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Exclusive: Gov. Carney talks future of Delaware, Dems & himself

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Delaware Gov. John Carney has aims to add jobs, address climate change and improve education in his last two years in office. | DBT PHOTO BY JIM COARSE / MOONLOOP PHOTOGRAPHY

As the calendar nears 2023, Gov. John Carney is preparing for perhaps the most consequential period of his governorship.

He has two years left to achieve his policy goals before his final term expires, but is faced with the legislature that, while packed with fellow Democrats, is also facing a growing progressive lean farther to his left. 

Often understated and measured in approach, Carney nonetheless has continued a long lineage of strong Delaware governors who chart the future for the state, wielding influence over party politics and business along the way.

Earlier this month, I sat down with the governor at his downtown Wilmington office to discuss his future, the future of the state Democratic Party and what is still on his list of goals as the timer hits 24 months. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Gov. John Carney sat down with Delaware Business Times at his Wilmington office recently to discuss the future. | DBT PHOTO BY JIM COARSE / MOONLOOP PHOTOGRAPHY

I thought we’d start with the election. Over the last three elections, Democrats have swept statewide races, and you now have the largest margin in the statehouse as a modern Delaware governor. What does that say to you as one of the state party leaders?

I think it says a couple of things, and I think you can see it in other states too.

Back when I first started doing this, we were clearly a Republican-leaning state. Republicans populated the governor’s office for 16 years in a row, eight years of Pete du Pont and eight of Mike Castle, both of whom were moderate Republicans.

Then Tom Carper was elected after that, a moderate Democrat, a so-called New Democrat, and was able to shift things a little, although the Republicans had a solid majority of the House. So, it was really a mixed government and it worked pretty good, because on both sides of the aisle we had the so-called Delaware Way.

Tom cut taxes almost every year. And that had been a priority from the first time that Pete du Pont was elected in 1976, because our top marginal rate made us uncompetitive with other states.

Since then, Govs. Minner, Markell and myself have always been in that moderate Democratic tradition, governing from the center.

Increasingly the Republican Party has shifted further harshly to the right, really starting a little bit in 2000, but really in 2010 with the loss of Mike Castle. I think that was a milestone. And since then, they’ve just been just too far to the right for Delawareans, even moderate Republicans, which is the party here in the northern part of our state.  

It’s not my job to solve their problems, but on our side, at least in Congress, as they move further to the right, the reaction on our side was to move further left.

One really important thing that I learned along the way that was core to that New Democrat movement was said by Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.), “It’s inconsistent to be pro-jobs and anti-business.”

And that kind of a kind of approach is something that I’ve adopted. When your businesses are growing, they’re hiring people, you’re attracting businesses from other states, everything else we try to do social policy-wise gets way easier. Because good-paying jobs are the best solution to family economic problems, and lots of other social emotional issues.

The Delaware Democratic Party has had several longtime leaders unseated in recent years by more grassroots, progressive campaigns. What does that say to you about the future of the party here in Delaware? And does that concern you, being a part of that lineage of centrist Democrats?

Yeah, it does concern me. I just think the proof is in the pudding.

We were able to get support from members of the party who are further to the left for privatization of economic development through [Delaware Prosperity Partnership], and being smart about tax and budget policy, because that enables them to do the social programming they want. We adopted things like paid family leave, which was a big thing for state government.

Gov. John Carney said that he’s committed to building economic development and adding jobs in Delaware for his remaining years in office. | DBT PHOTO BY JIM COARSE / MOONLOOP PHOTOGRAPHY

As you look at the last two years of your term, do you have major goals that you want to accomplish?

It’s really finishing strong and building on what we’ve done.

DPP has been very successful. What I was worried about with DPP was what happened to the Division of Small Business? How effective would it be? And they have been very effective.

Another piece of economic development is the role of higher education. If you think of the STAR campus, you have the Delaware Technology Park, Chemours Discovery Center and the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals (NIIMBL)

When we started investing in NIIMBL, I used to say to [former UD Office of Economic Innovation and Partnerships Director] David Weir that our investment is really about jobs that could be spun out of that research.

I remember going down there on a tour and thinking to myself, “A home run would be if we could attract a pharma manufacturing business into our state.” And lo and behold, it happened.

Do you think WuXi would have happened without NIIMBL?

I don’t know the answer to that. I know that it was a selling point.

And if I’m on their side, and workforce is the most important part of it, having that right up the road is really important.

So that’s a half a billion dollars’ worth of construction and three years of employment for the electricians’ trades on that project. That’s bread and butter on the table for those [IBEW Local] 313 guys and along with mechanical and other work.

