Rep. John Carney enters 2016 governor race

By The Hill staff , The Hill

Delaware Congressman John Carney, a Democrat, formally entered the 2016 race for governor on Wednesday, ending months of speculation that he would seek the state’s top political office.

Carney, who said he won’t actively begin campaigning until next year, said he formed a committee with state elections regulators that will allow his campaign to begin hiring and raising money.

“This is an opportunity to serve and meet the challenges that we face here in Delaware,” Carney said during an interview with The News Journal on Wednesday. “They are frankly challenges that every community and every state in the country faces right now.”

Carney, who will bring deep government experience to next year’s race, said his campaign will focus on restoring Delaware’s middle class, improving public education and addressing Delaware’s budget issues.

Since the death of Beau Biden of brain cancer in May, Delaware Democrats have looked to Carney as the standard bearer for the party that dominates First State politics. Biden, the vice president’s eldest son, left office after two terms as Delaware attorney general in January with plans to seek the governor’s office.

Biden’s cancer returned this spring, and he died after a nearly two-year battle with the disease.

Carney, 59, has long ties to the Bidens. His political career began as a staff assistant from 1986-1989 in the office of then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden. Carney spoke with the vice president by phone a little more than two weeks ago. He said he wanted to consult with the vice president about his plans to seek the governor’s office.

“This opportunity to serve comes because of the vice president and his family’s worst nightmare, which is Beau’s passing,” said Carney, who expected to support a Beau Biden campaign for governor. “It’s a very personal thing. I just needed to know that he was comfortable with it. He could not have been better, he encouraged me to run. I can tell you it’s lifted a huge burden off my shoulders in terms of making that decision.”

Biden called Carney again Wednesday morning to wish him well, the congressman said.

Carney already has broad support among top Delaware Democrats, securing the endorsements of U.S Sens. Tom Carper and Chris Coons.

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, who upset Carney in the 2008 Democratic gubernatorial primary, has also endorsed a Carney campaign, saying he will work to see his former political rival elected as his successor.

It’s unclear whether Carney, who is serving his third term in the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, will face a Democratic primary challenger this time around. New Castle County Executive Tom Gordon had been considering a race, but he did not return a call seeking comment on Wednesday.

Delaware Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, and retired state trooper Lacey Lafferty are running on the Republican side. Bonini welcomed Carney to the race.

“He’s a great guy. I consider John and I friends. I quite frankly think that he would be a more than competent governor,” Bonini said. “My take is Delaware needs to go in a different direction. If you want more of the same, that would be one choice. I’m going to be offering a different choice.”

Carney’s decision to seek the governor’s office promises also to set up a Democratic primary fight to fill Delaware’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Delaware Rep. Bryon Short, D-Highland Woods, and Delaware Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, have said they would seek the congressional seat should Carney decide to run for governor.

That campaign could prove to be Delaware’s most divisive 2016 political race, pitting two well-respected Democrats against one another.

“The Carney announcement was the domino effect that everyone was expecting,” said Rhett Ruggerio, a longtime Delaware Democratic operative and lobbyist in Dover.

If Carney wins the 2016 race for governor, he will enter Delaware’s highest office at a time of significant uncertainty and Democratic party infighting in Legislative Hall.

Delaware’s top business leaders are warning of widening budget gaps over the next decade. Expenses in areas like public employee benefits, public education and Medicaid, the low-income health insurance program, continue to increase while once-strong tax sources like unclaimed property and gambling taxes are sagging.

Despite a falling unemployment rate, Delaware’s economy is not growing as fast as the U.S. as a whole.

“The situation we’re in now, we’re going to need somebody like John to get us out of this situation,” said Sam Lathem, outgoing president of the Delaware AFL-CIO who supported Carney’s 2008 campaign. “He has a better relationship with those in the middle, as it relates to education and jobs. I think he understands our plight.”

Carney would not discuss details of his policy proposals on Wednesday, but said that he considered the challenges facing Delaware before committing to a governor’s race.

“This is about public service. It’s not about me,” Carney said. “The easier course would have been to continue to do what I’m doing. This is a harder road. But it’s a more meaningful road, a more impactful road for our state. Challenges are something that I’ve always sought out. This is going to be hard.”

Carney would not wade into a debate over perhaps the most divisive issue in Dover: Markell’s decision to veto legislation that expressly allows parents to opt their children out of standardized testing in Delaware’s public schools.

Lawmakers could attempt to override that veto when they return to Legislative Hall in January. Carney said it is too early for him to get into Dover debates. “What I do know is whether it’s education, whether it’s fiscal policy, or tax policy, the next governor is going to have to bring those people together,” Carney said.

Carney will bring a wealth of government experience to the 2016 campaign. He was deputy chief administrative officer for New Castle County from 1989-1994, before moving to the state level to work as deputy chief of staff under then-Gov. Tom Carper.

He later served in Carper’s Cabinet as Secretary of the Delaware Department of Finance, overseeing Delaware tax collections, before winning two terms statewide as lieutenant governor. Carney first ran for Congress in 2010, and has easily won re-election twice.

Carper said Wednesday he will support Carney’s campaign, saying he worked closely with Carney during his two terms as governor.

“John is bright, possesses boundless energy, and has the heart of a servant,” Carper said in a statement. “He is uncommonly adept at building consensus and finding principled compromises around very difficult and complex issues. He surrounds himself with excellent people, and his integrity is unquestioned.”

Coons also said Wednesday he would support Carney’s campaign, calling Carney “widely respected” among lawmakers of both parties in Washington.

Delaware Republican Party chairman Charlie Copeland issued a brief statement labeling Carney a tax-and-spend Democrat, and attempted to link him to Democratic Gov. Ruth Ann Minner. Carney was Minner’s lieutenant governor from 2001-2009.

“If you like wasteful government spending, higher taxes, and Ruth Ann Minner, then you’ll love John Carney,” Copeland said.

Even top Republicans acknowledge how difficult it will be to beat Carney in a statewide race. He has won statewide elections five times since 2000, has broad support among Democrats and goes into the race with a dramatic voter registration advantage. Registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by more than 125,000 statewide, according to the latest state tally.

Former Republican Congressman and Gov. Michael Castle acknowledged the GOP’s disadvantage on Tuesday, before Carney’s announcement.

“It is going to be hard for Republicans to win in a year like the one coming up,” Castle said during an interview at a Delaware Historical Society’s History Makers event where he was honored for his decades of public service.

Castle called Carney a “pretty balanced guy.”

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