Markell blunt about future at Lewes town meeting

February 14, 2012

If your idea of a politician is someone who only tells people what they want to hear, you might have been surprised to hear Gov. Jack Markell at last week’s town meeting.

The event, sponsored by the Cape Gazette and Cape Henlopen High School, featured not only the governor, but Lt. Gov. Matt Denn and most of the cabinet, an extraordinary showing that wouldn’t even be considered in most states. (For a straight, full story see Kara Nuzback’s account in Friday’s paper or online.)

I even had the honor of having the lieutenant governor step on my foot. How many residents from other states can say that? (And yes, he did apologize.)

But perhaps more noteworthy than the presence of the governor’s team was Markell’s no-nonsense approach, leavened throughout with self-deprecating humor.

Here are a few examples:

• One man asked about bringing passenger rail service downstate, an issue people have been talking about forever. One legislator in Dover used to bring it up periodically because she understood its popular appeal.

Markell was polite but blunt. “We’re never going to have the resources to make that happen,” he said.

Also, he noted, Delaware doesn’t have the population density to make it work, even if it did have the money to build the system. (I once made a back-of-the-envelope calculation that for the cost of a train system, Delaware could purchase a fleet of buses and offer commuters free rides.)

It would be great to see this issue buried for good. There’s no sense wasting time talking about things that aren’t going to happen.

• A woman made an impassioned plea for better bus service, describing the problems of a young woman searching for employment, but lacking transportation to get to where the jobs were located.

Markell was sympathetic, but said that DART, the state’s bus service, is “incredibly expensive,” with fares covering only 30 percent of its expenses. He didn’t hold out much hope that DART would expanded anytime soon.

• Markell outlined his administration’s plans to improve education but also made it clear much was expected from the students themselves.

“Kids will ask, ‘What can you do to make our lives better?’” And one of the most important things I say to these kids is, ‘What are you doing to make your lives better?’’’

Parents also need to do their part. In one of his most striking comments, Markell said that if his administration could wave a magic wand and do one thing to fix our state, “We would get more people involved in our children’s education.”

• Another man brought up Bluewater Wind, asking why a project, which would have built power-generating turbines off the coast, had stalled.

Again Markell was direct. The people who would build the wind farm, he said, didn’t think it would be economically viable. “That’s the bottom line.”

That businesslike approach was also evident when Markel sharply criticized some of his fellow governors, blaming them for much of the political acrimony experienced last year in some states.

“It drives me crazy when I see what some of my colleagues say about their state employees,” Markell said.

This is an interesting point. Many politicians run for office claiming they’re going to run the government “like a business.”

But for Markell that doesn’t include making an enemy of state employees. “I don’t know any business anywhere that could be successful where the head of the business is belittling and demeaning the employees that work there,” he said.

“Hear, hear,” whispered a woman sitting near me.

Markell described his own administration’s approach to cutting back state employee-related expenses. Instead of demonizing the state’s public employee unions, he challenged them to be part of the solution.

Over the following five years, he said, the state had to cut at least $100 million in costs. He told employee groups he wasn’t willing to debate whether there was a problem. If they were willng to recognize action was required, then he was inviting them to a seat at the table.

They came to the table, he said, bringing their actuaries with them. The result was a deal, supported by Democrats and Republicans, that cut $130 million over five years and $480 million over 15 years.

Perhaps the most important point is that Markell and the employee unions were able to agree on the facts, an ability that seems to be lost on the national level.

On C-SPAN Saturday night - yes, this is what I do for fun on a Saturday night - I watched Sarah Palin tell CPAC convention attendees that the financial meltdown was caused by President Obama’s regulators.

That’s right, a former candidate for vice president said Obama was able to cause the meltdown before he was even elected.

If we can’t even agree on basic facts, you have to wonder how we’re going to solve the problems facing our nation. In Delaware, we’re doing a little better.

  • A number of accomplished writers will be appearing in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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