Outside of his home state, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell may not be the focus of as nearly as much media attention as, say, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the man who was nearly Mitt Romney’s pick for a running mate and is also seen as a potential presidential candidate in 2016.
Even Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, not one to seek the media spotlight, seems to generate more national headlines.
But the 52-year-old Markell — currently, the only Jewish governor in the country — said that he doesn’t mind operating relatively under the radar. In part, he said, that’s a function of the size of his state — Delaware has just 900,000 residents — and his somewhat low-key personality; or perhaps it attests to his aversion to making controversial statements.
“Gov. Christie, with whom I get along very well — we just have different personalities,” he said in a recent interview.
In November, the Democrat cruised to re-election, capturing nearly 70 percent of the vote. On Jan. 15, he will be sworn in for his second and final term.
In a small state known for its moderate, bipartisan form of politics, Markell has developed a reputation as a business-friendly Democrat who many Republicans respect, even if they don’t love him. He’s also currently chair of the influential National Governor’s Association, a position held four years ago by former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. (Markell became the nation’s only Jewish governor when Rendell and Linda Lingle of Hawaii both left office at the start of 2011.)
Some supporters have even begun to speculate about Markell’s future beyond his current office. But the governor himself — whose eight years in office will mirror the term of President Barack Obama — said he is focusing on the challenges ahead, ranging from the slow-growing economy to education.
“Four years ago, we were looking at an abyss,” said Markell, comparing the time he first took office to now. “Today, we feel like there is momentum.We are not as far along as we would like to be, but I am more optimistic and bullish about our future than I have been in a long time.”
And he thinks that national politicians could take a lesson or two from Delaware’s public officials, who find a way to work together across partisan lines, he said.
“We just do things a little bit more quietly in Delaware — we have a very different style of politics,” said Markell.
How different? Well, for starters, Delaware has a post-Election Day tradition where Republicans and Democrats come together for what’s called a “burrying-the-hatchet” parade.
Delaware is also the first state to simultaneously have a Jewish governor, Markell, and a Jewish lieutenant governor, Matt Denn.
Markell grew up in Newark, Del., about an hour from Philadelphia, and had a career in technology and business before being elected Delaware state treasurer in 1998.
The married father of two teenagers said he takes his Judaism seriously: He is a member of two synagogues in Wilmington: One Reform and one Conservative. In the early 2000s, he served on the National Young Leadership Cabinet of the body now known as the Jewish Federations of North America, an experience he said deepened his commitment to a life of service.
He’s affixed a mezuzah to the governor’s mansion and made, by his count, at least eight visits to Israel, where a number of his cousins reside. His first trip was in 1967, just after the Six-Day War had concluded.
“I was only 6, but what I remember most is the sort of euphoria that reigned,” he said.
As governor, he is focused on bolstering economic ties between the Jewish state and America’s “First State.” Right now, many Israeli companies that do business in America incorporate in Delaware, since the state is known for offering generous corporate tax breaks.
He visited Israel as state treasurer. He has yet to go as governor but hopes to get there sometime in 2013. He recently came back from a trip to Southeast Asia, where he touted Delaware as a place for international firms to do business.
Though not known as a partisan warrior, he did campaign this summer and fall for Obama’s re-election efforts and was dispatched to Florida to try to woo Jewish voters who had their doubts about the president.
Markell has also been in the thick of some of the thorniest issues confronting the country right now.
First, there’s the “fiscal cliff,” the set of spending cuts and tax increases that automatically go into effect unless Congress can reach a deal. Last month, Markell led a bipartisan group of governors to meet with the president. The group also held separate meetings with House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, to discuss the fiscal cliff’s implications for the states — being careful to avoid taking sides.
“We explained the urgency of getting something done and also, importantly, we wanted to make sure that governors have a seat at the table,” he said.
And, since the shootings in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, Markell, who was already on record for a national assault weapons ban, has been talking about ways to respond to the tragedy.
In 2011, he signed three gun safety bills into law. One made it a crime to carry a firearm in public while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Another authorized state agencies to report information about mentally ill patients to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which checks background issues when guns are involved. The final bill established a community gun buy-back program.
Markell has said that in the wake of last month’s shootings, those laws may need to be strengthened.
“There is not one answer that would solve it all,” he said, adding that a combination of school safety measures, reforms to mental health treatment and new gun laws may help prevent future mass atrocities. “We need to be thoughtful and we need to think about it holistically.”