A Victory for Diversity

A Padua education helped Lisa Blunt Rochester become the first woman and the first African-American to represent Delaware in Congress

Last year, when Lisa Blunt Rochester was campaigning to become Delaware’s only member of the U.S. House of Representatives, a constant theme of her crusade was that she had never run for office before, although she had spent years working behind the political scenes. That fact is even the first sentence of her LinkedIn biography: “I’ve never run for office before…”

It wasn’t until recently that Blunt Rochester realized she had erred in claiming this was the first time her fate was decided by voters. She actually ran for office twice in the past—at Padua Academy. And, just as in her bid for the House seat, she was victorious.

In January, Blunt Rochester was sworn in as the first woman and the first African-American to serve in Congress from the First State. That’s a dynamic one-two diversity achievement that she really started training for more than three decades ago at the all-girls Catholic school in Wilmington.

She laughed during a recent interview when she recalled her time at Padua and suddenly remembered her first forays into politics—running for student council during her freshman and senior years, and winning both times.

“That school and those teachers had a great impact on me,” she says. “That was a very important time in my life.”

But she readily admits that 14-year-old Lisa Blunt wasn’t looking forward to entering the Broom Street school.

“I didn’t choose Padua—my parents chose Padua,” she says. “The thought of going to an all-girls school, I don’t think I knew what to expect. But I think that allowed me to be in an environment where I could just truly focus on developing me, the woman I am today.”

In fact, Blunt Rochester says that even today, when she faces tough decisions in Congress, she frequently recalls the Padua motto: Suaviter Sed Fortiter, Latin for “Softly But Strongly.”

An Iconic Father

“It’s an important concept, to realize that you don’t have to have a hammer to get things done and to be strong,” she says. “That’s just one of the basic, foundational things that I got from being in that school.”

Her father, Ted Blunt, is an iconic figure in Delaware politics. He served for more than 30 years with various school districts, then became a member of Wilmington’s City Council for 16 years before rising to Council president for eight years. This gave him a myriad of experiences and personal interactions, and that’s what he and his wife, Alice, wanted for their three daughters, starting with Lisa. (Their other daughters, Thea and Marla, graduated from Brandywine High).

“That’s the price you pay when you’re a child—parents make the decision,” Ted Blunt says with a laugh. “She was our first-born and we wanted her to have an experience around other girls, and not just be around the same kids in your neighborhood. So we decided on Padua for her to get that experience with other youngsters of different backgrounds, whether they be white, black or brown.”

The decision proved to be a wise one. Ted Blunt got what he wanted for his daughter—life lessons as well as academic lessons. Lisa’s time at Padua developed her outlook on life and helped the girl become a woman and eventually a Congresswoman.

When she entered Padua, the school’s total enrollment was only about four percent black, and she was the only African-American in the class of 1980.

“That’s also one of the things that has shaped me,” she says. “It’s the ability to travel in diverse circles, but also to be strong in those times when you might feel challenged or feel as if you were the only one.
“So a lot of things influenced me from that school. And I got a great education.”

Lifelong Friends

There’s something else Blunt Rochester got from Padua, something she still treasures.

“Lifelong friends,” she says. “To have that kind of longevity with people also taught me the value of friendship and the value of loyalty and being there and having somebody’s back. That was really important.”

Karen Jablonski Black was a member of Padua’s Class of 1980, and she remembers Lisa Blunt as a bright, vivacious girl who was judged by her character and not by the color of her skin.

“We had a real sisterhood and Lisa was a big part of that,” says Jablonski Black. “Even then she had a great way of connecting with people. You know how it is in high school, where everybody has their cliques and they sit at different tables and that sort of thing. Well, Lisa was one of those people who was friends with everybody, and it didn’t matter what their color was or their nationality or whether they were smart or popular.”

Blunt Rochester greets crowd watching the International Women's Day Press Conference on March 8 in Washington. (Photo courtesy of Office of Rep. Blunt Rochester)
Blunt Rochester greets crowd watching the International Women’s Day Press Conference on March 8 in Washington. (Photo courtesy of Office of Rep. Blunt Rochester)

“That’s why we’re not surprised that she’s in politics now and doing so well,” Jablonski Black adds. “Lisa was always the type of person you could approach and she was always friendly and outgoing. And nothing has changed—she’s still that sweet person everyone wants to be friends with.”

Blunt Rochester keeps in touch with her Padua classmates, and a little over a year ago they got together to celebrate their 35th reunion. Blunt Rochester has lived in the Middle East, China and Paris, and she shared some of her new adventures with her old friends at the reunion.

