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Former Sen. Marshall dies at 77

Katie Tabeling
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Former State Sen. Bob Marshall | DBT FILE PHOTOS

Former State Sen. Bob Marshall | DBT FILE PHOTOS

WILMINGTON — Former State Senator Robert “Bobby” Marshall (D-West Wilmington) who fought to raise the minimum wage and was a known deal-maker who brought people together to solve big-picture problems, died on March 30. He was 77.

Marshall died at ChristianaCare and his cause of death was not disclosed in his obituary. Gov. John Carney ordered the state flag to be flown at half-staff until his internment.

“Tracey and I were saddened to hear about the passing of Senator Robert Marshall,” Carney said in a prepared statement. “He was an inspiration for public servants– serving 40 years in the State Senate and not once forgetting the folks he represented in Legislative Hall.”

Born and raised in Wilmington, Marshall was the only son of Helen and Ignatius “Eagle” Marshall, who instilled the value of hard work and education. He graduated from Salesianum High School and learned the trade of politics from his uncle and Wilmington City Democrat Chairman Leo T. Marshall.

Marshall worked his way up city and state offices, eventually working as the director of Delaware’s Division of Business and Occupational Licenses. In the late 1970s, he launched his own political career and ran for state Senate in 1978. He was undefeated in every race until he decided not to run again in the 2018 election.

He eventually became the executive director of the Delaware Skills Center, an adult training center that is overseen by the New Castle County Vo-Tech School District, holding that role for 18 years. Even lesser-known, Marshall was also an entrepreneur and developer of housing projects.

Mark Murowany, who was heavily involved in the Wilmington Democrats, told the Delaware Business Times that Marshall’s district included residents who hailed from Eastern European countries and were predominantly working class. As the years passed and the third senate district became more racially-diverse, Marshall still fought for policies that would lift up the workers of the state.

“He was a businessman and believed in the capitalist system where everyone deserved the best chance,” Murowany told DBT. “He was, by far, the most stalwart proponent for the common man, even at a time when the Senate was more conservative.”

In the early years of his political career, Marshall worked toward a degree in political science from Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey. Marshall was one of the stronger advocates for organized labor, notably working on several minimum wage increases over the years, working to reach a benchmark of $15 an hour.

Over the course of 40 years, Marshall served as chair of the Senate Labor Committee, the Senate Public Safety Committee as well as majority whip. He may have been one of the first voices for family and medical leave in the 1980s, though Murowany said it was an uphill battle at the time against a more conservative-leaning upper chamber.

“He was more progressive for his time, in some cases,” he added. “The surprising thing about Bobby was that he wasn’t one for rubbing elbows or glad-handing people. He was private. But when you were with him, you knew he had three or four agendas and you weren’t sure which one he was working on. He was a deal-maker and he had a sharp eye for a deal, particularly when it came to public issues.”

Carney, who oversaw the Senate when he was lieutenant governor between 2001 and 2009, also remembered Marshall as a force behind the Work-a-Day, Earn-a-Pay program which hires unemployed Delawareans to clean litter along the state highways.

“Senator Marshall will have a lasting impact on Legislative Hall and the City of Wilmington, and we are thinking of his family, friends, and community during this difficult time. Senator Marshall was truly one of a kind,” the governor added.

Marshall’s other notable achievement was legislation that aimed to raise the standard of care of nursing homes throughout the state. “Eagle Law,” named after his father, established minimum staffing ratios per shift, as well as in other areas of health facilities like nutrition, activities and social services. It also created a monitoring system that aimed to track outcomes.

Marshall crafted the law after his father moved to a Wilmington nursing home and he saw many issues with patient care. The senator held public hearings in all three counties and Wilmington. The law passed in 2000.

U.S. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) remembered Marshall as a “tough, capable, and determined advocate” for his district and the state.

“It was my honor to join him many times at the Minquadale Fire Company Memorial Hall for his annual report back to his community about the progress he was making on their behalf,” Coons wrote on social media. “Bobby was an old-school politician with an iron grip, a clear-eyed view of what he was trying to accomplish, and the determination to get things done.”

One of the best examples of Marshall’s ability to strike a good deal may be the redevelopment of Wilmington’s Riverfront. The story goes that he struck up a conversation with former Gov. Russell Peterson while they were at a Memorial Day Parade decades ago about an environmental issue at the Christina River.

That, in turn, led to the creation of the blue-ribbon commission that researched the state of the Christina River and Brandywine Creek to determine what could be done to improve the areas, environmentally and economically. Peterson and former University of Delaware President E.A. Trabant served as co-chairs but later brought former Gov. Mike Castle, Mike Purzycki of the Riverfront Development Corporation, environmentalists and more to the table.

“He had this ability to go out and make connections and bring the necessary people to the table on an issue that needed to be solved,” Murowany said. “It’s a rare ability. Not a lot of people have it.”

Outside of politics, Marshall was an avid fisherman, an Eagles and Phillies fan. He was also interested in thoroughbred horse racing, an interest that started when he was teenager and worked to “warm up” horses at Delaware Park.

A funeral for Marshall is set for Sunday, April 20, at St. Hedwig Church in Wilmington.

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