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VIEWPOINT: Ruth Ann Minner: Role model, leader, friend

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Ruth Ann Minner, who served as Delaware’s first female governor from 2001-09, died Nov. 4 at age 86. | PHOTO COURTESY OF GOVERNOR’S OFFICE

The remarkable life story of Ruth Ann Minner is a matter of public record. She rose from the humblest of beginnings to become the first and, to date, only female governor of Delaware. It was our privilege to serve during her governorship as, respectively, Health & Social Services secretary, chief of staff, and director of the Office of Management & Budget. Rather than repeat her inspirational story, we wish to add to Delaware’s knowledge of its native daughter by describing her leadership qualities and record of success.

Vincent Meconi | PHOTO COURTESY OF DRBA

One of the questions people used to ask us was, “How is Gov. Ruth Ann Minner to work for?” and “What kind of boss is she?” In three words: uniquely the best.  Having collectively worked for many organizations, we can say that the ideal leader is visionary, smart, tough, compassionate, and loyal. She was all of those things and then some. Constantly urging us to “make a difference,” she not only talked the talk, she walked the walk.

Very often, Gov. Minner amazed us with her detailed knowledge of many aspects of state government. However, she did not use that in-depth knowledge to micromanage. Instead, she tasked us and other members of her administration with goals that were ambitious, yet relatively modest in number, but designed to have lasting impact. Then, she held us accountable for achieving results. Because of her vision, she compiled a strong record of achievement in multiple areas, including, but not limited to health, education, and fiscal responsibility.

Jennifer “J.J.” Davis | PHOTO COURTESY OF UVA

No issue better illustrates her toughness than her defense of the Clean Indoor Air Act, banning indoor smoking, that she signed into law in 2002. So little smoking takes place indoors in America today that it may be hard to remember how vociferously opponents of the ban fought it, only the second such law in the nation at the time. Gov. Minner’s defeat during her re-election campaign in 2004 was said to be certain. But she never backtracked (on this issue, or any other) and was re-elected. The Act, since broadened, lives on today to near universal approval. The indoor smoking ban and her commitment to full funding for anti-smoking efforts turned Delaware, which had one of the 10 highest adult smoking rates less than a decade before the start of her administration, into one of 10 lowest states by the time she left office.

Her anti-smoking efforts went hand-in-hand with her two other major health initiatives, improved cancer prevention and treatment, and reducing infant mortality.  Many task forces had previously studied the state’s high cancer rates, but Ruth Ann Minner did something about them. She created the nation’s best anti-cancer program, fully funded it, and worked with the state’s health care providers to significantly lower both incidence and mortality rates of cancer in Delaware. Her infant mortality initiatives had similar success. Among other efforts, her Healthy Mothers Healthy Babies Program for high-risk pregnant women, in partnership with our health care community, led to a 10% decline in infant mortality, and a similar reduction in premature births, by the end of her tenure. As an outgoing staff member said, “There are people in Delaware who are literally alive today because of Ruth Ann Minner.”

Mark Brainard | PHOTO COURTESY OF DTCC

A passionate believer in the value of education, she crowned her record by creating Delaware’s SEED (Student Excellence Equals Degree) program, guaranteeing scholarships to Delaware’s public colleges for students graduating from Delaware high schools. So far, more than 13,000 Delaware students have benefitted. The program has since been expanded and is considered a national model. She also signed full-day kindergarten into law, and placed reading specialists in every elementary school. On these and all other efforts, the governor worked closely with the state legislature. Today, we watch political figures barely speak to each other, but Gov. Minner achieved her legacy by engaging and working with a legislature that was evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans during her entire eight years in office.

It is also important to note that Gov. Minner was not blessed with a consistently healthy economy during her tenure, coping with the 2001 national recession as she entered office and the Great Recession of 2007-2008 as her term was ending. For five of the eight years she held office, she had to cut the state’s operating budget either in advance of the next fiscal year or during the fiscal year. Yet she did so without ever cutting major services or laying off state employees. Fewer than 10 states completed the decade without removing any poor, disabled, or elderly citizens from their Medicaid health insurance program or reducing their benefits, and Delaware was one of them. She balanced the budget each year, and preserved Delaware’s AAA bond rating. (Delaware is one of only seven states with the highest such rating.) She personally reviewed each rating agency presentation to ensure that it conveyed her vision of providing efficient and effective government programs.

We salute Ruth Ann Minner: a role model, a leader, and a friend we will miss dearly. We and our fellow Minner Administration alumni hope we are carrying on her legacy of public service.

Vincent P. Meconi is chief operations officer of the Delaware River and Bay Authority, Mark T. Brainard is president of Delaware Technical and Community College & Jennifer W. (J.J.) Davis is executive vice president and chief operating officer of the University of Virginia.

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