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Get to Know Gov. John Carney


12 things you might not know about Carney
  • Practices hot yoga – a style of yoga that typically is practiced at 87 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Was the second of nine children.
  • Likes to read biographies.
  • Even his political opponents consistently say, “John is a good guy.”
  • Can quote Thomas Merton or the latest policy wonk magazines with ease.
  • Works out at the Central Y.
  • Describes himself as competitive, persistent and tough but compassionate.
  • On the rare occasions when he just can’t make it to one of his sons’ sports games, his wife Tracey gives him a play-by-play via phone.
  • Friends describe him as a glass-half-full guy.
  • He can be tough – in a quiet way. As one friend put it, “He’s not a screamer, but you’ll know when he’s unhappy.”
  • Uses a phone app to learn to meditate.
  • Wasn’t sure whether he’d go into politics or coaching football until he was in his late 20s, but he chose government over gridiron. As he put it, “I didn’t want to base my future on how a group of 20-year-old players perform on a given Saturday afternoon. Although that’s not much better than basing it on how a couple hundred thousand people voted on a given Tuesday in November.”

– Kathy Canavan

Growing up Irish in Claymont shaped Carney

The governor-elect and his family, from left: Sam, John, Tracey and Jimmy.

by Kathy Canavan

Jack Markell and John Carney hosted primary night parties about 100 yards apart along the Wilmington Riverfront in 2008. Sen. Tom Carper was surprised what happened right after it became obvious that Markell had won the Democratic nomination for governor.

Carney, who had been the party leaders’ handpicked candidate until Markell stepped in, immediately called on his crowd to support the new governor. Then he left the building and hiked to his opponent’s party. He walked in and hugged Markell.

“It was the most extraordinary display of grace that I think I’ve ever seen by a politician,” Carper said. “It says a lot about who John Carney is.”

Even political opponents describe the next governor as “a good guy” and a “stand-up guy.”

He started out life as one of nine children of a French teacher and a guidance counselor in Claymont’s Ashbourne Hills. One of the highlights of his childhood was the summer his father took out a loan on his life insurance, bought a tent camper and took his family of 11 westward to Pike’s Peak, Las Vegas, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. At Pike’s Peak they met a couple on motorcycles who invited them to visit if they made it to Southern California. “I’m sure they just figured there’s no way these people will ever come to our house,” Carney said. “Well, they didn’t know my dad. We didn’t just come. We stayed for a week.”

Growing up in an Irish, Catholic, Democratic family in the 1960s shaped Delaware’s next governor. When he was in second grade, J.F.K. was shot. He sensed his parents’ sadness and was inspired by Kennedy’s call to service. “My parents were teachers. They thought the most important thing you could do in life was to serve other people,” he said. “Matthew 25: Don’t judge me by my words, but by my works.”

That doesn’t mean Carney will be a pushover this legislative session with the state staring at a $350 million budget shortfall. “John has some backbone,” said Rich Heffron, president of Delaware State Chamber of Commerce. “John can be firm. He can be a little stubborn when he thinks he’s right. I think people sometimes mistake the fact that he’s a nice guy for the idea that he’s not tough. John’s willing to put pressure on people if he needs to get things done. He was always in leadership positions since his days as a student at Holy Rosary School in Claymont. I’m not sure people know how bright John is. He’s extremely bright.”

“He’s very, very smart,” said Former Secretary of State Ed Freel. “He probably deserves more credit than he gets for his strength on issues. He’s very thoughtful. He doesn’t often fire from the hip. He thinks about things. He’s a good listener. If you go to him and make a point, even if he disagrees with your point, he will hear it and he will think about it. He’s totally not a my-way-or-the-highway person.”

He’s also persistent. After graduating Dartmouth, he talked with coaches at Penn and Boston College before Delaware legend Tubby Raymond worked out a deal for a sports assistantship so Carney could coach freshman football and get a free ride to graduate school.