“We just picked up like we were in school together just yesterday,” says Dee Jacono Kelleher, another class of ’80 alumna. “Lisa certainly hasn’t changed. She still has a smile on her face all the time and the person we saw [at the reunion] was the same person we saw back in high school—very pleasant and very motivated.

“And she was a leader even back then, even though she was a quiet kind of leader. People just gravitated to her and responded to her, and I think that’s the same reason why she’s been so successful in politics. She just knows how to connect to people on their level, no matter what it is.”

But it wasn’t merely her experience at Padua that motivated Blunt Rochester to enter public service. It was in her blood.

In Her DNA

“I wasn’t just the daughter or someone who was in public service, but a granddaughter, too, because my grandparents were involved in their communities,” she says. “It’s sort of who we are. Some of it was by their examples, but you also feel like it’s in your DNA.”

There are hardships that go with being a public servant, as Blunt Rochester knows better than most. Those include time away from the family and the expense of campaigning, the factors Ted Blunt cited when he withdrew from the race for lieutenant governor in 2008. (Winning that election would have made him the first African-American to win a state-wide office in Delaware.)

All of that was in the back of Blunt Rochester’s mind when she first considered running for Congress. She had been a behind-the-scenes politician for years, starting as an intern for then-governor Tom Carper. Her impressive resume included serving in the cabinets of two Delaware governors as secretary of labor, deputy secretary of health and social services, and state personnel director.

Slowly, steadily, she paid her dues and moved up the ranks in the Democratic Party, which has controlled Delaware politics for years. So, when John Carney decided not to run for re-election to the House so he could run for governor, Blunt Rochester was the Democrat’s overwhelming choice to succeed him.

But this would be the first time she would expose herself to the slings and arrows of a political campaign—not counting Padua, of course.

Blunt Rochester and Vice President Biden greet supporters at her swearing-in reception. (Photo courtesy of Office of Rep. Blunt Rochester)
Blunt Rochester and Vice President Biden greet supporters at her swearing-in reception. (Photo courtesy of Office of Rep. Blunt Rochester)

“There’s another side I saw with my father, and that was challenging,” she says. “When you put yourself on the line like that, sometimes there were criticisms, and as a child you care about your parents. It makes you think, ‘Do I want to do that myself?’”

Blunt Rochester weighed the pros and cons and decided the rewards were worth the risks, even if her father still had some trepidation.

“When it was time to decide to run, I remember going to Dad and telling him that I was considering doing this,” she says. “On one hand, he was like, ‘You can do anything and I’m proud of you.’ And on the other hand, I saw the concern that I used to have for him.”

But once the decision was made, Ted Blunt jumped aboard and was a stabilizing force throughout the primary and general election. That shoulder to lean on was especially important to the candidate because she had lost her husband, Charles Rochester, in 2014. He succumbed to blood clots after rupturing his Achilles tendon.

Of her father, Blunt Rochester says, “He was a great influence on the campaign trail, just being there and going to events with me. It was great to have my dad there saying, ‘You can do it!’”

Ted Blunt says he doesn’t try to control what his daughter thinks or does, but he also knows the profound impact he’s had on Lisa’s life and how much respect she holds for him and his opinions.

“I told her that in politics there are two things that happen—you either vote yes or you vote no,” Blunt says. “Then you’re going to have people that like your vote and some people who are not going to like your vote. But if you did the right thing, then your vote will stand. And I just told her to do the right thing.”

“What you hope for is that your child has learned from your experience and your mistakes and you’re always there to give them additional advice,” Blunt adds. “But you’re not there to push your opinion on them.”

The new Congresswoman has been busy since the day she was sworn in. She’s already been appointed to the House Committee on Agriculture. When that posting was announced, she cited her commitment to Delaware agriculture in general and the poultry industry in particular. Blunt Rochester made education one of her legislative priorities, and she has been appointed to the House Committee on Education.

That’s especially fitting in light of her father’s long history of working with Delaware school districts.
So, Blunt Rochester is already making her presence felt in Congress, just as she did when she was part of Padua’s student council. Jacono Kelleher, her former classmate, looks at Blunt Rochester’s ascent to the national stage, then looks at her own daughter, now a student at Padua, and says that even though there is a big age gap, the message her old classmate delivers resonates with teen-age girls.

“We’re all very proud of Lisa and what she’s accomplished and what she stands for,” Jacono Kelleher said. “She’s going to do a great job representing Delaware because you know that she will always follow her conscience and do the right thing. More than anything, it gives me hope for the future to know that my daughter has a role model like her to look up to.”