Q&A With Jack Markell, a Leader Among America's Governors

The Delaware governor, who has led the Democratic and National governors associations, talks about workforce development, the state of governors, the future of his party and more.
by | December 29, 2015
Gov. Jack Markell addresses the Democratic National Convention. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, is entering the final year of his second term. During his tenure, he's taken on two national leadership roles among governors, previously serving as chair of the bipartisan National Governors Association (NGA) and the Democratic Governors Association (DGA). Governing's Louis Jacobson interviewed Markell earlier this month in Newark, Del., about his record in office as well as the state of governors nationally. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

You came into the job with a lot of experience in the business sector. Would you consider that a strength, a weakness or combination of both?

Well, I had the advantage of having the business background, but I also had 10 years as state treasurer. The business background has been especially helpful because the economy and jobs have been front and center. It's allowed me to really know which questions to ask of business executives, as well as how to think with them about what the state can do better so that they can be more successful.

You know, I have probably visited close to 2,000 businesses since I became governor. When I do these visits, I ask one question: What can we do to facilitate your success? Because if they're successful, it makes it more likely they'll hire more people, and if they hire more people, that tends to resolve most of the other challenges we face. And I do think that having a business background has helped me a lot in thinking through those issues.

Thinking about the current political climate -- the polarization in politics -- is being a governor today as challenging as you expected, or more challenging?

Well, it's certainly challenging, but I think the way we've tried to approach it is to focus less on politics and partisanship and more on problem-solving. What that has meant is having a pretty clear perspective on how the world around us is changing, what those changes mean for the people I serve and what we need to do accordingly.

More specifically, I've been governor at a time when I believe there are two major structural forces at work on our economy. One of them is that employers have more choices than ever before about where to hire, and the other is that as a result of technology, businesses need relatively fewer workers than they once did. There are profound implications for the people of Delaware and the country as a result of globalization and technological forces. I have come to the pretty strong conclusion that what it means for us is that we've got to invest in a very significant way in skills development and also in engaging with the world through export development and foreign direct investment.

Seven years or so into your tenure, how much of your agenda do you feel you have been able to put into practice?

I've been able to do most of what I've set out to do. I do think that my agenda ultimately evolved toward the workforce development piece of things, particularly education. We've made major gains in early childhood education. Five years ago, if you look at the lowest-income kids in Delaware, 5 percent of them were enrolled in the highest-quality early childhood centers. Today that number is 58 percent. That's a game changer for those kids. We've made major progress in K-12, including having the best gains in high school education rates in the country and having 2,300 K-3 students who spend half of each day learning in either Spanish or Chinese. Imagine the opportunities that will be available to them. And we've made probably some of the best progress in the country around college access opportunities, s. Specifically, we oversaw a major expansion in our career pathways program. During high school, students can take college-level classes in everything from bioscience to computer programming to culinary to manufacturing.

A major passion of mine has been working on the skills gap. We have a lot of people who would love to have the chance to work, but who don't have the right skills. We're making great progress, whether it's for at-risk kids, whether it's for people with disabilities, whether it's been for people who have been incarcerated, or whether it's generally people who feel that they have been underemployed.

Given your time as chair of the NGA, what kind of conclusions did you draw? How well do governors of the two parties get along? Has it gotten harder?

I very deliberately as chair of the NGA focused on issues that Democrats and Republicans alike could work on. I will say that, broadly, there have been issues, especially around health care, where it's been really hard to bridge those differences. But as the chair of the NGA, you get to choose one issue for all the governors to focus on. The issue I chose was employment for people with disabilities.

I did so for a lot of reasons. One, it's a very important issue, acknowledging that there are a lot of people around the country who would like to work but have never been given a shot. They ought to be given a shot, because it's going to be good for them, their families, their employers and the country more broadly. But I also thought this was an issue where we could really move the needle and that we could do so in a way that is bipartisan, because every governor wants to be the "jobs governor" and wants to be the governor for everyone in their state.

A lot of Republican governors really embraced this agenda: Dennis Daugaard, the governor of South Dakota, Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Terry Branstad in Iowa. There were Democrats too, of course, but those are three off the top of my head who have done great work in this arena. We can learn something from them, and hopefully they've learned something from us.

But have you seen a divergence over the past seven years - are the governors getting more partisan around the country?

