Lt. Governor Denn Remarks Celebrating African-american History Month and 60th Anniversary of Brown V. Board of Education

February 5th, 2014

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February 5, 2014 as delivered at Delaware Public Archives

Thank you Secretary Bullock.  And I also want to thank the terrific archives staff led by Stephen Marz.  Together with Secretary Bullock and his deputy Rick Geisenberger, they do so much more than preserve the state’s records – they really bring history alive for us and it is because of their deep love of what they do.  And welcome to our guests as well – Dr. Homer Minus and Principal Toriano Giddins with his students from William Henry Middle School.

African-American History Month is always significant, but more so in this landmark year when we celebrate the 60th anniversary of an historic event like the Brown versus Board of Education decision.

It is an opportunity for us to celebrate the contributions of African-American men and women to what our country is today.  It is a chance to look at how far we have come, in some ways.  We live today in a country with an African-American president, and African-American men and women in leadership roles in virtually every institution – academic institutions, governments at every level, the arts, and the list goes on.  When I was a student at H.B. Middle School in the 1970s, when court-ordered bussing had just begun, few would have believed that we would be where we are today.

Decisions like Brown v Board of Education were one reason why we have made this progress.  But Brown was just a court decision.  For it to have meaning, like so many of the civil rights laws have passed in our country, it required brave men and women to literally put themselves at risk to assert those rights in the face of Americans – and Delawareans – who refused to accept them.  Some of those people were children, who risked their own safety to be civil rights pioneers and insisted on attending integrated schools.  They are heroes, and one of them – Orlando Camp, who put his own safety at risk to become one of the first students to attend integrated schools in Milford – has already been introduced.  Perhaps more than anything else during African-American History Month, we should take every opportunity to honor those like Dr. Camp who made history.

But one of the important things about history is that it reveals truth.  And the sad truth is that the promise of Brown vs. Board of Education is still a long way from reality.  Brown realized that separate is inherently unequal.  But what we’ve come to see over the past several decades is two more subtle truths: that integration is neither a guarantee of equality nor even something that government can completely sustain over time.  I looked this morning at the elementary schools in the school district that I attended over thirty years ago.  One of the elementary schools is over 73% Hispanic.  One of them is 95% African-American, less than 2% white.  One of them is 73% white, only 2% African-American.  Housing choices and stubborn income gaps have managed in many cases to accomplish what Brown said the law could not.

The central promise of Brown also remains only partially fulfilled.   The racial gap in math and reading scores is much more narrow today than it was in the mid-1970s, and the gap has narrowed faster in Delaware over the last 15 years than in almost any other state in the country.  But there is still a gap, and there is still inequality.

The good news for the students from William Henry Middle School here this morning is that here in America, we write our own history.  And I am absolutely confident that 30 years from now, when people gather in this building to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, and someone from your generation is speaking as Lieutenant Governor – maybe even someone from your class – that he or she will be able to say that the promise of Brown has been fulfilled.  The reason I am so confident this will happen is that I think your generation is more capable of doing it than any that has come before – more tolerant, more curious, more savvy, and more wise.  President Obama said last month that we are all part of a relay team in the river of history.  It is your turn now; I believe you will finish the work started 60 years ago.

Lt. Governor Matt Denn’s Remarks on the State’s Economy to the Greater Kent County Committee

January 9th, 2014

January 8, 2014

We have come back from the worst economic crisis to hit our state since the Great Depression, and I want to talk today about how we move ahead.

The national Bureau of Labor Statistics put our unemployment rate in Delaware at 6.5% in November.  That’s the best it’s been in five years – it essentially puts us back to where we were when the national economy crashed in late 2008.  Some people say that number is deceptive because the labor force is smaller now, but the labor force number goes up and down over time – our state labor force today is larger than it was in November, 2010.

How does that unemployment rate compare to our neighbors?  Maryland is right around where we are at 6.4% — but with a full 25% of its nonfarm workforce in recession-proof government work, compared to 14.7% of ours.  Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate is 7.3%.  New Jersey’s unemployment rate is 7.8%.  New York is 7.4%. Connecticut is 7.6%.  Rhode Island is 9%.  Are we the best in the country?  No.  Are we even close to satisfied with being the best in the region?  Absolutely not – we won’t be satisfied until every Delawarean who wants work can find it.  But as we look ahead to determine how we will build on our success, we should appreciate how far we’ve come and the better place from where we start.

When we are at our best in Delaware in creating economic opportunity, we are doing three things well.  First, we are making our state an attractive place for anyone to do business.  We recognize that no one – least of all government agencies – bats a thousand guessing winners and losers in these  unpredictable economic times, and we have to make sure that the fundamentals of our economy are such that we are an attractive place to move and grow for all types of employers.  Second, while we are strengthening our overall profile as a state to do business, we need to be smart about those economic areas where we have, or could work to have, strategic advantages, and pay special attention to those areas.  And third, when there are particular companies that are interested in locating or expanding here and offer the real prospect of putting Delawareans to work, we need to be extremely responsive to them.  We can’t lose our focus on any of these three areas – it doesn’t matter, for example, how nimble or responsive we are to potential new employers, if the underlying economic environment in our state isn’t attractive to them.

The fundamentals are easily stated but hard to do.  The Governor and I hear them over and over from employers.  Employers want a well-educated and trained workforce – students graduating from high school, college graduates, and adults who have learned skills after finishing school.  Employers want a low cost of doing business.  They want to be in a state that has a good quality of life – where they and their employees will want to live.  And they want a supportive government, not one that necessarily gives them everything they want but one that listens and understands that for business, time is money.