Not to mention the long-term jobs on the backside.

That’s right. That’s 500 jobs there and it’s just phase one; we’re expecting a phase two.

And then other things are just happening. Amazon has 7,000 jobs in our state. When you think about that Boxwood facility out there and compare it to what it was [under General Motors] to where it is today, the jobs aren’t quite as high paying, but there’s probably more of them, and more likely to be continuous as opposed to up and down like the auto jobs were.

So, when I think about tax policy, I think about it in that context. What’s the top marginal rate in Pennsylvania, Maryland or New Jersey? How are we competing? Right now, we’re pretty competitive.

The other piece of that is having a fiscally sound budget, because if you want to be competitive on the tax side, you can’t be spending more than you’re bringing in. And we’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of extra revenue, which we’ve been able to invest on the capital side because we don’t think it’s going to be sustainable.

The other big thing in the next few years is going to be putting to work the billions in federal money from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill as well as the American Rescue Plan Act.

One of the most controversial policy issues that we saw last session was marijuana. I know you’ve been steadfast in your beliefs on prohibition, but with New Jersey and now Maryland legalized, and polling showing majority support here, do you see yourself making any kind of compromise on legalization or taxation/sale in the next two years?

Obviously, my view of it is based on the idea that I just don’t think it’s good health care policy.

I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world. I don’t think people who smoke pot ought to be criminals, and we’ve decriminalized it. There’s obviously a benefit for those who use it for medical purposes, and I support that.

The question is really, is it good for young people? We went through this huge campaign, working alongside Gov. Minner who championed it, to get people to stop smoking, and smoking didn’t make you unable to drive a car and or maybe make other decisions that weren’t great. So, I just don’t think it’s the best thing.

Now, to state the obvious, it’s all around us and so at some point you have to figure it out.

For me, it’s going to be a question of figuring out where you draw the line, and one factor is whether it is good for your workforce. How do you know when somebody’s coming high to work? There’s not a good blood test because it stays in your system so long. We also have a terrible death rate right now on the highways and you know people are smoking pot because when you’re driving behind them, you can smell it.

So, the bottom line I think is we’re going to have to pick our battles and for me, the battles are around staying competitive economically, which is a lot of tax policy; having a solid sustainable budget, and in people’s interest in education and early education investments. So that’s where I’ll draw the lines around those issues when there are differences.

Gov. John Carney will make climate change legislation a key part of his last two years in office, building off the Climate Action Plan signed in 2021. | PHOTO COURTESY OF GOVERNOR’S OFFICE

On a different issue of climate change …

Yeah, we’ve got to get busy on the transportation side …

You backed the Climate Change Solutions Act last year before pulling your support following the Supreme Court ruling in the West Virginia case with the EPA. How do you plan on perhaps coinciding with that this year?

First of all, it’s one of those problems that is worldwide. There isn’t one thing that we can do in little, tiny Delaware, but everybody has to do their part.

 When I talk to people about it, I remember the bumper sticker that used to be around it said “Think globally, act locally.” A lot has been done to cut carbon emissions in our electricity generation in our state, mostly not by going carbon-free, but converting from coal-fired to natural gas-fired, which is actually a pretty good transition fuel. Still has carbon, but not nearly as much as coal and it’s plentiful. So, it can be a bridge as you ramp up solar, wind, and maybe one day hydrogen.

We’re making progress on [decarbonizing production]. We’ve got a Renewable Portfolio Standard that’s been agreed upon and established and another standard for the reduction in carbon emissions.

So, now it becomes what are you doing on the transportation side? A lot of people have been for trains and buses, but we’re just not that dense. Our bus transportation system now is hugely subsidized, which is OK to a point. So, let’s electrify those buses and try to set up electric charging stations and try to encourage people to purchase electric vehicles. That’s a big leap because they’re really expensive but we’ve got to get on the move.

You signed onto the multi-state Climate Alliance in 2017 and part of that we’re starting to hear about with DNREC hearings is the goal of moving away from gas-powered vehicle sales by 2035. As that’s just 12 years away, is that a feasible goal?

Well let’s consider one fact. I’m told that there’s a waiting list for the Ford F-150 Lightning, which is an electric truck. And if you watch the TV ads, that tells me something: Ford, and other auto companies, are basing their futures on electric vehicles.

I think more importantly, there’s demand out there for electric vehicles, so they’re going to build it.

