In the aftermath of the 2016 election, Democrats found themselves in their lowest electoral position since Reconstruction. Not only did Republicans capture the White House and maintain control of both chambers of Congress, they mopped up in the states as well. After the dust settled, Republicans held 33 governorships — tying a nearly century-old high-watermark — and controlled 25 state governments from top to bottom.
One exception to this trend was Delaware, where I ended my term as governor on January 16, 2017. As I tucked my wedding picture, my NASCAR Starter Flag, and a few other sentimental items from my desk into a cardboard box, I had the satisfaction of knowing that my friend and fellow Democrat John Carney would be taking the next turn here. Moreover, John’s term would begin the 25th consecutive year that Delaware has had a Democratic governor. There are only two states with a longer streak and both are 3,000 miles away: Oregon and Washington. We are unique even amongst our otherwise blue-state neighbors, such as New Jersey and Maryland, where Republicans currently sit in the governor’s mansion.
How has Delaware resisted the tide of Trumpism?
Delaware is not immune to the ups and downs of the national economy. Certainly, the state suffered during the Great Recession, and our residents have faced their share of hardships. But I would also like to think that our state has done a better job than most at keeping the forces that led to Trump’s victory — the destructive anxieties bred by economic insecurity — at bay.
Like President Obama, I won election in the midst of the deepening financial crisis and immediately had to govern through a blizzard of economic howitzers. Just after the recession hit, Chrysler and General Motors closed their local plants in Newark and Wilmington, leading to the loss of thousands of jobs. So did a major oil refinery. The poultry industry, a vital rural sector in Delaware, went into a tailspin, and one of our major producers fell into bankruptcy. And as Wall Street staggered, the back office financial services workforce housed in Delaware was slashed.
All told, in the space of about a year, eight percent of Delaware jobs — 35,300 jobs — vanished, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. To put that into context, that would translate into a loss of 11 million jobs nationwide.
But as I left office, Delaware was enjoying the best job growth in our region since we hit bottom in 2010, an unemployment rate of 4.3 percent at the end of 2016, among the fastest-rising private sector wages in the nation (17.8 percent over the last two years), and a recent ranking as one of the three strongest state economies. More importantly, what we built during my tenure as governor was a slate of innovative new programs aimed at ensuring that every Delaware resident has a shot at sharing in the state’s growth. If there is any antidote to Trumpism, it’s broadly shared middle class prosperity.
President Obama led the nation from the brink of depression back to health. But it wasn’t enough to rest on national economic indicators suggesting the country was on the right track. Many Americans and Delawareans were clearly still pessimistic about the opportunities that lay ahead for themselves and their families.
Sweeping economic change was afoot. Factories that once sustained towns in Delaware and across the nation were shuttered. Jobs were outsourced overseas and to technology. If these problems weren’t addressed, voters and communities that felt ignored or patronized would seek solace elsewhere – including by turning to leaders whose views are extremist or counterproductive.
If there is any antidote to Trumpism, it’s broadly shared middle class prosperity.So rather than simply picking on easy targets — such as big banks and Wall Street — I used my time in office to build an economic message and strategy centered on creating middle class jobs that would include everyone in our state. This strategy had three primary ingredients: (1) focusing relentlessly on skills, for all residents at all stages of their careers; (2) engaging with the global marketplace to expand opportunities for Delaware’s entrepreneurs and companies, while attracting more companies to our state; and (3) promoting local economic development through projects to invest in city centers.
As Democrats look to rebuild their electoral strength from the bottom up, the lynchpin of their strategy should be an economic agenda that fights Trumpism at its roots — by equipping all Americans with the tools they need to adapt to a rapidly changing economy and to look to the future with confidence, not fear. As small as Delaware may be, the path we’ve taken has larger lessons for how to restore economic opportunity in this country and rebuild faith in government’s role as a force for good in people’s lives.
Skills for All
Delaware has long been part of the global economy by simple virtue of the fact that many of the nation’s largest and best-known companies — including 60 percent of the companies in the Fortune 500 — are legally domiciled in our state. Delaware is also home to the corporate headquarters of such major firms as DuPont, AstraZeneca and Sallie Mae.
Without doubt, Delaware’s status as the “corporate capital of the world” has been a boon to our state. But it has been a priority of mine — as it should be for all — to ensure that the prosperity companies enjoy creates opportunities for individuals as well.