On those fundamentals, we have solid progress to report but still a lot of work to do together.  Our public schools are doing a better job than they were doing five years ago, but there is still substantial room for improvement.  We have made major new investments in quality Pre-K education and professional development for teachers, two of the areas where experts tell us we can have the greatest impact on the quality of classroom instruction.  We’ve launched some innovative new programs such as the Chinese language immersion program championed by the Governor.  Out of my office, we have pursued a number of initiatives designed to deal with some of the nuts and bolts challenges of running good schools, many of them working closely with our state legislators:

 

  • A successful change to state law to make it possible for school districts to make earlier hiring offers to new teachers.  This is helping us to better compete with surrounding states for the best new teaching candidates.
  • An expansion of funds for programs targeted at academically advanced students – which will result in innovative new programs in both the Caesar Rodney and Capital School Districts next year.
  • Changes in the law to try to ensure that more students with disabilities get the support services they need.
  • The creation of a new graduate program in speech language pathology at the University of Delaware, which over time will dramatically improve the availability of speech therapists for Delaware schools.
  • Financial bonuses for schools whose students – especially those from challenging economic backgrounds – improve over the course of the year on academic tests.  I just came from one of the award-winning schools, Lake Forest East Elementary School.
  • More intensive scrutiny of how local school districts spend their public dollars; in particular what percentage of those dollars go into the classroom rather than overhead.
  • And renewed focus on parental involvement, highlighting schools that have come up with innovative and successful programs to better involve parents in their kids’ educations.  A number of the schools that have been recognized have been from the Caesar Rodney School District.

 

I talk about this issue at such length because it is so important to economic development.  It has a huge impact on the quality of the workforce that we can offer to employers.  And it is also a major quality of life issue, because employers care about where they and their families will send their kids to school.

Yet with all that good news to report, we are still not where we want to be or where we need to be.  We have taken steps toward elevating the teaching profession, but not enough.   The resources that we dedicate to our schools should be weighted far more toward teacher salaries and the salaries of other classroom professionals than they are now.  And when we are paying teachers higher salaries, we will be able to have higher expectations of their qualifications and training when they come to our public schools.  We also need to better recognize that our kids cannot be educated in a cookie cutter fashion.  At the same time that we focus – as we should — on the percentage of our kids who are proficient at various grade levels, we should be redoubling our efforts for kids who demand a different approach, providing much more challenging classwork for kids who can do advanced work, and doing a better job meeting the needs of students who are struggling to overcome disabilities.  And once our students have graduated from high school, we need to do a better job of providing them with the more specialized training that is required to perform 21st century work.  I became one of the newest members of the state’s workforce investment board last year, and now that I have had some time to see what we are doing and learn about what is working elsewhere, I am going to be proposing some specific ideas in the near future about how we can improve workforce training.

Keeping business costs down is another area where we have worked hard but still have a lot to do.  The best thing we can do at the state level to keep taxes low is to keep expenses low, and our state agency employment rolls – the part of the state budget over which we have the most control – have actually gone down substantially since 2009.  I want to repeat that, because no administration, Republican or Democrat, since records were kept starting in the mid-1970s could say it before now: there are fewer people working for state agencies today than there were when we took office in 2009.  The national Tax Foundation did a very sophisticated study last year of the overall tax burden on businesses imposed by each state.  Delaware was about average for existing companies and in the top third of the country for new companies.  But in some areas that I think are incredibly important, we did exceptionally well.  For example, we had the fourth lowest tax burden in the country for companies seeking to start new capital-intensive manufacturing businesses, and the eighth lowest tax burden in the country for companies seeking to start new labor-intensive manufacturing businesses.  So once again, room to improve but a good place to start.

One area where I am paying special attention is in controlling workers compensation costs for our employers.  In 2006, not that long ago, Delaware was the third most expensive state in the country to purchase workers compensation insurance.  In 2007, when I was the state’s Insurance Commissioner, I worked with the General Assembly to put in place a variety of regulatory and legislative changes that cut workers compensation rates by over 40%, allowing Delaware improve to 13th best in the country with respect to our rates.  But as you have probably felt, the state lost ground in 2011 and 2012, with workers compensation rates going up by high double digit percentages in two consecutive years.  That is not the type of low-cost business environment that we need for our economy to thrive.  So for the first half of 2013, I chaired a state task force that came up with a series of recommendations to stem these rate increases, including a two year freeze on what doctors can charge for treating workers compensation patients, and the creation of a ratepayer advocate to speak up for the businesses paying the bills during the rate approval process.  We are now midway through the first rate-setting process since these changes took place.  We are waiting to see how they impact the rates, and if the impact is not enough, we’ll propose additional changes.  This is an area that we must control if we are to have a competitive business environment.

The state has been very aggressive in the second of the third areas I mentioned, which is being responsive and receptive to the needs of individual companies that are potential employers.  That’s been true on a large scale, on projects like the PBF refinery in Delaware City where the Governor’s involvement with a purchaser literally saved hundreds of jobs there when the prior owner announced its shutdown.  And it’s been true on a more limited scale, including right here in Kent County.  It’s resulted in the expansion of existing businesses, like Kraft Foods and the former Camdel Metals, and its helped open new businesses ranging from the Uzin Utz floor manufacturing facility scheduled to open at Garrison Oak Technology Park to smaller enterprises like Acorn Books and the Bayard Pharmacy.

