Posted: Jan. 20, 2010


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Roll Call was the first to notice. The Capitol Hill newspaper took a look back at a roster of "100 to Watch," compiled a decade ago by the Democratic Leadership Council.

The Democratic political organization, known as future-oriented and centrist, placed the state treasurer of Delaware on its list front and center.

That was Jack Markell. At the time he was two years into public life at 40 years old.

Now at the halfway point of his first term as governor at 50 years old, Markell appeared Thursday in Legislative Hall in Dover for his State of the State address, given precisely on the second anniversary of his swearing-in.

The speech was more evidence that Markell did not go into politics because he thought it was cool that the governor gets to escort Miss Delaware at the state fair.

His remarks bubbled with toil and trouble.

"For the past two years, we have braved an economic blizzard of historic proportions. The skies may not yet have cleared, but Delawareans have already been hard at work from Day One to dig ourselves out of this mess, and we can finally see the promise slowly emerging from the burdens the storm has left behind," Markell told a joint session of the General Assembly.

No surprise there. Markell has gotten to where he is with his willingness to sweat the hard stuff.

He took over as governor with the economy blinking red. Not to mention he got there by bucking a Democratic establishment that did not think it was his "turn."

As if he needed more of the same, Markell went national. He spent the 2010 campaign season as the chair of the Democratic Governors Association. It was not exactly a safe political move, not for a governor barely settled in himself with the country's electoral climate skewed Republican.

Markell's counterpart at the Republican Governors Association, Haley Barbour of Mississippi, was regarded as presidential material who could raise more than $100 million -- and did. Markell and the Democratic Governors Association had half as much.

There were 37 governorships on the ballot. The Republicans won more races, flipping the ratio from 26 Democrats and 24 Republicans before the election to 29 Republicans, 20 Democrats and one independent in Rhode Island afterwards.  

Larry Sabato, based at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, pronounced the results to be the "Republicans' greatest gains," bigger than their congressional advances, but Charlie Cook, a political analyst in Washington, saw the outcome as "somewhat disappointing" for the Republicans, because they had so much in their favor, and concluded, "Democrats dodged a very big bullet."

Markell's own analysis is the Democrats held their own.

"It was a good experience. It's an experience I'm glad to be finished," he quipped in an interview.

"One of the reasons I wanted to do it is I thought it could help me here in Delaware, and Delaware is always my first, second, third and fourth priority. Now I have people to call around the country when I have questions about policy issues."

In the next election, Markell should have only one governor to worry about. Himself.

Markell has not officially committed to running, saying only, "I very much enjoy my job," but really, it is only a matter of time. He held a fund-raiser toward the end of last year and expects his campaign finance report, due at the end of the month, to show upwards of $300,000.

It is a respectable amount, even though his 2008 campaign cost about $4 million, but the circumstances are vastly different. There are no signs of a contentious primary like the one he had with John Carney, then the lieutenant governor who has since pivoted to become a congressman, and the Republicans are wandering in the political wilderness without a candidate.

"We're where the Democrats were under Pete du Pont," said one Republican, remembering the glory days under the Republican governor from 1977 to 1985. "But the pendulum always swings."

Since Markell became the governor, there have been achievements in what are arguably the state's two highest priorities -- jobs and schools.

With not much to go on beyond wing-and-a-prayer determination, new owners were found for the auto plant at Newport and the refinery at Delaware City, and the University of Delaware acquired the auto plant property in Newark to expand its campus. The state also won national education honors in the "Race to the Top."

"The best part of my job is having people come up and tell me they were laid off and now they're back to work because of something I did. We still have a long way to go," Markell said.

On the downside, Markell has joined a long list of governors unable to tame the Transportation Department. Its most recent lapse was poorly conceived payments to developers along the U.S. 113 alignment in Sussex County.

"We've got to do a better job," Markell said.

In the years since Markell made the "100 to Watch" list in 2000, he justified his placement on it, even if he was eclipsed by a state senator who appeared on a new version of the list in 2003 and was heard to say on the same day Markell took his oath as governor, "I, Barack Hussein Obama . . ."