Questions pile up over lack of Delaware Labor nomination


Gov. John Carney nominated 11 department heads after he was elected last year. Three of them carried over from former Gov. Jack Markell’s administration. 

All were confirmed by the state Senate. 

Yet one holdover, Labor Secretary Patrice Gilliam-Johnson, has not been renominated nor has another name been put forward by Carney.

That has left the Department of Labor in a state of limbo. 

In February, Carney said he would nominate a labor secretary by June. His office now says to expect a nomination in January.

On Thursday, Carney told The News Journal he hadn’t nominated a labor secretary during the first eight months of his first term because he wasn’t certain that Gilliam-Johnson would win confirmation by the Senate.

The longer this situation goes, many observers say, the more difficult it would be for Gilliam-Johnson to lead a department at the center of multiple political storms. 

Gilliam-Johnson, a human resources professional and daughter of the late-Delaware civil rights advocate Jim Gilliam Sr., became secretary in early 2016, after she was appointed by then-Gov. Jack Markell and unanimously confirmed by the Senate.

It came at a time when the agency was embroiled in accusations of, and investigations into, workplace discrimination.

Her predecessor had stepped down after a scathing report — published by a coalition of African American pastors — claimed department officials allowed racism to fester within its walls, and didn’t sufficiently investigate claims of discrimination in other departments.

Since Gilliam-Johnson’s appointment, at least six directors or high-level supervisors have left the agency.

At least one of those individuals has sued the department over her firing.

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Last summer, Gilliam-Johnson told The News Journal that she found entrenched cronyism within the agency, which many have perceived as racism due to a history of racial division in Delaware.

The Department of Labor, overseers of an $24 million budget, runs job-training operations, unemployment insurance, workers compensation, and the offices of Anti-Discrimination and Labor Law Enforcement, among others. 

Gilliam-Johnson currently is working with the Ivy Planning Group, a business consulting company, to continue inquiries into discrimination allegations within the agency. Efforts to reach Ivy Panning group were unsuccessful. A report based on their work is forthcoming.

Carney has expressed concern that a shakeup could disrupt their work, he said.

If Gilliam-Johnson had been nominated during previous months, Carney said, and the Senate voted against her confirmation, the department would have been left without a leader at a critical time.

“It would have been my preference to have somebody in that seat while we were going through this, than somebody who went through the Senate and did not get confirmed,” Carney said.

Concerns about the impact of a Senate rejection were not present with another Carney nominee set to lead a department dealing with multiple crisis. 

Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Shawn Garvin was nominated and when Democratic Senate leadership saw his confirmation was at risk, they postponed the vote.  

Only after Democrats won a special election to secure a majority in the Senate was Garvin confirmed.

Carney insisted he did not put Gilliam-Johnson’s name forward because he was worried she might not get confirmed and how it would impact the department and the discrimination investigation.

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In March, Carney said, “I don’t know if I have any reservations. I have concerns about the problems and how we’re going to fix them.” 

On Thursday, Carney said he has expressed his support for Gilliam-Johnson at Labor Department meetings in recent months.

Asked if there might be Republican opposition to a Gilliam-Johnson appointment, Carney said “It’s hard to say,” noting the politically contentious budget season that just wrapped up could play a factor.

“It’s all kind of connected in terms of what improvements are being made in workplace culture in the department, whether or not there’s support there, and some of the other issues that have been raised, mostly on the Republican side of the aisle through the whole budget process,” he said.

Senators react

Senate Minority Whip Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, said Gilliam-Johnson likely would have support from Republican members of the Senate.

“Rest assured, there are multiple, if not unanimous votes for her on our side,” Lavelle said. 

He and other senators in both parties who spoke with The News Journal said they are confounded as to why the governor has nominated neither Gilliam-Johnson nor a replacement.

Lavelle speculated that it could be the political implication of a vote that might worry the governor, saying “Democrats want to make sure that we aren’t the ones to put her over the top.”

But, he said, politics also have protected the governor, arguing that Carney is insulated from attacks a Republican governor would endure if they were “sitting on (the nomination of) a female African American cabinet secretary.” 

“That’s certainly not lost on me,” he said.

Other lawmakers, such as Sen. Brian Townsend, D-Newark, and Sen. Robert Marshall, D-Wilmington, have expressed support for Gilliam-Johnson’s re-nomination.

“I think she’s highly respected and competent,” Marshall said.

Senate Pro Tempore David McBride, D-Hawk’s Nest, said he has “no idea” why the governor has not sent the name of a nominee to his office. 

“I am curious, I must admit,” he said. “What the governor is doing there, I don’t know, and quite frankly I’d be overstepping my bounds if I asked.”

It is unclear how many Senate Democrats would vote to confirm a Gilliam-Johnson nomination, McBride said.

Pressed if he would vote to confirm, McBride said first he would need to conduct “a lengthy interview” with her to determine why she wanted to continue and what further changes she would make.    

McBride did not conduct a similar conversation with Gilliam-Johnson before voting for her confirmation in 2016, because issues hadn’t been raised about her, he said.

“I didn’t have the newspaper calling, then,” he said. 

With little information flowing from the governor’s office to Legislative Hall about the situations, it is not surprising that many narratives are emerging, said Sen. Gary Simpson, R-Milford.