Let me speak last to the issue of a responsive government.  This is an area where we have made real improvements.  The Governor and I have both made a habit of visiting both large and small businesses throughout the state, and listening to their concerns.  But I’ve come to realize that that is not enough.  Small business, in particular, needs a regular channel of input, to have its concerns heard at the state government level.  So early last year, I created a small business advisory group that I meet with every couple of months to talk about what is on the minds of small businesspeople.   Its members are the leaders of real small businesses from a broad range of vocations and regions – not spokespeople, but the people actually paying the bills and opening the doors every day.  It has been incredibly helpful.  We’ve had members raise regulatory issues with me that we were able to address, such as pointing out to New Castle County a permitting procedure that was unnecessarily burdening contractors.  And it has focused our attention on a particular issue of concern to the small business community: the availability of loans and credit.  Thanks to the focus on this problem, this is an area where we are going to have some concrete proposals in the next several weeks.

Being responsive also means listening to the larger business community when it believes it has strategic opportunities that should be pursued.  Here in Kent County, the state has been actively involved since the beginning in the proposal to build an athletic complex in Frederica.  Although I know there is some disagreement about how quickly some road improvements adjacent to the facility should be made, the state has committed to make them if the project moves forward and, on top of that, to invest an additional $3.3 million in infrastructure improvements.   I want to put the magnitude of that investment into context.  That $3.3 million is one of the largest investments in the history of the state’s infrastructure fund –the only larger ones were for the Amazon distribution facility, the University of Delaware’s health campus, PATS Aircraft, and the Port of Wilmington, all four long-established, major employers.  And I was very pleased to see the interest at last September’s Kent County Economic Summit in trying to develop a focus on food innovation districts.  That is great thinking, an approach that capitalizes on some of the real advantages our state has in agriculture production and life sciences, and I am looking forward to working with the county to refine the plans and forge ahead in that area as well.

This is a critical time for our state and for Kent County.  Working together, we fought back against the worst economic storm to hit our state in generations, and we are poised to take the next step.  It won’t be easy, important things rarely are, but I’m confident that if we take care of the fundamentals, think strategically, and act responsively, that we will be one of the best places in America to start and grow a business.

Lt. Governors Remarks to the Vision 2015 Education Conference

October 9th, 2013

I had the opportunity to offer remarks today at the Vision 2015 conference and introduce the iEducate Award winners for this year. I couldn’t help but share some of the great things happening in Delaware education while I was there.

Lt. Governor Denn’s remarks for Vision 2015 conference:

We have pursued a lot of new education initiatives in Delaware over the last several years.  But they will all ultimately be futile if we don’t have the best qualified, best trained, best motivated adults working on the front lines with our kids.  Recruitment, retention, training, and equipping of teachers and staff for our schools is the basic blocking and tackling of public education.   So at the same time that we explore what is new and innovative, we should also ensure that we are taking care of the fundamentals.

The numbers tell the story.  Of the over 8,000 teachers who were teaching in our public schools last year, 12% were hired by their district or school for the first time last year.  That is a big number: one in eight of the teachers in any given school on the first day were there for the first time.  As more kids enter our public school system and more teachers retire, there is no sign of that trend slowing down.  So it is imperative that we bring the best teachers into our schools, and hold onto the good ones.

We’ve fixed one problem by changing the law to provide earlier funding guarantees to school districts, so they in turn can make earlier hiring offers to prospective new teachers rather than being outhustled by surrounding states.  In the last two years, we have gone from 35.7% of our teachers hired before August to 53.5%.   The General Assembly passed legislation proposed by the Governor last year to ensure that our new teachers receive appropriate training as part of their college curriculum.  This is an area where we can never do enough, and we have to be vigilant about making sure that Delaware is a place where good teachers want to make a career.

Part of recruitment and retention is compensation, that can’t be ignored.  I think teachers are the most underpaid people in our state.  But one of the most important lessons I have learned from five years of visiting schools and talking to front-line teachers is that their working environment is most important to them.  Do they have a manageable class?  Do they have the materials they need?  Do they have the support they need from their colleagues and their supervisors?  At the heart of it, are they in an environment where they can do what made them teachers in the first place – helping kids to learn.  It is important for us, as we weigh new initiatives, to listen to our front-line teachers and to think about how our innovations are going to impact their ability to do their jobs and, as a consequence, their willingness to teach here.

Professional development is a great example.  The Race to the Top program gave us the opportunity to do more of it, and the Governor has been an eloquent advocate for it at the national level.  As the life of the Race to the Top grant comes to a close, we need to not only sustain our commitment to professional development, but also listen to our teachers when they talk to us about how best to do it.  One of the projects I am most proud of this year is a video series we are putting together where some of our best Delaware special education teachers will show their peers how they are getting such great results from their kids.  We’ll be providing the videos free to school districts, so they in turn can provide them to teachers.  No federal mandate, no strings, just an opportunity for Delaware teachers who want to excel at their craft to learn from other Delaware teachers who already do.

Every year I try to visit each school that wins one of our Academic Achievement Awards for student performance, especially with low-income students.  The schools are very different.  But one common denominator is a tangible culture among the teachers and staff: of camaraderie, of pride in their work, of high expectations and love for their kids.  I see it at places like Elbert Palmer Elementary School, in the Southbridge neighborhood of Wilmington, where 96% of the kids are low-income and in spite of that the school wins award after award for helping those kids to achieve.   I see it at the other end of the state in places like John M. Clayton Elementary in Frankford, where over a quarter of the students are English Language Learners and almost 90% are low income, and the school still gets great results from the kids year after year.  There is no switch we can flip to transfer the culture at Palmer and Clayton Elementary to every school – it has been hard-earned there over a period of years.  But we can be mindful of the critical importance of fostering those types of school cultures, as we work together to figure out how best to help our kids.