It has varied. Leading up to the 2012 election, it was pretty partisan, particularly around health care and the Affordable Care Act -- it got pretty tense. When the election was over, it was different. When we are all in a room together, when we have our governors-only meetings at the NGA, it's almost impossible -- not quite -- but almost impossible to tell who's a Democrat and who's a Republican. Because in that setting, we're just trying to learn from each other. And those are generally the best meetings, the ones I enjoy the most, because I get to learn what's going on. And I don't really care if a particular idea is a Democratic idea or a Republican idea.

Are governors getting more important given the gridlock at the federal level?

I think most governors would say we've gotten more important, but we probably have a biased view. (Laughs.)

Seriously, most governors would say that if you want to look for the real policy innovations around the country, they're happening at the state level. That's not just our bias, either. That's real, whether it's education, economic development, health care. For example, states are moving the health-care system away from a fee-for-service model to a model where you're paying for value. There's a lot of really interesting work going on in the states, and there doesn't seem to be a lot of interesting work going on in Washington.

You were also head of the DGA. How serious is the Democratic problem in state politics -- the shrinking number of Democratic governors and Democratic-controlled legislatures?

I think it's an issue, and I think we'd better figure out what's driving it. We are a country where there are more conservatives than there are liberals, and the idea that we can win elections if all we try to do is turn out our base, to me, is not a winning strategy. More to the point, if you look at the direction of the party, and I'm not necessarily saying this is true for the people running for governor, but I think what's going on nationally, there's so much energy on the way left of the party, I think to our detriment.

Are you finding that that sort of approach -- what you might call a moderate or a centrist approach -- is increasingly disfavored within the party?

Yes, and I'm concerned about it. It's particularly worrisome because it's not where the people are. We have to wage campaigns where we appeal not only to Democrats but also to independents and even a few Republicans. That's where the people are. So to keep moving to the left, I think, is both substantively and politically a mistake.

You actually got the votes of a significant number of independent and GOP voters when you ran, correct?

I did. To get the numbers I did, I had to. All the stuff I talked about a few minutes ago -- job creation, skills development, engagement with the world, early childhood, language immersion, high school graduation rates, college access -- they're not Democratic or Republican issues. This is what it's going to take for the country to move forward. And that's what most voters want to hear about.

Thinking about the numbers of Democratic officeholders today, do you think the party leadership understands the seriousness of the situation?

I don't think there is a specific party leadership. It's got to be waged state by state, county by county, city by city. I think if you do look at where our party is -- the number of House seats we have, the number of governors' seats we have, and the number of state legislative bodies we have -- it's not an encouraging picture. That being said, these things can change, and they can change quickly. But whether they change, I think it's going to be very much a matter of what kind of agenda we set, what kind of issues we work on and how we talk about them.

Bringing this to the 2016 presidential race, if Hillary Clinton is the nominee, is she helpful to this process?

I think she's very helpful. She's spent her entire life focused on issues that affect the middle class, which I think is really, really important, and it gets well beyond the rhetoric of talking about the middle class. It's actually doing stuff. Also, at a time when issues of national security are so important, I think her experience is really hard to beat.

And you've endorsed her?

Yes.

What would you like to do in your remaining year in office?

I want to make sure that some of these issues around workforce development and education are another step further along. There are some issues around educator compensation that I'd like to make more progress on. I talk to too many great teachers who tell me they would love to stay in teaching, but the only way they can make more money is to get out of the classroom. That doesn't make any sense. So I want to create a career ladder for teachers. I also want to make additional progress on some of the criminal justice reforms we've put in place, to give more opportunities to low-risk offenders to stay out of prison and in the community where they can work.

Any regrets? Anything you would have done differently?

I think I'll have a lot more time to think about that! I have learned a lot. I have always valued communication, but I think you can almost never do enough.

Have you thought about next steps? Do you even want to stay in politics?

I'm a very fortunate person. I loved when I was in the business world, I loved being in elective office, so I can be happy doing a number of different things. We'll just see how it all shakes out.

If you were advising someone who was considering running for governor, what would you say based on your own experience?

I think it's really important, first, to be a good listener. Second, it's really important -- and I'm going to repeat myself a little bit -- it's really important to have a perspective about how the world is changing, what those changes mean and what we need to do in light of those changes. Because you have to have a context for why you're running and why you're pursuing the particular policies you're pursuing.

You need to paint a picture: Here's where we are in the world, here's what's changing in the world and here's what those changes mean. As a result of those changes, if we don't do anything differently, our state's not going to be competitive and our people are not going to have a chance for a prosperous future.

But if we make these kinds of changes -- in my case, mainly around skills development and exchanging with the rest of the world -- we can be very bullish that our people can be very competitive and have a very bright future.