In Delaware, one way we’ve done this is to invest heavily in the skills of our citizens. Companies have more choices than ever about where to locate and hire. And technology means rote factory and service jobs that used to provide a good wage and benefits no longer exist. Delaware company leaders told me they would innovate, create jobs, and grow the economy here if they could find a skilled workforce that could learn and grow on the job. The work of MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee also proved to us that even amid economic uncertainty, there has never been a better time to be someone with the right skills, but never a worse time to be someone without those skills.
In evaluating our own workforce, we discovered that more people in our state, like most of America, need credentials beyond a high school diploma. That’s why improving people’s skills — from pre-K to pre-retirement — is now an overarching and urgent priority.
The state also created a Pathways to Prosperity initiative, based on research from Harvard University about the disconnect between what students learn in school and the skills they need in the workforce. The program began with 30 high school juniors spending hundreds of hours in a manufacturing program at the state’s community college, Delaware Tech. Program administrators worked with the state manufacturing association and a community college to develop coursework. The kids got summer internships at companies making products like fuel cells and earned industry-recognized credentials along with college credits. Today, 6,000 students are in similar programs across a dozen growing industries.
In addition to these efforts to create new opportunities for Delawareans already in or about to enter the workforce, we also took steps to ensure that more kids, especially those from lower-income households, were encouraged to pursue college and were ready to succeed. For instance, the SAT exam is now free for high school juniors, and the College Board now provides up to 8 college admissions application fee waivers per student for low income students. Colleges and universities now partner with high schools to reduce the need for remedial classes for matriculating students.
The state’s youngest residents — the future engine of Delaware’s — are also now getting a better start. More than ten percent of kindergarten students in Delaware public schools (and more than 3,000 from k-4) are learning Chinese or Spanish in an immersion setting. Only Utah has done as much to help young kids learn a foreign language. By ninth grade they will be fully fluent, gaining a huge advantage over their future peers competing for jobs.
And as part of our efforts to broaden opportunity for all children, high-quality early childhood centers now receive financial incentives to enroll low income kids while centers serving poor communities are getting the support to improve. As a result, 70 percent of children from low-income families are enrolled in a high-quality program, versus just 5 percent in 2011. Thousands more children are also receiving early mental health consultations and developmental screenings.
All of what we achieved in Delaware can be achieved in all of our states and the country as a whole when our leaders are willing to stare reality in the face. It didn’t cost a ton of money; it didn’t generate political tantrums; and it was responsive to what businesses needed and people in our state wanted for themselves and their kids.As small as Delaware may be, the path we’ve taken has larger lessons for how to restore economic opportunity in this country and rebuild faith in government’s role as a force for good in people’s lives.
A Global Delaware
Nationally, the trade debate has been fraught. But in Delaware, we sidestepped that discussion to focus on things that help communities and create jobs, because globalization, like the weather, is something we can complain about but not change.
Rather than turning inward, my administration pursued a strategy that was resolutely outward bound. We worked aggressively to grow Delaware’s global presence as an exporter of goods and services produced by our state’s residents and to market the state as a desirable destination for global investment. As one result, Delaware exports rose by $250 million between 2012 and 2015. In fact, our exports rose faster than every state on the eastern seaboard except New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Georgia.
We doubled down on strategies that states have long pursued to grow their global footprint, such as organizing trade missions to help Delaware farmers and manufacturers establish relationships abroad. On one trip, we took four Delaware vegetable farmers to Canada and each left with agreements with some of the biggest Canadian distributors to sell their products. Delaware’s first state-led business trips to Mexico led to an estimated $11.2 million in additional sales. Over just one and a half years, the program supported 40 Delaware businesses on trade missions to Canada, Mexico, Germany and South Korea. The program cost the state about $70,000 but will generate an expected $16 million in export sales over the next 18 months – a terrific return on investment.
On the other side of the ledger, my administration worked hard to woo foreign companies that would create good jobs in the state and invest in our communities. For instance, a Korean poultry company, Harim, rescued a closing facility in Southern Delaware, buying a facility that now employs nearly 1,500 people – nearly equal to the population of the town in which it is located. A Berlin-based tech incubator is opening its first non-German facility in Delaware to help German start-ups that want to do business in the U.S. To attract these new firms, we emphasized our efforts to support a strong workforce and positioned Delaware as a place of “soft-landing” where entrepreneurs have assistance dealing with streamlined licensing and permitting processes.
