Gov. Carney defends Biden in town hall, says Delaware in sound shape

Delaware Gov. John Carney says it pains him to see his mentor, former Vice President Joe Biden, criticized by some women and pundits for being a touchy politician.

During a town hall that WHYY hosted Wednesday night in Dover, Carney said Biden has never been accused of inappropriate touching in Delaware during nearly a half-century in politics.

Biden was a U.S. senator when he hired Carney to his first government job more than three decades ago. As Carney rose in Delaware political circles, he adopted Biden’s trademark bicep grab and shoulder clutch when greeting voters.

Now that some have taken offense at the presumptive presidential candidate’s propensity for being too touchy and kissing them without permission, Carney is coming to Biden’s defense.

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“Joe is a politician that reaches out, puts his arms around folks. I’ve never seen anybody who consoles anybody like he can,” Carney said in his first public remarks about the controversy that has dogged Biden as he prepares to launch his campaign for the Democratic nomination. “He does eulogies at so many funerals. I think it’s because he understands tragedy.”

The governor noted the death of Biden’s wife and infant daughter in a car accident after he was first elected to the Senate in 1972, as well as his son Beau’s death in 2015 to brain cancer. Beau Biden was Delaware’s attorney general.

Carney stressed that in tiny Delaware, residents expect to be embraced by political leaders.

Gov. John Carney is all smiles speaking with some supporters after the WHYY town hall in Dover. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

“If you don’t do that, if you don’t reach out, people are like, ‘What did I do? Why am I not favored?’ ”

Nevertheless, as Carney gears up to run for a second term in 2020, he says he’ll take precautions to avoid any missteps of his own.

The town hall at Fraizer’s Restaurant featured Carney as well as two members of his cabinet — education secretary Susan Bunting and health and social services secretary Dr. Kara Odom Walker.

Carney spoke about an array of issues, such as boosting funding for Delaware’s neediest students and English learners, redeveloping industrial sites like the former steel mill in his hometown of Claymont, even launching a campaign against littering.”

“This is a really big problem in our state,” Carney said about residents disposing of trash in their own neighborhoods and roadways.

Overall, Carney said Delaware is doing well, with a 3.5 percent unemployment rate, which he said was the lowest in about 50 years.

“People are working and earning enough money to support themselves and their families and do all the things involved in that,” he said. “They’re happy and they’re also paying taxes, so revenues are up and everything we have to do at the state level from education to public safety to social services … gets a heck of a lot easier.”

Noting that the objective is not to spend extra revenue on programs that can’t be sustained, he said priorities include making investments in “open space preservation, beach reconstruction, school construction and higher education.”

“That will be our challenge across the street,” he said, pointing toward the General Assembly that will meet until June 30 to consider his proposed $4.4 billion general fund budget, other spending bills and other issues including tighter gun control, raising the smoking age to 21, and marijuana legalization.

Susan Bunting, Delaware education secretary (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Bunting echoed Carney in stressing that boosting proficiency for Delaware’s youngest students is a priority for the state’s educational leaders.

Last year, barely half of third graders were proficient in English. That doesn’t cut it in a state where Carney says he wants all students reading at grade level by third grade.

Bunting said standards are being raised for the youngest students, and for good reason.

“What was once done in first grade now is in kindergarten,” she said. “But we must also look at the end product and what we’re finding is our high school seniors, when they leave they’re entering a very competitive workforce.”

“We need to be graduating our students with deeper skills, better understanding, more content knowledge than they once had. So we need to make our curriculum more rigorous and make sure our students are better prepared.”

Bunting acknowledged the new approach has detractors but insisted that it’s best in the long run for students and the state’s economy.

Dr. Kara Odom Walker, Delaware secretary of health and social services, says more must be done to alleviate the opioid crisis. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Odom Walker spoke about the challenges of helping Delawareans afford health care with the Affordable Care Act under siege by the Trump administration and many congressional Republicans.

She also said Delaware continues to look for ways to help combat the heroin and opioid crisis, which killed more than 400 residents last year, with no sign of abating.

She said Delaware has enough short-term treatment beds but pointed out that recovery can take years and acknowledged the state must find a way to help about 8,000 of an estimated 20,000 addicts get medication-assisted treatment and other follow-up care.

She called substance abuse disorder a chronic brain disease.

“It’s like diabetes or asthma. It changes the way your body acts. It changes the chemicals,” Odom Walker said. “So you can’t expect to be cured from addiction. It may always be there with you, particularly for opioids because they rewire the circuitry and it can take people up to two years to fully recover. But some people need even longer than that, 10 years.”

That means treatment options must be innovative.

“What we actually need is a way to provide treatment where they are, where they are functioning in their communities, have stable jobs and their medical-assisted therapies are set up so people can be on treatment, get a once-weekly dose and be on it for a long time, living in their homes,” Odom Walker said.

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