Lone Jewish Governor Touting Obama to Swing State Jews

From Dover, Delaware to a National Stage

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By Nathan Guttman

Published August 21, 2012.
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The group will focus quite intentionally on domestic issues. But Democratic surrogates are also preparing to face questions on Israel. A key part of their tool box will be a set of quotes from Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, and its defense minister, Ehud Barak, praising Obama’s support for Israel. “For me, this is a lot stronger than anything I can say,” Markell said.

Recent friction between the Obama administration and Israel’s government over the best course of action for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program is another issue for which Democrats are preparing. “There has been some strain,” Markell admitted, “but what adults do is work through these things. At the end of the day, our shared values and high-level communications [with Israel] are the key.”

Markell grew up in Newark, Del., the only Jewish student in his middle school. His family attended a Reconstructionist synagogue, and as a child Markell visited Israel frequently. His first trip there was in 1967, when he was on the first plane to arrive in Israel after the Six Day War. Before entering politics, Markell served on the board of the Jewish Federation of Delaware and on the National Young Leadership Cabinet.

“He is very involved in the community,” said Yair Robinson, senior rabbi at the Reform Congregation Beth Emeth, in Wilmington. In fact, Markell is so involved that he is a member of two synagogues: Robinson’s and Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation. Robinson believes that Markell’s liberal Jewish values come across in his political choices. As governor he moved to approve same-sex civil unions; he is now working to legalize gay marriage. He also used his pardon power to stop some executions of death row inmates in the state.

Markell credits his Jewish upbringing and the Jewish value of tikkun olam, repairing the world, for his decision to enter politics — a plunge he took after years in the business world, where he held top positions in several communications and business corporations, including Nextel, as vice president of corporate development. Markell successfully ran in 1998 for state treasurer and was elected governor in 2008. He was sworn in the night before President Obama and Vice President-Elect Joe Biden — a fellow Delawarean — took their oaths of office in Washington. Markell has devoted his first term in office to battling the state’s huge deficit while kicking off a major school improvement initiative.

As Markell tells it, one underlying influence on his move into politics was his late grandmother. In 1990, Markell, then at Nextel, visited her at her home in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn. He told her about the new technologies then being developed: cellular phones and fax machines that could transmit documents. “So what if you can send a picture through the air when people are dying on the street?” she responded.

“She was always very good in grounding me,” Markell said. But it took awhile for her influence to percolate. Eight years later, Markell left the corporate world and entered local politics.

“The sense is that he wants a higher profile,” said G. Terry Madonna, professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, in Lancaster, Pa. But there are not many options for a governor of a small state, Madonna noted, especially since the state’s Senate seat is being eyed by Beau Biden, son of the vice president.[

“Markell is a cultural liberal, has a reasonably prudent policy as governor and is a smart guy,” Madonna said. “The only question is, where does he go?”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com.


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