Matt’s Commencement Remarks to Caesar Rodney High School Graduates

June 3rd, 2013

Photo Credit: Jason Minto (www.jasonminto.com)

I am excited to close out the school year here at Caesar Rodney High, because it’s also where I opened the school year.  In fact, almost every year I’ve had this job, I’ve started the school year here at CR.  You have been kind enough to keep inviting me to CR’s kick-off, where teachers, staff, community, and administrators all get together to celebrate the last year’s accomplishments and generate enthusiasm for the upcoming school year.   And every year I come, I am impressed by the unmistakable warmth and respect between teachers, staff, and the community.   So thank you for inviting me to join you today, but thank you even more for making such an effort year-round to honor the work that your front-line school employees do and create a sense of teamwork here.

I love talking to graduating seniors about what they plan to do with their lives.  And when I ask them why they are thinking about a particular career, part the reason is often a teacher who helped spark their imagination.   I talked to Amanda Siewell last week, she told me that one of the most memorable teachers she had at CR was her math teacher Richard Szvitich.  Next year she’s going to the University of Delaware, where she’s going to study math and math education, so that she also can be a math teacher.   Peter Kolakowski talked to me about his Advanced Placement anatomy teacher Lisa Kane, and the extra time she put in with him.  Peter’s going to study athletic training at the University of Pittsburgh, with thoughts of going to medical school.  The list goes on.

So let me say something to our teachers and paraprofessionals and school staff.  I know that being here and seeing your students reach the finish line is enough for you.  It’s why star teachers like Kathi Thomas and David Moore, who have taught at CR through decades, who have won awards for their teaching, who have had multiple opportunities to get promoted out of their teaching jobs, keep returning to the classroom.    Kathi was the state teacher of the year in 2005, she got offers.  She even started filling an application out.  But she stopped halfway through – she says she realized “my place is with the kids.”  David Moore, CR’s teacher of the year for this year, has also been offered promotions.   But he doesn’t take them, because he lives for what he calls the “light bulb moments, that little bit of extra help that results in a struggling student saying ‘I can do this, I can do science, I can do math.’”

We know you don’t teach because you seek recognition or thanks.  But you are due it nonetheless.  And you are entitled to a couple of minutes to sit back and fully reflect on what you have done for these young people.

You gave these students the building blocks to fulfill their dreams.   We know that in 2013, living the American Dream is dependent on having a solid educational background, and you provided that.  But beyond completing the year’s curriculum, I guarantee you that there were moments of teaching and moments of insight that you provided these students which will stay with them forever.  My high school English teacher Mrs. White handed me back a paper, and said I had underlined too many words in it.  She said “the words you choose and how you use them should tell what you are emphasizing, if you are writing well you shouldn’t need to underline anything.”  I told her that William Faulkner, who we were studying, underlined a lot.  She said “honey, you’re not William Faulkner.”  To this day, when I am writing anything I hear Mrs. White’s voice in the back of my head.  Whether you are an English teacher, science, math, music, a paraprofessional, there is a student in a cap and gown today who had a moment with you that changed his or her life in some way.

Through the eloquence of your example, you also taught these students pride and discipline.  These young people will bring to their careers the same diligence and commitment to excellence that they saw you bring to yours.  Along with their parents, you were their first professional role models.

And that character you taught them will extend beyond their 9-5 workplace.  Years from now, however far they may travel, you will be with these students at pivotal moments in their lives.  When they face critical decisions affecting their families, their reputations, their integrity, those times when a lifetime of experiences and learning all come to bear, their time here with you will help lead them the right way.

This is the time of year when students say their goodbyes, so I suspect you teachers have heard a lot in the last couple of weeks from students who are grateful for what you did for them.  But I hope you also know how much their parents appreciate you.  For seven or eight hours a day, we trust you with that which is most precious to us, our kids.  And when we see this extraordinary group of young adults sitting before us today, well prepared and eager to take on the world, we know that you once again vindicated that trust.

Class of 2013, it’s traditional during these commencements to dole out advice to graduating students.  But from talking to several of you, it’s clear that you have been getting great advice for the last four years.  So my long-term advice to you is, do what your teachers said.  And my short term advice is, if you get a chance before you leave here today, find a teacher or paraprofessional or staff member who had the kind of impact on you that I’ve been talking about, and say thanks one more time.

Finally, let me get up on my soapbox for one minute before I leave.   We as a community need to treat teachers and teaching in a way befits their importance in our lives.  Part of that means that, even in these tight financial times, we need to make the tough choices necessary to work towards the point where we pay teachers in a way that reflects their importance, and in a way that ensures that our best teachers keep teaching here in Delaware.  But these teachers didn’t go into this profession to get rich.  Just as importantly, we need to treat our teachers and staff like the critical professionals they are – give them the highest quality training, the tools they need to do their jobs, and listen to them carefully when we make decisions about our schools.

Class of 2013, I’ve spent more time talking about your teachers than I have talking about you.   That’s not because I’ve lost sight of the fact that this is your day.  It’s because those of you who I’ve met have expressed such gratitude for what this school did for you, that I wanted to use this precious time I’ve been given to pass it on to everyone here.   Thank you for bringing such distinction to CR during your time here, and I can’t wait to see the great things you do as you move on with your education and your careers.   Good luck!