Make Downtown Happen
The third leg of Delaware’s strategy over the last eight years was downtown revitalization.
Smaller cities like Wilmington and former manufacturing hubs like Erie and Scranton suffered the most when globalization, automation, and new technologies decimated industries that once offered plentiful good-paying jobs, particularly in manufacturing.
But these areas have great bone structures. We saw an opportunity to renovate abandoned property, attract new residents and businesses, and revitalize our downtowns. So in Delaware, we created Downtown Development Districts — designated areas in our cities and towns that qualify for development incentives and other benefits to attract residential, commercial, industrial, and mixed use development. We require the municipalities to provide a blueprint for how and where they want development to occur, so we can evaluate which plans make the most sense for the residents and all taxpayers, not just for a developer’s bottom line.
Investors who make qualified real estate improvements receive grants for up to 20 percent of their costs above $25,000. Projects can be anything from a non-profit housing agency wanting to renovate a single abandoned property to a for-profit entity building a transformative project that involves residential units upstairs and shops downstairs.
Among the results: A condemned parking lot in Wilmington is being replaced with 200 residential units and retail shops. And in Milford, small businesses are performing long-needed construction and renovations.
Through $17.7 million in grants from the Delaware State Housing Authority, the three districts targeted for revitalization in the first phase of this strategy have attracted more than $329 million in investments. A second round of grants, for $3.6 million, will help five other districts in the state.
While some investments have supported our biggest cities, the program is designed just as much to revitalize smaller, rural areas that, because of a less diverse economy, have been the hardest hit by the 21st century economic transformation. In Seaford, a town in southern Delaware decimated by the closing of DuPont’s nylon plant in the 1980s, we have seen the most significant investment in decades, including a new apartment building with high-end units right on the Nanticoke River.
From 2000 to 2010, downtowns in America’s major cities experienced double-digit growth. That was more than twice their rate of overall growth. As more Americans, particularly college-educated young adults, opt for urban lifestyles, cities have a chance to revitalize their central business districts. That means there is more potential than ever in small and medium cities to build opportunity and make downtown exciting and vital again.When I first got into politics, Delaware wasn’t a Democratic state. During the 1990s, we had Republicans in the governor’s mansion, U.S. Senate and our lone House seat.
While every state is in some ways a snowflake, the Delaware experience holds important lessons for the rest of the country. Our small size belies our diversity. We have urban centers and rural communities, a growing financial sector as well as a vital agricultural industry. (Chickens, in fact, far outnumber people.) As for the so-called Rising American Electorate of Millennials and minorities — yes, we have our share — but we also have one of the fastest-growing elderly populations in the country, a group that trends Republican. The struggles of our people, cities, and towns are very similar to those struggles in the interior of the country where the new economy threatens to pass many people by.
When I first got into politics, Delaware wasn’t a Democratic state. During the 1990s, we had Republicans in the governor’s mansion, U.S. Senate and our lone House seat. Delaware voted for George H.W. Bush and twice for Ronald Reagan. Looking at Delaware now, we don’t profile as an obvious Democratic state.
Yet Democrats have won here consistently since the turn of the century. In 1998, when I was first elected as Treasurer, Democrats held only three of the nine state and federal offices; it’s seven of nine today. The increasing abandonment of the Democratic Party happening in other states has not happened here. Democratic enrollment, in fact, has surged from an 8-point edge in 2000 to a 19-point margin today.
Globalization and technology are equal parts exciting and petrifying. What I realized as a Democratic governor is that I had to address both with the same level of passion. On one hand was the amazing potential generated from cutting edge ideas and on the other was the emptiness felt by those left on the sidelines.
Throughout my tenure, the question I wrestled with was this: How do you create opportunity in an environment in which the only constant is constant change?
In Delaware, we unraveled these riddles with a relentless focus on skills and education, on tying ourselves to the globe instead of running from it, and making our downtowns a full partner in the state’s success. Yes, other governors in other states have certainly pursued elements of the strategy we pursued in our state – and we all have much to learn from them, but it was the combination of these pieces – plus the belief that an active government could be the major force to make good things happen – that has kept Delaware moving forward when so many other areas of the country have struggled. These are lessons that any state can replicate – as can Congress and as should the President.