New Member of the Week: Rep. Carney: 'The smart, measured approach is hard'

“It was crazy — absolutely the craziest election I’ve ever been through,” said Democratic Rep. John Carney, Delaware’s at-large representative, of the 2010 midterms there.

Carney is describing the race between Democratic Senate nominee Chris Coons and gaffe-prone Republican nominee Christine O’Donnell, though his own contest against Tea Party candidate Glen Urquhart — who at one point said the separation of church and state was a “Nazi” sentiment — was not so different in character or outcome.

A familiar player on Delaware’s intimate political scene, Carney maintained a steady rise through the Democratic establishment there until he was beat in 2008 for the party’s gubernatorial nomination by current Gov. Jack Markell.

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He was then recommended to fill Vice President Joe Biden’s former Senate seat, according to reports, before the honor went to longtime Biden adviser Ted Kaufman.

The shuffling — a rarity in Delaware politics — continued even after Carney announced his candidacy for the House in April 2009. At the time, nine-term Rep. Mike Castle (Del.) had not yet decided to give up his seat to pursue a Senate run. He did, perhaps luckily for Carney, who went on to beat Urquhart by 15 points.

Now, as one of seven at-large representatives in Congress, Carney says Delaware’s pragmatic approach to politics has a natural place in current fiscal debates.

“There are a lot of guys — it is mostly guys on the other side — that are very focused on the deficit and budget imbalances, and appropriately so,” he said.

“The question becomes, ‘What are the priorities for protecting the things government should be having a role in?’ I think there are opportunities for discussion there.”

Carney said Senate Democrats haven’t gone far enough in their proposals to cut spending, but he characterizes the Republicans’ approach as haphazard.

“They [Republicans] came up with this pledge [to cut spending] during the campaign that was politically driven. They picked a number out of the air and said ‘we have got to get this number.’ My point is, let’s have a meaningful number,” he said.

“The smart, measured approach is hard,’” he said. “I want to go out and have a conversation with voters about that. People have no sense that so much of our federal outlays are for checks that go to individuals. I don’t think they fully understand how the math [to balance the budget] has to work.”

He praised freshmen Republicans who appear open to give-and-take, and argued that all members have a duty to explain the virtues of political compromise to their constituencies.

“I do believe that’s an important part of the role. Members need to bring their constituencies along — educating them, if you will,” he said.

Whether strongly Republican districts will give their members room to maneuver, Carney said he does not know, but that he is prepared to hash out arguments regardless.

“Politics is always personal in Delaware. It’s not unusual to see Joe Biden in church or at the supermarket — even today, and certainly for the years he was in Congress. So my style is to do that with members — take that personal approach.”

The Delaware political community is just as small. As he rose through the state’s Democratic apparatus, Carney worked as a staff member for Biden in the Senate. He was at Biden’s son Beau’s campaign headquarters with then-candidate Chris Coons last September when news came that Christine O’Donnell had won over former Rep. Castle for the Republican Senate nomination — a moment that left him “completely and utterly shocked.”

Carney also served on the gubernatorial staff of now-Sen. Tom Carper, and became the state’s finance secretary in 1997 and lieutenant governor in 2000.

His current concern, he said, is building bridges with representatives in neighboring districts — like Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Pa.) across the state line. The two recently visited a Boeing factory there.

He is also spearheading the effort to bring federal rail funds to the Northeast Corridor.

In an interview, he described growing up in a “small little house in Claymont,” a small town near the Pennsylvania and New Jersey borders and part of New Castle County, a Democratic stronghold.

A high-school football star and All-Ivy player as a Dartmouth undergraduate, he grew up the son of teachers in a “big Irish Catholic family.”

Of his eight siblings, many still live in Delaware: two own small businesses, one works on a women’s health initiative at a local hospital, and one coaches football at the Catholic school where all the Carney children attended. Another is a teacher, in California.

Carney himself launched health and wellness initiatives as Delaware’s lieutenant governor, and as a longtime coach, continues to organize an annual summer basketball league for Wilmington kids.

“I thought I would do what my parents had taught us to do through coaching — helping young kids, young athletes, but it just wasn’t enough,” he said.