MEMORIAL DAY COMMENTS 2013

May 31st, 2013

We are here today, as conscience dictates, to honor those who have given their lives
so that we might enjoy the privileges and freedoms of this extraordinary country.

Over the weekend, I got a picture in my in-box of a former Army medic I know named Cody Floyd, standing at the gravesite of Specialist Stephan Mace, who was killed at Outpost Keating in Afghanistan at the age of 21.  Stephan Mace died a hero, one of eight Americans who died when 53 American soldiers had to defend a remote outpost that was overrun by Taliban troops who outnumbered the Americans eight to one.

Cody Floyd is one of the medics who struggled to save Stephan Mace’s life.  Although he gave me permission to talk about the picture only if I didn’t talk about him, to understand the poignancy of the picture you need to understand what Cody did to try to save Stephan Mace’s life.  As I mentioned, the outpost was temporarily overrun by the Taliban, and Cody could hear them outside the medical tent and smell the buildings in the camp on fire.  He was expecting Taliban troops to burst into the medical tent at any moment, and stopped to strap a rifle to his back.  He stopped again later to have his own blood drawn to transfuse directly into Stephan Mace.  In the end, it was not enough – Stephen Mace struggled heroically for hours, but he was taken from us at the age of 21.

Stephan Mace was not from Delaware.  I mention him by name, as I have Delawareans who fell in the line of duty at past Memorial Day ceremonies, because the numbers of people who have given their lives for us is so daunting that merely stating the statistics seems inadequate.   When I leave here today, I will be going for an hour to my son’s elementary school for an end-of-year picnic when kids read their written work to their parents.  On my way there I will think about what an amazing country this is, that my son could have the opportunity to go to a great public school, to be nurtured and loved, to have the opportunity to do anything in life that his talent and determination will allow.  And I will think about the fact that he has all of that only because of the sacrifice of men like Stephan Mace.

We must honor our fallen soldiers.  But words are surely insufficient.  We must take full advantage of the opportunities and freedoms that they gave their lives defending.  And we must protect their brothers and sisters who are in harm’s way and who we have been blessed to have return to our soil.  Last Veterans Day, I
spent part of the day at the local headquarters of Astra Zeneca as they honored their employees who had served and who had family members currently deployed.  AstraZeneca is one of two Delaware-based companies that are members of the 100,000 Jobs Mission, a national cooperative among employers to hire 100,000 veterans.  When I contacted Astra Zeneca right after Veterans Day last year and told them that we had the opportunity to bring Cody Floyd and two of the other surviving heroes from Outpost Keating to Delaware, to have them tell their stories and let people here know about the heroism of those like Stephan Mace who lost their lives there, Astra Zeneca said please let us handle their visit – and they did.  There are some folks from Astra Zeneca here today, and I want to thank them for helping us to honor those who have fallen, but also for leading the way in doing right by those veterans coming home.

We thank the brave men and women whose sacrifice made this country possible, and their families who miss them still.  And we rededicate ourselves today to making this country worthy of their sacrifice, and to caring for their brothers and sisters who have returned to us, and to whom we owe a debt we can never fully repay.

 

For more photos of this event and others, please visit:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/mattdenn/

CROSSING THE FINISH LINE

April 9th, 2013

Last night, I had the opportunity to speak to about 200 University of Delaware students who gathered on campus for a rally in support of marriage equality in Delaware.  Here is what I told them about the unique moment in history we are living through.

A few weeks ago, I was meeting with some people who did not agree with me about marriage equality.  They gave me their reasons for being against it, I explained why I was for it.  I’m not going to bore you with that part of the discussion, the fact that you are here tonight suggests that you don’t need to be convinced.   But during our talk, one of the people I was meeting with said “of course we don’t support discrimination based on sexual orientation, no one supports that.”   And I said “hold on.”

Because I chaired the Delaware State Senate debate in 2009 when we finally passed a law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.  And the reason it wasn’t passed before 2009 wasn’t for lack of trying.  It took eight years to pass that bill.  As late as 2008, just five years ago, we couldn’t even convince a majority of our state legislators that denying a job or insurance to gay and lesbian Delawareans was wrong.  And now five years later, people ask how anyone could have ever thought differently.

Everything has changed.  And I want to use the little time I have to talk about why, and what it means for marriage equality.  I think things changed in large part for one basic reason.  More and more gay and lesbian Delawareans began to proudly tell people that they were gay and lesbian Delawareans.  They told their families.  They told their friends.  They told their co workers and their bosses.  And suddenly we weren’t talking about abstractions any more.  We were talking about real people, people who we knew and respected and loved.

No one should understate how difficult, and in many cases courageous, it was for gay and lesbian Delawareans to tell others who they were.  They risked their jobs, in many cases they feared risking the love of their families, because they were proud of who they were and did not want to hide it.  The story of equal rights for gay and lesbian Delawareans may not have a singular hero or moment; it is the culmination of thousands of moments of individual will and determination.  It is a story with a legion of heroes, some of whom are in this room tonight.  And make no mistake, it was young people who led the way.

So now here we are.  And in spite of all the changes, in spite of the cascade of elected officials changing their positions on marriage equality, we are not quite there yet.  We’ll get there, and five years from now people will wonder once again how it could have been an issue, but we’re not quite there.  I believe strongly that we will cross the finish line the same way we got so close – by humanizing the issue.  I’m a lawyer, I’m all about logical arguments, but in the end we will win because you talk to legislators about yourselves, your friends, your families, and tell them politely but passionately what this means in human terms with names and faces.

