Interview by Peter Osborne and Rob Martinelli
Most Delawareans know Sen. Tom Carper — and probably have met him over the years. Sen. Carper, who travels from Wilmington to Washington each day on an Amtrak train, began his career in public service in 1976 when he was elected to the first of three terms as Delaware’s state treasurer at a time when the state of Delaware had the worst credit rating of any state in America. Six years later, with that credit rating restored to a respectable “AA,” he was elected to Delaware’s at-large seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Sen. Carper went on to serve five terms as a U.S. congressman before being elected the 78th governor of Delaware in 1992, serving two terms in that role. As governor, he pursued a common-sense agenda that led to eight balanced budgets, tax cuts in seven of those eight years, and major increases in employment. Gov. Carper led the effort to strengthen the state’s “rainy day” fund and boost Delaware’s credit rating to “AAA” for the first time in state history, while helping to overhaul the state’s education system and to implement welfare reform initiatives in Delaware and the nation.
On Jan. 3, 2001, Gov. Carper stepped down two weeks early to become Delaware’s junior senator. He was re-elected in 2006, and with his re-election in November 2012 he has been elected to statewide public office in Delaware 13 times.
Sen. Carper sat down April 15 with DBT Publisher Rob Martinelli and Editor Peter Osborne for a wide-ranging interview. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing Delaware small businesses?
I would say the ability to attract and retain the kind of employees they need and finding affordable health care for their employees. That’s not just a challenge for small businesses. I find it challenges all businesses.
The Delaware business climate has changed a lot since you were a congressman and a state official, particularly in the areas of financial services, manufacturing, chemicals. Do you believe it’s easier, more difficult or about the same to do business in Delaware right now?
I think our climate’s good. One of the things we do well in Delaware is to make it personal. In a state like this, if you want to have a chance to work with your governor [and] your governor’s cabinet you can do that. If you want to have your congressional delegation come by and do customer calls, we do that throughout the year. Joe Biden likes to say that all diplomacy is personal.
He also says all politics is personal. And I think part of business development is personal as well. I like to say our other motto (besides the First State) is “Friendly, but you’ll get used to it.” I think you can’t discount that, and that means something.
Does it help that all our elected leaders — the congressional delegation, the governor, the New Castle County executive, the mayor — all live within the city limits of Wilmington?
I’ve heard stuff for decades now that for Delaware to be successful, Wilmington has to be successful. It’s a city that’s on the comeback trail, and I think we’re bringing value and support to that. I think the key was electing Mike Purzycki mayor. When I was governor, we asked him to establish something called the Riverfront Development Corp., to try to transform this industrial wasteland along the Christina River to what it is today. It was one of the smartest hires we ever made. The best hire he’s made is Bob Tracy as police chief.
What can our federal and state leaders do to make it even easier to do business in Delaware?
I think part of it is just asking three questions: How are you doing? How are we doing? What can we do to help? It’s not enough just to show up and take some pictures at an employer. I always ask the question, “What can we do to help?”
How do you describe your job?
I help create a nurturing environment for job creation and job preservation which includes work force, transportation, schools and more. We’re working on major national transportation legislation for roads, highways, bridges and on deploying broadband in places we don’t have it in rural Delaware, which is something that small businesses and big business will appreciate. We work on common-sense regulations, access to capital, all kinds of stuff. We have small business development centers in every county in our state. That’s something we initiated when I was governor.
And we do partnerships between the SBA and our local banks so that local banks will lend to small businesses and the SBA will buy down the risk so these local banks will help them provide access to capital. If you want to start a business, then go visit the Small Business Development Center. They can help you develop your business model. They can help you incorporate, can help you figure out your taxes. They can help you do all kinds of stuff. And it’s a one-stop
shop. We have those in every county.
After the collapse in 2008, Congress passed Dodd-Frank and banks got a lot stricter in terms of lending money. That sometimes forces people to the SBA because you can’t get a loan just on your own. Do you think the pendulum went too far?
Five of the biggest banks are bigger than ever and a lot of community banks that were lending to small businesses are gone. One of the issues I got my head kicked in on last year was supporting changes to Dodd-Frank. And the community banks and credit unions have a lot of the same reporting requirements and rigor that we associate with much larger companies. As a result, they were making fewer loans to small businesses and people who wanted to buy a house or a car.
For years, small businesses, community banks and credit unions have been asking for relief from Dodd-Frank and we did that last year. You’d have thought that I had just sinned by virtue of supporting that legislation. But it actually was in response not to what the big banks were asking for, but to what the big regionals, community banks, and credit unions were asking for. It would be interesting to go talk to them this year, as opposed to a year ago or five years ago, and I think you’d find it’s a new world and a more common-sense world.
What business-centric legislation are you most proud of either passing or blocking?
The work that we did on toxic substance control. Chemical companies like many we have here in Delaware found themselves having to comply with 50 different state laws with respect to those toxic substances. And we changed that in 2016. We’re providing one national standard, a federal standard. It’s a rigorous standard. But this was a combination of good environmental policy and good business policy. I’m very proud of the way we did that.
The federal debt today stands at about $22.2 trillion, which works out to about $67,500 per U.S. citizen. What do you think we need to do to address that?
As governor of Delaware, we balanced the budgets eight years in a row. We actually cut taxes seven out of eight years. But we always balanced our budget, ended up with triple-A credit ratings. For me, the most concerning aspect of the tax cut bill was it does nothing about reducing deficits and will actually increase them, and next year the deficit will be a trillion dollars in one year. We’re going the wrong way. I’m old-fashioned, I’m a Keynesian. I believe in times of distress, recession, depression, war, that it’s OK to deficit spend. But when we’re 10 years into the longest-running economic expansion in the history of the world and we’re still running a trillion-dollar-a-year deficit … I think that’s outrageous.
Infrastructure — roads, highways, bridges — are all critical for the economic success of our country. We’ve had a user-pay system for roads, highways, and bridges for a long time, but you have to go back 25 years to find the last increase in the user fees for gas taxes and diesel taxes. We suggested raising the user fees by 4 cents a year for four years, indexing it to inflation going forward so those who use roads, highways, bridges pay for them. There’s an $800 billion backlog in transportation projects, service transportation … $800 billion. So I’m working with folks in the Trump Administration, Business and Labor, Democrats and Republicans to say that when we pass a major transportation reauthorization bill, we’ll actually pay for it and go to work on the backlog and make sure that we’re setting monies aside for roads, highway, bridges.
What is your No. 1 concern when it comes to younger voters? What do you see as the biggest challenge in trying to engage them?
I remember reading Time magazine one day (in 1969) when on active duty in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War and it was talking about the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, which caught on fire. And that turned out to be an impetus for creating the Environmental Protection Agency, passing the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act. My generation was on fire against the Vietnam War. But we also were on fire for clean air, clean water, and our environment. Some people think you can’t have cleaner air and actually create jobs. They are wrong. I want to make sure our younger generations are going to have a planet to grow up on, while still creating jobs. I think the issue of climate change, global warming, all this extreme weather that we’re seeing, that should unite us, not divide us.
When the time comes for you to leave public service, how do you want to be remembered?
There’s a portrait in the Capitol, in the Senate reception room, of a guy named Henry Clay who served as Speaker of the House and ran (unsuccessfully) for president three times. I am apparently a descendant of Henry Clay. He was known as a great compromiser, able to get people to work together to find the middle. And I would hope people would say of my descendancy from him, distant though it was, that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. That would be a wonderful way to be remembered.