He married Tracey Quillen Carney, who worked as a speechwriter for Sen. Joe Biden. She went on flex-time when their two sons were born, and now works as communications director at Wilmington Friends School. He said she told him early on that she’d support him if he ran for office but she wouldn’t be a political prop on a stage.

When he looks in the mirror, Carney sees someone who is compassionate but tough.

“As Democrats, we tend to focus on the compassion side and, sometimes, tough love is what we need – to be tough-minded about problems. A lot of my public service career has been in the budget and finance areas,” Carney said. “I tell people, “˜Look, we can’t do what you want to do to help kids and help families if we don’t have a strong and growing economy and strong finances.’ A strong and growing economy is the most important thing, because then people would have jobs and you would have revenues to provide services for people.”

Heffron said Carney’s good relationships with leadership in both parties and his longtime personal relationships with many state leaders is an advantage, and so is the depth of his experience – New Castle County public works administrator, staff assistant in Joe Biden’s senatorial office, gubernatorial deputy chief of state, state secretary of finance, lieutenant governor, U.S. Congressman.

“Does that mean everything will be rosy and things are going to be easy for him? No, but he does understand the process and he understands you’re not always going to get everything you want,” he said.

By Christmas, Carney had already met with the Senate GOP caucus, House Minority Leader Daniel B. Short, the CEOs who form the Delaware Business Roundtable and Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki.

Robert Perkins, executive director of the roundtable, said members were encouraged and they would be willing to offer time and money to back initiatives that follow their own Delaware Growth Agenda. “We’re pretty optimistic, I must say. His comments to the roundtable were he wants to find a way to partner with the business community.

I think there’s some good similarity in viewpoints and approach, and that’s why we’re encouraged,” he said. “All we’re saying is bring us in early and bring us in often. The private sector will have skin in the game.”

Republican Sen. Colin Bonini, who ran against Carney in November, said GOP senators came away impressed with Carney’s forthright conversation, too. “John’s a good guy, and I think it comes through. He is very honest about the problems we face. One of the very refreshing things was that John was willing to talk about it. I get the sense that he is very honest in really wanting input from folks. I think he’s going to be a good governor. I’m a big fan.”

Carney, who said he reads all the articles people send him, also keeps up with the latest business and policy information. “I’m really a policy wonk. I enjoy the policy side of things, frankly, more than I do the political side,” he said. “I’m always looking for new ways to solve old problems.”

When he looks at issues such as relaxation of some Coastal Zone Act regulations, he comes to the same conclusion from two different places – as an environmentalist and as the governor-elect of a state with a devolving manu-facturing base.

As an environmentalist, Carney says the brownfields along the Delaware River near his hometown of Claymont must be cleaned up because before climate change causes the sea to rise. “Unless we clean up those sites, the sea is going to suck contaminants into the river and bay,” he said. “That’s not a good thing, so it’s in everybody’s interest to redevelop and clean up those sites.”

As a politician, he said he sees the economic advantages to allowing new owners to move into only the sites above the canal that once had grandfathered status under the act but lost it when the sites were left fallow too long. “If there’s a way to get a win-win, we should look at it,” he said.

Carney knows the first six months of his administration will be preoccupied with the looming budget gap: “It’s a big deficit, north of $350 million, and we have a structural problem in expenses, most of it in education, and health-care costs are rising fast.”

He said he’s concerned that revenue sources like the escheat and gambling revenue are shaky, and he allowed there is a strong possibility Delaware will take a hit if Washington politicians push more Medicaid costs or other shared costs back to the states and Delaware might be especially vulnerable because it is one of those that have been receiving additional Medicaid funds because of population growth. “It is a huge storm cloud that’s out there,” he said. “The mostly likely area is the cost-share for Medicaid, and that’s one of the biggest drivers in our budget.”

Even with a looming budget gap that could turn his first months as governor into triage, Carney looks forward to leaving Congress for the governor’s seat.

