and over again, and who many people believe was an architect – one of the architects of the problems that led to the mortgage meltdown in the first place. This article in the Orlando Sentinel by one of the columnists down there – these are very serious times. And serious times demand serious people. And we feel good. We spent more time recently in Florida getting a sense of the campaign, and we think they’re going to be on the right track.
 
RCP: The Texas primary is right around the corner. What’s your sense of how the Republican primary will effect the general election and how optimistic are you about Mayor White.

Markell: Mayor White’s an outstanding candidate. Before he got in it wasn’t clear that that would be a pickup opportunity for us. What’s going on on the Republican side is particularly interesting, because it looks like the third party candidate may prevent this thing from ending at the primary, and there may be a runoff a month later. That extra month gives Mayor White the opportunity to continue to raise money and get his message out while Republicans are fighting each other. And that sets us up pretty well. Obviously it’s a difficult state, but he is an extraordinarily good candidate, a good fundraiser. The fact that he is within I believe single digits in most of the polls that have come out, when he’s not yet really all that well-known outside of Houston, I think is a very good sign.
 
RCP: Governor Paterson is announcing his campaign this weekend. That may be one of the tough primaries still to come. What’s your expectation there?

Markell: I don’t know. He’s a member of this organization so we’re supportive of whatever he chooses to do.
 
RCP: Governor Culver – a poll this week showed him significantly trailing former Governor Branstad. There’s talk even maybe of a primary. What can you do to help him there?

Markell: I’m actually meeting with him today to see how we can be helpful. You’re pointing out a number of states that are challenging. If you’re an incumbent, no matter what party, it’s a tough year for most of them.
 
RCP: To wrap up then, you’re only in your second year as governor. And you’re now going head to head with Haley Barbour, a former party chairman. Describe how you feel about this matchup as far as the Governors Associations.

Markell: First of all, I have great respect for Governor. Barbour. I think he’s a very good leader for the RGA. And it’s really not so much about my going head-to-head with him, it’s about Democrats going head-to-head with Republicans. And I think we come out very well in that competition for all the reasons that we talked about earlier. We’ve got great candidates. The DGA is in terrific shape this year. We have 12 times more money at this point in the cycle that we had four years ago. I think this is the first time ever the DGA has actually had more money than any of the other Democratic organization. We have been planning for 2010 since January of 2007. So we think we’re doing all the right things and that we’re in a strong position.

 

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