“It’s a weird situation, it really is,” Simpson said. “If he’s not going to nominate her, then name somebody.”

Earlier this year, Simpson asked Gilliam-Johnson about the status of her job and when the governor would send her nomination to the Senate.  

“She said, ‘I really don’t know what’s going on,’ ” he said. 

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Carney did address a rumor that has infiltrated Legislative Hall. It states that former-AFL-CIO President Samuel Lathem could at some point become Gilliam-Johnson’s successor. 

Carney, who enjoys support from organized labor, said Lathem has expressed interest in serving “in some capacity or another” at the department.

“But I have not talked to Sam recently since the election about the secretary of the Department of Labor,” he said

Reached by phone, Lathem, who currently is a board member at the Delaware River and Bay Authority, said he and the governor have not had conversations regarding him becoming secretary.    

Gilliam-Johnson declined an interview for this story.

In a statement, she said the department “is working directly with the Ivy Group to further its efforts to reinforce a workplace culture conducive to the success of our team.” 

Department duties

As it remains in limbo, the Department of Labor faces ongoing challenges, including a stiff statewide job market, a rancorous political debate over how to set minimum wages for construction workers and allegations of racism within its walls. 

The department in March encountered a firestorm after hackers broke into its job-seeker database, managed by Kansas-based America’s Job Link Alliance, placing 200,000 Delawareans at risk of identity theft after their Social Security numbers and dates of birth were exposed. 

Without the governor’s official nod of approval, Simpson said, Gilliam-Johnson could be hamstrung in her ability to address such issues. 

“It’s sort of a rudderless ship, when you’ve got someone the governor doesn’t have enough faith in to reappoint,” he said. 

Carney said he understands the concern, which is why he held meetings with department staff to “demonstrate from a leadership perspective what my expectations are, and to show my support for Secretary Gilliam Johnson.”

“Otherwise, I would say, ‘yeah,’ somebody could be left with that impression,” Carney said.

Yet, Gilliam-Johnson would better able reform the agency, particularly from a discrimination lens, if she were officially appointed, said the Rev. Vincent Oliver, president of the  Interdenominational Ministers Action Council – one of three faith-based groups that has called attention to complaints of racism in state government.  

“Any administrator is in a better position when they have the full backing of the governor,” Oliver said. “And we continue to be a strong advocate for Dr. Gillian-Johnson in the permanent position.

Tensions have been high across state government workplaces in recent years, The News Journal found in a series of reports.

Scores of allegations of workplace discrimination within state agencies were brought to Gov. Jack Markell in 2015 by Oliver’s coalition of three groups, called Delaware Faith in Action.

They claimed the Labor Department exemplified the problem, and it had reached “epidemic proportions.”

In response to pastors’ claims, Markell ordered officials at the Office of Management and Budget to look into the department. They found “an unhealthy work environment due to lack of professionalism and cultural insensitivity.”

Shortly thereafter, then-Labor Secretary John McMahon resigned, and Markell appointed Gilliam-Johnson, to replace him.

In the time since, another state controversy has featured the Labor Department as a central character.

Republicans demanded during the 2017 Legislative Session that the state change certain details of how it determines the prevailing wage for blue-collar jobs on state-funded construction projects. 

Their demands were not met and the issue briefly went into dormancy after lawmakers reached a budget deal in early July.

But days later, former-state Senate Pro Tempore Anthony DeLuca, who now is the Labor Law Enforcement administrator, issued a revision of prevailing wage rules, which proposed, among other items, to add certain private construction projects to the set of wage floors. 

After outrage from Republicans, Carney cancelled a public meeting that had been scheduled to review the changes and pulled back the revision.

Asked if DeLuca is an obstacle, Carney said, “not that I’m aware of.”

“We had a meeting recently on prevailing wage, which was a big and controversial issue. Tony is an expert on that, it comes out of his shop,” he said. 

What is the law?

While it is an established practice for governors to reappoint adn Senate to re-confirm holdover cabinet members, many senators were unsure whether it is mandated by law. 

“I’m not sure if we’ve been into this before,” Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover South, said.

Based on an interpretation of the Delaware state constitution, Carney likely is on shaky legal ground by having a department secretary who was not confirmed during the current governor’s term, said Samuel Hoff, Delaware State University political science professor.

Good governance practices should direct him to appoint a secretary as soon as possible, Hoff said.

“The changing economic landscape calls out for confirmation of the DOL secretary. In January 2017, Delaware’s unemployment rate was 4.3 (percent), while national rate was 4.9. The most recent stats show these numbers have flipped,” he said. 

Countering a call for urgency, Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington North, said there are numerous examples of government agencies legally operating without appointed or Senate-confirmed leaders.  

“That’s why there are no alarm bells,” he said. “Have you checked in Washington lately? Almost all of the deputy secretaries of the state department have not been appointed.” 

Simpson argues that despite the legal question, “it’s past time” for the governor to act. 

“I’m just sort of mystified,” he said. “I’ve been here 19 years, and I have not seen a holdover stay in office but had not been reappointed.” 

Contact Karl Baker at [email protected] or (302) 324-2329. Follow him on Twitter @kbaker6.

 

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