“Our partisan differences here aren’t as intense,” he said. “Generally, we just have differences of opinion on how to solve problems – not like in Congress where we barely talk about programs that aren’t working or about solutions to problems.”

House Minority Leader Daniel Short said he’s looking forward to working Carney, who came up to him at Seaford’s Nanticoke Riverfest last summer and told him he’d like to chat with him early on “if I’m fortunate enough to be elected governor.” Carney already had the Democratic nomination sewed up in an overwhelmingly blue state.

“I can remember how he said – “˜if I’m fortunate to be governor’ – that’s the demeanor of Gov.-elect Carney, and I’m sure that will continue,” Short said. “I’m looking forward to working with him.”

Short said this year won’t be the first time the governor and legislature faced a large budget gap: “We certainly had a tough time when Gov. Markell came in. It was $800 million when he came in, so it’s not like we haven’t had these problems before.”

State GOP Chairman Charlie Copeland said John Carney is a nice guy, but he doesn’t think his policy instincts are going to work for Delaware, although he said it will be up to elected officials to sort that out.

“I hope he’s successful. I have my doubts, because the last time the state faced a budget deficit all they did was raise taxes and all that did was buy us some time but it didn’t fix the root problems,” Copeland said. “They’re going to have to do something to bend the cost curve down, and Delaware needs high-wage job growth, and we’ve just not seen that for the last 18 years. The policies put into place by Jack Markell did not promote high-wage job growth like we had under Pete du Pont, Mike Castle and Tom Carper.”


Birthdate: May 20, 1956
Birthplace: Wilmington
College: Dartmouth College A.B., University of Delaware M.P.A.
Married: Tracey Quillen Carney, communications director for Wilmington Friends School
Children: Sam and Jimmy

Carney wants an ecosystem that will grow jobs

Gov.-elect John Carney said he hopes to promote an “ecosystem” that will grow Delaware’s economy.

To do it, he’ll consider some changes to the Coastal Zone Act and a possible do-over for the Delaware Economic Development Office, but he has no current plans to cut any of the state’s 19 school districts.

Carney said the seeds for growth already exist all over the state in co-working communities, science startups, innovation centers, university programs, the new Claymont train station complex, the container terminal to be built at Chemours’ shuttered Edgemoor plant and the burgeoning fin-tech expertise at Delaware banks.

Here’s what he said about:

The Delaware Business Roundtable’s call for running the Delaware Economic Development Office as a private-public partnership: “I think we need to reorganize DEDO to be better attuned to a startup and small business economy. Delaware’s historically been DuPont and financial companies and big corporate employers, but that’s not case any more. We have to be better equipped, through our economic development office, to help those businesses and create an ecosystem where they can start here and hopefully grow here. I’m willing to engage the roundtable in developing the specifics. The devil’s always in the details. I’d like to see what that actually looks like in practice.”

The need for higher-wage jobs: “I think the business community understands those of us who are elected officials kind of got a wakeup call when it was announced that DuPont was going to merge with Dow. It became very clear that we’ve got to compete to win every day. We have to be playing at the top of our game on our tax and regulatory side and our workforce and higher education institutions have to be a bigger part of our assets “¦ These young smart tech people are gravitating toward large urban areas, and we have to figure out how to compete for them.”

Business criticisms that a three-county state doesn’t need 19 independent school districts: “Ordinary citizens come up to me and say, “˜Why don’t you just have three school districts – one for each county?’ We could do that. The question I have is is that going to improve the achievement levels for our students, and, will you, in fact, achieve the savings that you think you will? My focus is more
on reorganizing the Department of Education to make it more service-oriented than regulatory, although, obviously, there are regulatory things they have to do.”

Carney said he wants to discuss the challenges of educating children with special needs and find ways to provide better education for them. He said any moves within Wilmington should start with a local group focused on advocating for change and experts within the Department of Education can help drive the change forward.

– Kathy Canavan

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