Mary Oliver, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet who often wrote about her partner of 40 years Molly Malone Cook, famously said “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  In the next few weeks, you have the opportunity to change your state for the better, and write a chapter of your young life that you will look back on proudly.  Seize the moment, help us make this a better state.

 

Two Memorials

July 25th, 2012

What a difference 24 hours makes.

On Sunday, I attended a memorial service for my friend and former boss Bruce Stargatt, who died last week at the age of 82.  He was a founding partner of one of Delaware’s most prestigious law firms, and by all accounts, he lived a grand and tremendously fulfilling life.  He received every award a Delaware lawyer can receive, and far more importantly, was revered by his family and colleagues.  It was a sad service, because he will be missed, but it is hard to imagine someone living a more full or joyful life than Bruce did.

Just 24 hours prior, I attended a very different memorial service.  Along with about a dozen mothers whose children had been killed by gun violence, I attended the opening of a memorial to their children on a small triangle of grass in Southbridge.  There were no calls to action or policy prescriptions at this service; it was for families to remember their loved ones.  Emotions were very raw – one mother who got up to speak found that she could not, and two teenagers remembered their brother who was slain only a few feet from where we stood.

Even during the memorial, there were poignant reminders of how violence has affected our largest city.  Pastor Christopher Curry, who spoke at the memorial, was exhausted from having been up most of the night with one of his best friends whose son was slain just a day before.  During our silent march to the memorial site, we had to walk straight through a street fair celebrating Southbridge children who had graduated from high school – the street fair participants fell silent out of respect for the grieving mothers.  And just hours after we all left the memorial, another person was shot in Wilmington just over a mile away from where we had stood.

Each of the young people we remembered on Saturday deserved the opportunity to strive for a life as full as Bruce Stargatt’s.  Few of us, including myself, will ever accomplish what Bruce did – he was a supremely talented and driven man, who came from a modest background and earned everything he had.  But these young people deserved a chance to find where their talents would take them, and they and their families deserved the decades of love and companionship that were robbed of.  For each young person slain, there are many others whose opportunity to live a rich, rewarding life has been diminished in some way by violence.

All of us, whether we live in these neighborhoods or not, have a responsibility to try to make them safer.  Some are stepping up.  A few weeks ago I walked down Fourth Street and Market Street in Wilmington in the early evening, talking to residents who were sitting outside their houses.  On one corner, just blocks from where a shooting had recently occurred, five men stood talking to one another.  They all lived in the neighborhood, they had all grown up in the neighborhood; three of them had families in the neighborhood.  They told me that between them and the owner of a convenience store across the street, they considered this corner to be their responsibility, and there had not been any trouble there.  They are doing their part and then some; we all need to do ours.  Bruce Stargatt devoted his time and reputation to heading the Delaware Bar Foundation, which funds free legal assistance that is often critical to families in distress.  We all have a role to play.  

This is not a column to lay out my twenty-point plan for ending violence in the City of Wilmington.   There are plenty of those floating around, some of them thoughtful and some less so, along with plenty of unproductive finger-pointing.  Some of us have been working on this issue for much of the past three years, and at some later time I am happy to catalogue where we’ve made progress and how I think we can do better.  My purpose here is to ask the 90% of the state’s population that lives outside Wilmington to be committed to intelligently and forcefully addressing this problem.  Not just in the short term – though bringing stability to the streets is a critical short term goal – but over the long haul.   

Even in this troubling time in the city one finds hope.  When I was on Fourth Street I ran across three young kids playing on an empty lot by themselves.  I was concerned when I saw them – they looked scarcely older than my seven year old boys, playing alone as darkness fell just blocks from where a man had recently been shot to death.  I asked them where they lived and where they went to school.  I knew their school, and I knew their principal – it is one of our top-performing Title 1 schools in the state, where disadvantaged students’ test scores have skyrocketed and kids who once struggled academically now play chess and talk about graduating from college.  So I know that even though these kids are facing an uphill battle, living in a tough neighborhood without the supervision they deserve, they are spending their school days in an environment where they are nurtured and challenged.  Our willingness to fulfill our moral responsibility to these kids, and thousands of others like them in our state, will have a profound impact on the safety of our community.  And it will determine what kind of people we are.

Paying It Down

July 11th, 2012

When my government service is over, I will vividly remember the opportunities I have had to meet the men and women who serve in our armed services, and their families.  Most of them entered the military as volunteers, placing their own lives and safety at risk.  Some of them returned with life-altering injuries, and some did not return at all.   We owe them a debt that we can never fully repay, but when we get the opportunity to pay it down even a little, we need to seize it.

Several months ago, Jim Gallagher of American Legion Post #28 contacted me.   Jim and I don’t talk politics, but I have reason to believe that our beliefs are about as similar as the musical stylings of Mozart and Alice Cooper.  However, when Jim calls me about veterans, I listen.  Jim told me about a van that the Legion Post uses to drive veterans from Sussex County up to the VA Hospital in Elsmere.   Post 28 is one of the largest American Legion posts in the world, and it transports 800 veterans a year up to the hospital at no charge.  Jim said that Post 28 was having trouble paying for the transportation costs associated with running the van, and asked if the Post could get a small amount of help from the state.

