Former Gov. Ruth Ann Minner dies at 86
MILFORD – Ruth Ann Minner, the first woman to serve as governor of Delaware who brought a middle-of-the-road approach to governance, died Thursday at age 86.
Minner was a consummate Delaware politician, having served for 18 years in the state House and Senate before being elected lieutenant governor under Gov. Tom Carper in 1992. She held that role until running for governor in 2000, a post she would win and hold for eight years at the outset of the new millennium.
Although her political career path was emblematic of Delaware history, her upbringing was unlike many of her predecessors. Born in Slaughter Neck in Sussex County, Minner grew up in Milford in Kent County, leaving high school at age 16 to support her family.
She was widowed at 32 and left to raise three sons but earned her GED and attended Delaware Technical Community College while working two jobs. In 1969, she married Roger Minner and together they operated a family towing business. She would be widowed again in 1991 when Roger died of cancer.
In her second inaugural address in January 2005, Minner spoke of her work ethic philosophy developed by her experiences, saying, “For Ruth Ann Minner, farmer, gardener and daughter of a sharecropper, it is simply this: Work hard. Do the right thing. And leave things better than you found them.”
Gov. John Carney, who served as lieutenant governor under Minner from 2001-09, recalled Minner as a “leader who had a real common touch” and a trailblazer for women in public service in Delaware.
“Gov. Minner focused on raising up the working families of our state because she knew what it meant to struggle. Having grown up poor in Slaughter Beach, she brought that perspective to her job every day, and she never lost her attachment to those roots,” Carney said.
In her eight years in the governor’s seat, Minner hewed toward conservative fiscal principles but also liberal social stances while navigating a divided legislature every year.
Confronted with responding to an economic downturn following the Dot-com bubble of the early 2000s, Minner pared back state spending, closing shortfalls of hundreds of millions of dollars in her early years. She also sought to attract new business, leading trade missions to Europe and Taiwan in search of new partners for jobs and launching the New Economy Initiative in 2004 that aimed to invest in business expansions and startups.
Throughout her tenure, Minner celebrated the arrival of companies like Incyte and AAA Mid-Atlantic, but also saw the end of state industry titan MBNA as it was acquired by Bank of America, which subsequently pared down some of the legacy operations.
Recognizing the growing importance of the internet in her first year, Minner created the Department of Technology and Information that still operates today, putting an emphasis on digitizing the state’s services and information.
As the first downstate governor in decades, Minner brought a different focus to the role. Her Livable Delaware initiative launched in 2001 aimed to limit development sprawl to the undisturbed areas of Delaware. Her administration directed development toward areas with existing infrastructure to support growth and put an emphasis on land preservation programs, something she had supported decades earlier as lieutenant governor as well.
Minner wasn’t always successful in her efforts, such as her 2006 push for the Sprawl Prevention Act which would have limited development on 435,000 rural acres of Delaware land. Farmers and developers successfully lobbied the legislature to abandon the plan, arguing it would hurt their land values.
She was responsible for Delaware’s 2002 ban on indoor smoking – a law that drew outrage from many, especially casino operators and those in the conservative-leaning parts of her southern Delaware home region where the common refrain became “Ban Ruth Ann.” Despite that opposition, the Clean Indoor Air Act was overwhelmingly popular with most of the state, as polls found the vast majority of smokers and non-smokers supported greater protection from secondhand smoke.
Minner is also widely remembered for her dedication to public education, shepherding through increased funding for reading resource teachers across the state and full-day kindergarten in every district. In 2005, she backed the creation of the Student Excellence Equals Degree (SEED) Scholarship program, which enables students who keep their grades up and stay out of trouble to go to college for free in the state.
The leaders of the Senate Democratic Caucus – Delaware Senate President Pro Tempore Dave Sokola, Majority Leader Bryan Townsend and Majority Whip Elizabeth Lockman – highlighted Minner’s work in a Thursday statement while noting the impact she leaves behind.
“While her story was extraordinary at the time, her leadership would influence a generation of young women in Delaware, an inspiration that helped lead directly to women making up half of the Senate Democratic Caucus today,” they wrote. “Ruth Ann Minner is a vital figure in the history of the First State and will always hold a special place in our hearts. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family.”
U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, who served as director of personnel management in Minner’s administration, recalled the late governor as a mentor and role model.
“Humble, hardworking, and tenacious – Gov. Minner never forgot the true mission and purpose of those with the privilege of representing their fellow citizens – to help others,” the congresswoman said in a statement.
Sen. Tom Carper recalled that serving alongside Minner “afforded her the opportunity to demonstrate to an even broader electorate who she was as a person, her values, and how she could get things done.”
“Ruth Ann Minner worked tirelessly. She was indefatigable, and she always sought to do the right thing. Voters in Delaware rewarded her for that and she rewarded them with years of service that we can all be proud of,” he added.
In the years since she left the governor’s office, Minner rarely made public appearances. She raised funds to build a Minner Wing on her hometown Milford Public Library, but otherwise retired. She notably did not attempt to run for the U.S. Senate in 2010 when she could have, a decision that many previous governors have pursued, including Carper, Mike Castle and J. Caleb Boggs. Minner had appointed Ted Kaufman to the seat a year earlier as one of her final gubernatorial acts and Chris Coons, then-New Castle County executive, would go on to win the seat.
“Annie and I fondly remember attending her annual picnics at her home down in Milford, where nothing would light up her face more than talking about her family, particularly her grandchildren,” Coons wrote in a Thursday tribute. “She was a devoted matriarch to not just her own family but to our entire state. Ruth Ann Minner was tough as nails, kept her word, and cared deeply about the people of Delaware. She will be sorely missed.”
She briefly entered the news cycle last November when she attended the presidential acceptance speech of Joe Biden at the Chase Center of the Riverfront and Biden gave her a shoutout at the outset of his speech aired around the world, leading to an influx of internet searches on the two-time First State governor.
Funeral arrangements for Minner have not yet been announced.