I heard [Tesla CEO] Elon Musk give a presentation probably not long after I was first elected – and this of course supports his business – but he said that the uptake on electric cars was going to be exponential. And that just makes sense to me. So we’ve got to get with it to enable it to happen.

You expect to use some of that Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding to build a network?

Absolutely. At least the portion that’s earmarked for it, and then we think about ways that we can add to it like buying our own school and DART buses, which we’re doing some of with federal grants mostly.

But we’ve also discussed at National Governors Association meetings that if you have a big electric vehicle fleet and the electricity that you’re generating to power it is carbon-based then what are you doing?

That’s of course one of the most common refrains from electric vehicle critics.

Right, and so the idea of somehow tying in maybe a wind farm or something like that into your charging network certainly makes sense. But remember, we’re in a grid, and the grid is the combination of all the generators. Our electrons come from other places than just our generators, and a majority of them come from [Salem Nuclear Power Plant] across the river, which is carbon-free.

One of the parts of that renewable energy equation that is most controversial here in Delaware is offshore wind. We do have some major projects that we could see from Delaware but aren’t regulated by Delaware. Is that something that in your last two years that you would consider?

We’ve got to take another look at it. Particularly since you’ve already got projects that are already approved, and they’ve got room [to expand]. So why not take a piece of it if we can get the right terms? Maybe tie it into the electrification network, but just be creative and thoughtful about it. 

What I do know is we’ve got to do something on the transportation side if we’re going to take our local steps to fit into the global approach.

You’ve spent almost your entire adult life in public service. Have you thought at all about what your post-governorship would look like?

I don’t really have time to think about it. I just think about the last two and a half years and it’s staggering.

We, in the largest sense with mostly federal resources, saved a lot of companies during that pandemic period. Some didn’t make it, but more made it than didn’t. They’re stronger today, I think, than they were then depending on what industry they were in.

We used a lot of our money to avoid having to increase unemployment insurance taxes for small businesses. Those funds would come right out of businesses’ top line, so it can effectively be seen as a tax cut or tax avoidance.

Now, jobs are leaking here from other more densely populated areas because of the availability of facilities. So I think we’re stronger than we were, and we’ve had that hyper focus on small business that was really required. 

Gov. John Carney talks with Sen. Tom Carper at a 2021 event in Riverside. The governor said he has no plans of potentially running for Carper’s seat when his term ends in 2024. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

One of your mentors, Sen. Carper, would be about 78 years old by the time his term ends in 2024. Since governor-to-senator is a commonly seen move, is a run for Senate something that maybe you’ve discussed or considered?

There’s not a vacancy in the Senate right now. So, I’m not really thinking about it.

I have tremendous respect for Sen. Carper. I’ve worked for him, and he encouraged me to run [for governor] in the first place. He’s doing a great job in the Senate, particularly with his kind of centrist approach to the problems like the environmental problems, not least of which is the opportunity around hydrogen here.

Whatever the next step for me is, it’s got to be something that works for my wife, Tracey. She’s made huge sacrifices for me for 22 years, and I’ve not had this conversation with her, and I should probably have it with her first.

With two years left, have you given any thought to what you would want your legacy to be?

That’s for people to decide. I try to do the right thing and I’m proud of that. We’ve got good people here, I’m proud of that and they’ll carry on in some kind of way.

 We told people what we were going to do: cultivate an environment where businesses can be successful.

We just got the Wilmington Learning Collaborative off the ground, and when we talk about workforce, just think about all the human capital that’s underutilized because they’re not sufficiently educated. We’d better put some effort and priority into that.

Opportunity funding [to serve disadvantaged students] is probably the biggest, most important thing to me. My father worked in the old Wilmington Public School District, so I grew up listening to him talk about it. His job was to coordinate all the extra services, mostly federal services for poor and disabled children, so the commitment that I have to that comes from him. It also comes from the realization that if we’re going to be strong in a better state, everybody has to participate. Everybody’s got to be part of the prosperity. Everybody has to have a strong foundation and some people start off at way different starting points.

I’ve got two great parents and eight brothers and sisters. We didn’t have a lot, but we had enough. There are kids across our state with very different circumstances. So how can you give them a boost? Some schools are doing better than others, and we ought to make sure that the schools that aren’t doing as well reach out to those who are.

This could be a post-gubernatorial focus for me in getting kids reading proficiently by third grade. We’ve seen it on the correctional side all the time. Guys who are 18 years old and can’t read or can’t read well enough, so they’re not going to do well in school. That means they’re going to drop out or lose interest – it’s all bad after that. 

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