I made some inquiries, and the response I got back was, “If we do it for them, we’ll have to do it for everyone.”  I replied, “No, we won’t.”  Because veterans are different.  They risked their lives for us, and many of them are travelling to the VA Hospital to be treated for ailments that are directly related to their military service.  Finally, Representative Earl Jaques – a former National Guardsman and chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee – agreed to help, and we were able to get a small allocation for Post 28’s van in the state budget.  Not a lot, but enough to keep the van running, which is certainly the least we can do for these veterans.

I also visited the Home of the Brave several weeks ago.  Home of the Brave is Delaware’s only residence for homeless male veterans (they are currently working on  similar residence for females).  At the end of the visit, I asked board chair Linda Boone what we could do to help.  She didn’t think twice before answering, “Help our guys with their dental care.”  Apparently, because of some boundary lines that were drawn by someone who doesn’t live in Delaware, Home of the Brave residents were required to receive the dental care to which they were entitled in Maryland rather than Delaware.   For several Home of the Brave residents, that meant they would rarely – if ever – get the dental care they needed.  Linda and I went through all the right channels – and, by the way, Linda Boone is a fierce advocate for her residents.   Everyone seemed to agree with us.  But we weren’t getting concrete commitments.

So two Fridays ago, I found myself on a conference call with several other Lieutenant Governors and Scott Gould, the Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.   The topic of the call was federal programs to help returning veterans find jobs, which is a strong interest of mine.  As the call was winding down, Deputy Secretary Gould said, “Is there anything else anyone would like to discuss while I’m here?”  And I thought to myself, “What the heck.”  I gave him a 60 second rundown of the problem, and said, “Is there someone I can talk to about this?”  To his credit, he said, “That person is me.”  And true to his word, after an e-mail exchange the following Monday, things started to happen quickly and I got a note from him this past Saturday saying the problem would soon be fixed.  I don’t know if it was Deputy Secretary Gould’s intervention or Linda Boone’s relentless efforts that made the difference, and it really doesn’t matter – what matters is that together, we were able to ensure that men who served our country can receive the medical care to which they are entitled.

There are plenty of people in our state who dedicate a lot more time than I do to helping veterans.  But we can all do something – whether it’s giving a returning veteran a shot at a job, helping one of our many groups that work with soldiers and veterans, or teaching our children to show proper respect to men and women who have served.  We will never fully repay our debt to these soldiers, but we need to pay it down whenever we can.

June 30th Diary

July 2nd, 2012

Every June 30th, the last day of the Delaware General Assembly session, I take some notes on the day’s activities and share them on this blog.  This year’s is a little unusual, because June 30th fell on a Saturday.

6:00 a.m.: Adam and Zach wake up, and suggest that because I will not be home on Saturday night to help convince Mrs. Denn to let them watch X-Men cartoons, I should let them watch as many as possible before she wakes up to compensate.  Because I appreciate their strategic thinking, and because it will afford me an opportunity to nap on the couch, I agree.

8:30 a.m.: A trip to the gym, and an opportunity to start reading George Pelecanos’ new novel “The Cut” while running on the treadmill.  George Pelecanos is one of the creative geniuses behind the HBO series The Wire, if you liked The Wire you will also love his books.  

11:00 a.m.: The boys and I do the family’s weekly grocery shopping.   And for the fifth consecutive week, one of the boys – I will not identify which one, since I fear that they will one day read these blogs and I wish to have them care for me when I am elderly and infirm – announces when we are halfway done that he has to use the supermarket bathroom. 

Noon:  I go over the list of House bills that are ready to be considered in the Senate.  It is important for me to have some idea which bills are likely to be contentious for two reasons.  First, in case I have to vote to break a tie.  And second, because the contentious bills are also the ones where procedural issues that I have to rule on are most likely to be raised.

6:00 p.m.: The Senate convenes for its last session of the year.  I decide to throw the Senators a little bit of a curveball: instead of asking one of the Senators for our opening prayer, which I have done every other session day for four years, I assign the prayer to myself for the first time:

Eternal One, on this last day of the legislative session, we thank you for blessing us with the extraordinary privilege of serving in this chamber.  We thank you also for our state employees, many of whom have devoted their professional lives to public service. 

For at least two of our members, today is their last day of service in this building.  We thank you for the service of Senator Liane Sorenson, whose final months in this chamber were spent passing legislation that will change the lives of a generation of Delaware children.  And we thank you for the service of Senator George Howard Bunting, who time after time has risked his own political future to cast votes of conscience.  His legacy of independence and courage is an example for all of us.

Tonight, and in the future for those of us fortunate enough to return, we ask your guidance in helping to lead this state we love.  And for our part, we will strive to follow your edict that we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with you.

8:00 p.m.: The Senate passes the last of its “money bills” (the three bills that collectively make up the state’s budget).  President Pro Tem Anthony DeLuca gets up and announces that because the Senate has been so efficient, he expects it to adjourn by around 12:30 a.m. – just 30 minutes after it is required to start a “special session” because of some eccentricity in the Delaware Constitution that should have been fixed long ago.  The Senate erupts in raucous applause, and Senator Colin Bonini – the Republican Senator whose controversial vote for Senator DeLuca helped Senator DeLuca retain the President Pro Tem position – exclaims, “I voted for that man!  I voted for that man!”

8:30 p.m.:  I discover that across the hall, Speaker of the House Bob Gilligan has surprised everyone by announcing his retirement.  I have often said that Governor Markell was the perfect person to become Governor in the economic turmoil that the state faced in January of 2009, and the same is true of Speaker Gilligan who became Speaker that same month.  With forty years of experience in the legislature, almost all of it in leadership positions, Bob Gilligan brought to the Speakership a depth of knowledge and moral authority that he had carefully accrued over decades of service.   As a young legislator he had seen the chaotic way that Delaware state government dealt with its last economic crisis in the 1970s, and he was determined that we would do it the right way this time.  And we did.  He will be missed, but he can be proud of having helped see our state through some very tough times.

