When Delaware Gov. John Carney needs to find the most poignant words for a speech — such as when a revered principal died this year in a motorcycle wreck — he takes solace in the fact that he can turn to Sheila Grant.
Grant is Carney’s chief of staff but for nearly a decade, since his days in Congress, she’s also served as his primary speechwriter.
“She’s got an incredible ability to translate your thoughts and the things that you want to say into your voice. And I think that’s incredibly important for an elected official,’’ Carney said.
But now Carney is losing Grant to the biggest of the big leagues in politics — the White House.
Carney announced this week that the 36-year-old Wilmington native will be joining President Biden’s staff as senior speechwriter and special assistant. Carney’s former communications chief, Jonathan Starkey, will replace Grant when she steps down next month.
Grant becomes one of the few politicos from Delaware hired by the hometown president for his administration, now midway through its second year. The handful of others include former Gov. Jack Markell, who Biden named U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Another lesser-known presidential aide is attorney Louisa Terrell, a graduate of Wilmington Friends School who heads the White House Office of Legislative Affairs.
Grant, who has preferred to remain out of the spotlight in her political posts, would not agree to be interviewed about joining Biden’s speechwriting team.
Biden’s executive staff currently includes six other speechwriters, according to this month’s personnel report to Congress. “We are honored and grateful that Sheila will be joining the team and bringing with her important state, local, and federal government experience,” the White House press office said in response to an inquiry by WHYY News about her new role.
Carney said Grant, who has long wanted to focus solely on speechwriting, will be an invaluable addition to Biden’s staff during a “critical time” for his presidency, just before the midterm elections, with his poll numbers flagging amid rampant inflation.
Her talent will “be important for the president of the United States – our Joe,’’ Carney said. “Obviously it’s a whole ‘nother level for sure. So we’re very excited for her and know she’ll be up to the task.”
So when Biden is giving a speech in the future, perhaps alongside a world leader or at a memorial service or jobs announcement, Carney said “we know in the background, we have a Delawarean in there working with him in the speechwriting team to get his message out.”
Rising up the political ladder ‘to bigger and better things’
For Grant, it’s been a steady and swift rise up the Democratic food chain.
The daughter of a journalist and educator, Grant graduated from Wilmington’s Ursuline Academy and then gravitated to Washington, D.C., where she earned a bachelor’s degree in American Studies from Georgetown University. She then earned a master’s degree in Public Management from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
After a short stint back in Wilmington with AmeriCorps, in 2009 she joined the staff of U.S. Sen. Tom Carper as a staff assistant, working both in Wilmington and Washington.
Carper said Grant started out answering phones and mail.
“We get calls throughout the day into the night, and sometimes people are calling to be happy and congratulatory and sometimes they’re going to be mean and nasty,” Carper said. “And she already had some of those skills: to be able to talk to people, to hear them out, to be patient, to respond in a thoughtful, constructive way.”
Grant had to write “literally hundreds of responses to people from Delaware and across the country,’’ Carper said. Her talent as a writer was evident at the outset but “by the time she left us and went on to bigger and better things, it was just great,’’ Carper said.
In 2011, Grant joined then-U.S. Rep. Carney’s office in 2011, serving as director of communications and then legislative affairs — all while helping craft his speeches. Her leadership ability shone through, so Carney eventually made her chief of staff.
When Carney became governor in 2017, Grant joined the new administration as deputy chief of staff. She got the top job in October 2019, just a few months before COVID-19 clobbered the world and Delaware.
Grant knows the ‘personal touch’ Biden likes in speeches
Through Carney’s nearly six years as governor, Grant also has been his go-to staffer for speechifying. Her range is vast, he said.
She crafted his eulogies for former Govs. Ruth Ann Minnner and Pete du Pont, retired Supreme Court Justice Randy Holland, and Warner Elementary School principal Terrance Newton, who died in the March motorcycle wreck. She even helped write the one Carney gave for his late father Jack in 2014.
During those speeches, Grant was able to help Carney’s oratory meet “the emotional and personal nature” of those somber events, the governor said.
But Grant also penned speeches on a variety of topics, including his annual State of the State address.
‘It’s hard in that it’s long and there’s a lot of detail, but you’ve got to simplify it,’’ Carney said.
The governor said Grant’s addition to Biden’s speechwriting team can only benefit the president, whether it’s for an intimate talk in the White House to a small audience, a sobering message during a national primetime address, or a monumental speech on the global stage.
“We all know the stories that he tells. We all know the emotion that he brings to it. We all know the personal touch,’’ Carney said of Biden’s style. “And she does as well. And I think that’ll really be helpful for her role in this new position.”
“I think she’ll rise to the occasion,’’ the senator said. “She’s not only skilled as a communicator, she’s also quite skilled at getting people to work together.”
Carper noted that as chief of staff for Carney, she was the behind-the-scenes force leading Delaware’s “ship of state” through the crippling pandemic for the last two and a half years. He compared the role of chief of staff to that of an orchestra conductor.
“You have all these different instruments, different sounds. And the idea is to try to, at the end of the day, produce a musical product that is pleasant to the ear and welcoming,’’ Carper said.
“And if she can handle all that, she can handle this.”
Get daily updates from WHYY News!