U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, BE '75M, says he often hears young people in Washington discussing their plans to go to law school in preparation for a career in politics or government service. When they seek his guidance, he says, he offers an opinion and some advice:
"I tell them we have plenty of lawyers in Washington already and that they should think about getting a business degree instead," he says. "I have an MBA, and through all my years in office--from [Delaware] state treasurer to the Senate--it's been enormously helpful. I've felt extremely fortunate to have that background."
Carper was 29 years old, and had completed his master of business administration degree at UD only one year earlier, when
he ran for his first elected post as state treasurer. After campaigning around Delaware "in a Volkswagen with a rebuilt engine" against an opponent who flew his own private plane to campaign stops, he says, he surprised a lot of people by winning election to a two-year term.
Today, after 25 years and 10 more elections, Carper never has stopped winning at the polls. His 11 consecutive statewide victories are a Delaware record and have taken him through three terms as treasurer (1977-82), five terms in Congress (1983-92), two as governor (1993-2000) and to his latest role as junior senator from Delaware.
When he announced plans to run for the Senate seat in 2000, opposing popular, five-term Republican incumbent William V. Roth Jr., many political observers thought Carper had met his match. But, living up to a Wilmington radio commentator's description of him as "a vote-getting machine," he defeated Roth handily last November.
Carper attributes his string of campaign successes to his priorities as a moderate Democrat and his accomplishments over the years, both of which he says are in line with what most Delawareans want from their government.
"Delaware is a state that warms up to people who are fiscally responsible, fairly progressive on social issues, not too partisan and practical--people who get things done without too many partisan distractions," he says.
Carper lists a few principles he says he has kept with him during his years in public office, including doing what's right, treating others the way you want to be treated and never giving up. He says those principles are "core values that I try to adhere to, and I try to surround myself with people who adhere to them. I think the people of Delaware are receptive to that."
Others say Carper's energy in attending numerous public events and meeting constituents personally--a significant asset in a state where television advertising plays a relatively small role in elections (because there are no commercial broadcast stations in the state) and voters have come to expect the opportunity to shake a candidate's hand at least once during a campaign--is another reason he has never lost an election.
Carper says he already was eyeing an eventual career in politics when he saw the state of Delaware for the first time in 1969. As he tells the story, he and a friend, in training as Navy pilots in Texas, hopped a military flight to Dover Air Force Base to spend a few days' leave with the friend's family in Baltimore.
"It was about 7 a.m. on a Saturday in early June when we landed, and it was a gorgeous day, green and sunny and clear, and I was very impressed with this little state," he says. "Later that weekend, I told my friend, 'Someday, I'd like to move to a small state, where a person who doesn't have a lot of money could run for office and make a difference.'"
In spring 1973, after three tours of duty as a flight officer and mission commander in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, Carper left active duty and began applying to business schools around the country for graduate study. When he visited Baltimore again, he says, his friend reminded him of his comments four years earlier. The two drove up Interstate 95 to Newark, Del., stopping at Purnell Hall to take a look at UD's College of Business and Economics.
"I just fell in love with it," Carper says. "People were very welcoming, very warm, and it was an excellent MBA program."
After spending the summer backpacking in Europe, he returned to his parents' home in Florida to find three months' worth of mail waiting for him. Among the letters from various business schools, he says, was one from UD, which he opened first. When he saw that he had been accepted, he says, "I never even opened the others. Just like that, I knew I should go to Delaware."
His two years in the College of Business and Economics resulted not only in an MBA but also his first involvement in Delaware politics, when he served as treasurer and fund-raiser for Jim Soles, now Alumni Distinguished Professor of Political Science and International Relations, during Soles' run for Congress in 1974. Although Soles lost to Pete du Pont, Carper gained experience and contacts in the state Democratic Party.
After graduating in 1975, he put his business education to work at a job with the Delaware Economic Development Office and, a year later, learned that the Democrats had found no one interested in being a candidate for state treasurer. He volunteered to run, resigned from his job after being denied an unpaid leave of absence, took his $10,000 in savings and a $5,000 bank loan--he still recalls the name of the loan officer who approved it--and started campaigning.
"When I became state treasurer, Delaware had the worst credit rating in the country and no cash-management system," he says. "I took what I had learned in graduate school and put it to use immediately," implementing a cash-management system and playing a major role in the state's achieving a AAA credit rating.
After six years as treasurer, Carper moved on to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served five terms as Delaware's lone congressman, serving on the Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee and chairing the House Subcommittee on Economic Stabilization. He says his focus for those 10 years was an agenda of fiscal responsibility that encouraged economic growth, while protecting the health and safety of Delawareans.
From Congress, he ran for governor in 1992 and served two, four-year terms. His campaign biography, emphasizing fiscal responsibility, notes that he balanced the state budget in all eight years, reduced state debt and cut income taxes for middle-class families. It also emphasizes education reform, a long-term effort that Carper spearheaded throughout his eight years as governor.
When he was sworn in to his current position in January, many observers noted that Carper did not seem much like a typical freshman senator. From his years in the House, and his more recent leadership roles with the National Governors Association, they said, he seemed immediately to know many of his colleagues personally and to know his way around Washington.
Carper agrees, adding that his 1982 congressional freshman class included several others who now are senators, such as Barbara Boxer of California, Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, John McCain of Arizona and Senate Majority Whip Harry Reid of Nevada. In addition, Carper says, the Senate includes many of his fellow former governors.
"We still get together as a sort of informal group, from both parties," he says. "It's a special relationship you have with your colleagues. We still feel a real common bond."
In the Senate, Carper serves on four committees--Banking, Government Affairs, Environment and Public Works and Energy and National Resources--as well as the Special Committee on Aging. He says he is working to help build consensus on such issues as education and health care and to "shine a spotlight on Delaware as a model for the nation." He also continues to use his business education, he says.
"As governor, I was always looking for outside-the-box solutions, which my graduate education helped teach me to do, and I'm doing the same thing as senator," he says. "I'm looking for market-driven--not just government-driven--solutions that use market forces and competition to accomplish our goals."
Above all, Carper says, he loves being in the Senate. He commutes daily by train from Wilmington, where he lives with his wife, Martha, a DuPont Co. executive, and their sons, Christopher and Ben. He says his family has been able to maintain a relatively normal life, despite his years in the public eye--largely because they always lived in their own home, his wife continued her career and their sons attend public schools and typical extracurricular activities.
When people ask him if being a senator is difficult, he says, he tells them it's a demanding job but nothing compared with his last year as governor, when he was simultaneously running the state, raising money and campaigning for the Senate, chairing the National Governors Association, heading a major anti-smoking initiative with tobacco-settlement money and being a father, husband and son.
"Now, I am just exuberant every day because I love what I'm doing," he says. "It sounds corny, but when I get off the train in the morning and walk up to the Capitol, I still get goose bumps. I truly think it's a privilege to represent the people of Delaware."
--Ann Manser, AS '73, CHEP '73