Unusual Partnership

Democratic Gov. Jack Markell, GOP Rep. Pete Sessions Unite to Help Disabled Find Jobs

The Delaware governor and Texas congressman are pushing a public-private initiative to get companies to hire disabled people. Eleanor Clift reports.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images ; Scott J. Ferrell, Congressional Quarterly / Getty Images

How to bring down the nation’s high unemployment rate and create jobs for millions of people seeking work dominated last weekend’s confab of governors in Williamsburg, Va., setting the stage for an admittedly “niche initiative” targeted at employing people with disabilities. “There are a lot of people who want to be working in our country, and aren’t given a shot,” says Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, who was selected by his peers to head the National Governors Association (NGA) for the next year.

With so many able-bodied people out of work, why would Markell choose to focus on the special-needs community? It’s not politically correct to even ask such a question, but Markell has a ready answer, and he is not the least fazed by the unseemliness of the inquiry. He says hiring people with disabilities is good for the bottom line of companies that are doing it, which means it’s good for the shareholders. “It’s not just for charity,” he told The Daily Beast. His NGA initiative is dubbed “A Better Bottom Line: Employing People With Disabilities.”

He thinks a targeted initiative like this “can move the needle” when it comes to hiring. Unemployment among people with disabilities seeking work is “staggering,” he says, with some surveys finding it as high as 80 percent. He believes the reluctance to hire among employers can be overcome with outreach and education.

Markell tells of recently touring a Walgreens distribution center in Hartford, where half the 500 employees are people with disabilities of varying kinds. He learned that deaf people make the best forklift drivers, and he also realized that hiring the disabled is an issue that cuts across partisan lines. Together with him on the tour that day was Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, who chairs the National Republican Campaign Committee, and whose politics are the polar opposite of those of Markell, a Democrat and passionate surrogate for the Obama campaign.

Markell thought of Sessions as a hardliner—“a guy I would not want to have against me”—and was surprised to hear him speak so movingly about the issue of disabilities, and about his son, Alex, who has Down syndrome. Markell recalled the Texas congressman saying he has one son in the upper 2 percent of academic ability, and another in the lowest 2 percent, a disparity that motivated him to become the leading Republican advocate in Congress for people with physical and mental disabilities.

Sessions confirms Markell’s account and says both his sons, Bill, 22, and Alex, 18, have needs and goals—they just have to be met differently. “He can’t be the state wrestling champion like Bill, but he has pride and wants to be successful too,” he says of son Alex, “and a job to do” when he gets out of school is part of that. Alex has already overcome considerable challenges to join his older brother, his father and grandfather in becoming an Eagle Scout.

The Texas lawmaker is not looking for another government-driven program; he thinks there are already too many at the state and federal level. What he likes about Markell’s initiative is that it’s a public-private partnership, and it’s voluntary. Government is not forcing business to do anything. “Business is out here trying to do things; government gets in the way,” Sessions says. Today’s anti-big-government GOP doesn’t celebrate what former Republican president George H.W. Bush still considers one of his proudest achievements, signing the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990.

With widely differing views of the role of government fueling much of the partisanship we see in Washington today, Markell has found a narrow piece of ground where a Democrat and a conservative Republican can stand together. Unlike Sessions, Markell does not have any personal experience with disabilities, but says an encounter nine years ago at an event sponsored by Bank of America stayed with him. He asked a newly hired 25-year-old with Down syndrome what he did before he got a job. The young man said that for six years he sat at home and watched TV with his parents, “and the light bulb went off,” Markell said.

It’s taken a while for him to bring the issue into focus, but on Monday, fresh from attending the NGA conference, Markell signed the Employment First Act into law in Delaware, requiring state agencies that supply services to the disabled to also consider hiring them.