10:00 p.m.: The Senate recesses.  I ask Senator Blevins, the Senate Majority Leader, if this is going to be a short recess or if I have time to go get food, and she tells me that the Senate is almost done with its work and won’t be ready to reassemble until around 11:15.  So I wander out into Legislative Hall to see if I can find anything to eat other than pizza (the answer: yes, cupcakes are also available), and to bid farewell to my friend Jennifer Ranji.  Jennifer spent much of the last four years as the Governor’s education advisor; given the amount of time and focus we have had on schools, it has been a round-the-clock job, which she has performed incredibly well.  But today is her last day on the job.  I am not sure what her future plans are, but Delaware kids are better off today because of her service.

11:15 p.m.:  The Senate reconvenes, and stoically marches through the rest of its legislative business.   Because there is less drama than in the past three years, and because two of the Senate’s most respected members are retiring, there is a higher than average level of camaraderie in the chamber.  It is never good to be legislating in the middle of the night, but if you have to do so, this is about as tranquil as it gets.

12:30 a.m.:  The Senate adjourns, people say their goodbyes, and I walk upstairs to the Governor’s office to say goodnight.  In past years I have declined the invitation to participate in the Governor’s end-of-session press conference at 1:00 or 2:00 a.m., because my driving skills deteriorate significantly after midnight and I have an hour-long ride home.   But because of the Speaker’s retirement I decide to hang out for this one.

2:15 a.m.:  I hop in my car, turn on ESPN’s Bill Simmons podcast reviewing the NBA draft, and head north.  And as in past years, I still can’t make any sense out of the Sixers draft picks.

A Bittersweet Day for Kids in Dover

June 8th, 2012

I called Representative Terry Schooley at about 1:00 yesterday to tell her that I was running late for a meeting.  Many of you know Terry  – she was elected the same year I was, 2004, and she has been a tireless champion for children.  She has sponsored probably 80% of the bills that I have been involved with on behalf of kids.   She asked me if I could keep a secret, I said yes, and she said we’d need to postpone our meeting because she was announcing her retirement in an hour.

This was a shocker, because Terry Schooley loves being a state legislator.  There are some elected officials who act as if the privilege of holding office is some kind of anvil that they must carry around their necks.  Not Terry Schooley.  When she speaks about her legislative work on behalf of kids it is with a palpable joy and enthusiasm.  The problem is, she loves her family even more, and most of her family members – including her kids and grandkids – live a long way away from here.   So those of us who are focused on kids will miss her unmatched combination of passion, credibility, and knowledge.  But we have enough confidence in her instincts that we know she is doing the right thing, and we also know that the kids of this state are far better off than they were eight years ago because of the work Terry has done in Dover.

So that’s the bad news.  The good news is, yesterday was a terrific day in the Delaware General Assembly for kids.  Three important bills affecting kids moved forward.

First, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill that Senator Dave Sokola, Attorney General Biden, and a certain State Representative named Terry Schooley wrote with me to help the state address the issue of cyberbullying in our schools.  The bill came up about two hours after half of the House of Representatives rose from their seats to pay homage to Terry.  So my understanding is that the debate went something like this:

REPRESENTATIVE SCHOOLEY:  Mr. Speaker, this is an important bill for kids and I think the House should pass it.  Roll call please.

Seriously, the bill will put a process in place that will allow us to have a much stricter, much more coherent cyberbullying policy in place when kids return to school in the fall, and allow schools to enforce that policy knowing that the state will stand behind them if they are challenged.  It’s not the whole solution – education and parental involvement are also critical components, and we’re working on those as well.  But it’s an important part of the equation.

The House also passed a bill yesterday that Representative Quinn Johnson and I wrote to help the parents of students with special needs advocate for their kids.  In a nutshell, the bill requires school districts that deny necessary services to kids with special needs and later are overturned by an appeal panel to reimburse the parents for the expenses incurred in advocating for their kids – things like paying medical experts for their time.  The way the system is set up now, parents are simply overwhelmed – when the parents have a disagreement with a school about what is being done for their child with special needs, the school uses public tax dollars to hire expensive attorneys and employs its own teachers and therapists as expert witnesses against the parents.  The parents, many of whom do not have a lot of money, are left to fend for themselves.  In many cases, the result is that the parents simply aren’t able to seek what they know is necessary for their kids.  This bill, if passed by the Senate, will allow lower and middle income families to pursue appeals for their kids, knowing that if they are successful they will be made whole financially.  It doesn’t guarantee anything to anyone, but it ensures that the process will be fair.

Finally, the Senate passed legislation yesterday which would require private insurers in Delaware to cover therapy for children with autism up to a capped amount every year.  Although I have publicly supported the bill for some time, I can’t take credit for this one: it was written by Senator Liane Sorenson, and it was passed primarily because of herculean efforts by the parents of kids with autism working through Autism Delaware.  This fight is not over, there are still some insurance companies that I am confident will try to derail the bill.  But we are 50% of the way home, and I will be attending the House committee hearing next week when the bill is heard.

We are working on a lot of other good things for kids with our General Assembly right now, some of which I don’t want to jinx by writing about them too soon.  But for yesterday, at least, my sorrow at seeing Terry Schooley say her goodbyes was tempered by the progress we made in making this state a better place for kids.