A coalition of Delaware’s black religious leaders frustrated with Gov. Jack Markell’s response to allegations of racism in state government are turning their energy, and their advocacy, to the two leading candidates for governor – Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, and U.S. Rep. John Carney, D-Del.
After clashing for months with Delaware’s top political leaders over how to transform state workplace culture, the Delaware Faith in Action coalition last week declared they have no confidence in Markell’s ability to deal with issues of discrimination.
During the past year, the group has interviewed, in private, approximately 200 state workers of color who say they have been passed over for promotions or punished more harshly than white employees in state offices. That investigation, the coalition says, “just scratched the surface” of systemic racism within state agencies.
Markell “failed to act with urgency to remedy racism and discrimination throughout all state agencies for which cabinet secretaries, directors, administrators, and managers under his leadership were directly, or indirectly, responsible,” said the Rev. Vincent Oliver, pastor at New Calvary Baptist Church in Wilmington and president of the Interdenominational Ministers Action Council.
A state investigation ordered by Markell and conducted by the Office of Management and Budget during the fall of 2015 found “an unhealthy work environment due to lack of professionalism and cultural insensitivity” at the Department of Labor, the agency that had received the majority of the coalition’s critiques.
During the past year, dozens of elected officials and state employees have also told The News Journal that there is, at a minimum, severe workplace strife within Delaware state agencies, and it is often fueled by cronyism, nepotism or racism.
Delaware law prohibits employee discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, disability, age, marital status or genetic information.
The chief point of contention between Markell and the pastors is over how state managers, particularly within the Department of Labor, should be held accountable if they have allowed discrimination to percolate within their divisions. Pastors say they should be fired and not allowed to retire with a pension.
Markell has countered that he cannot disclose whether anyone has been fired because legally he can not comment on personnel issues.
“While we have endeavored to share as much information with (Delaware Faith in Action) as we can, we are not going to violate state law or take disciplinary actions against employees unsupported by the evidence,” Jason Miller, spokesman for Markell, said Wednesday.
State employment records obtained by The News Journal through the Freedom of Information Act show that five high-level supervisors left the Department of Labor in 2016 but it is unclear why. Those five either declined to comment on the record to The News Journal or did not respond to phone calls.
In January, following the investigation by the Office of Management and Budget, then-Labor Secretary John McMahon retired. Pastors said he should have been fired by Markell for presiding over dysfunction.
Miller noted that McMahon retired “to spend more time with his family.”
He also added that the state is currently seeking bids from companies for a contract to review its diversity policies.
“We anticipate that firm to be selected within the next month. It will present us with best practices to pursue and we look forward to implementing their recommendations,” Miller said.
The federal government could also examine the issue.
Alicia Clark, spokeswoman for Delaware Faith in Action, said she has asked the United States Department of Justice to investigate.
Although belonging to separate political parties, Carney and Bonini told The News Journal that, if elected, they will address issues of discrimination in similar ways. Both said they would fire state supervisors determined to have a track record of discrimination toward employees. They also each said the hiring and promotions processes within agencies should become more transparent, so that employees can better understand the reasons for promotions, and more adeptly dispute them.
Lacey Lafferty, a former state police officer, is running against Bonini in the Republican primary. Although she hasn’t been contacted by Delaware Faith in Action, she has spoken with numerous state workers who have voiced displeasure about the direction of state government because of frozen wages and benefits.
“There’s a low morale statewide among workers,” she said.
Like the other candidates, Lafferty said she would fire any supervisor who discriminated against employees.
Carney, Bonini, and Lafferty also noted they do not know the extent, if any, of systemic racism in state government.
Bonini stressed there needs to be a cultural shift in the public sector. As a Dover politician who represents many state workers, he regularly receives phones calls from constituents who describe workplace strife they endure, he said.
If elected, he would create a “full blown commission to look into this” a government body that would have the power to question cabinet secretaries and other managers.
“I don’t think there’s any question that there’s some dysfunction,” Bonini said. “There are just too many stories that the IMAC group has come up with to dismiss this.”
Carney noted that “people will be fired” for discrimination, but said the issue should be handled internally, and not by federal officials.
“We’ve had a long history of racial strife in this country and Delaware has been part of that,” Carney said. “There’s still vestiges of that so I suspect there are concerns about discrimination in the workplace.”
Contact Karl Baker at (302) 324-2329 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @kbaker6.