Posted: Jan. 10, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

When Matthew P. Denn was sworn in Monday as Delaware's insurance commissioner, it was not your typical oath taking.

Denn already has been at work for six days, even managing a couple of press conferences, and the ceremony capped a whirlwind of change that began for him about a year before the election.

All Denn has done since that time is leave his job as legal counsel to Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, run for office, sign on with the Wilmington law firm of Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor and resign from there once he won, and along with his wife Michele, have twin boys on Dec. 29.

The boys are named Adam and Zachary, appropriate enough for a father who seems to have done everything of late from A to Z.

 As if all that frenzy was not enough, Denn also got a puppy -- a pug called Lenny because he looks as hard-nosed as Lenny Dykstra, the headlong center fielder who played for the Philadelphia Phillies on the 1993 World Series club.

Denn, 38, of Wilmington, reclaimed the insurance commissioner's office for the Democrats after 12 years, taking over from three-term Republican Donna Lee Williams, who did not run again. Denn won a Democratic primary against Karen Weldin Stewart, who attended his swearing-in, and beat Republican David H. Ennis with 53 percent of the vote in the general election.

The ceremony actually was the second time Denn took his oath of office. It was scheduled to accommodate his sons' birth, but because Denn was required by state law to assume office last Tuesday, Jan. 4, he had an informal oath taking that morning at his home.

Joseph C. Schoell, who replaced Denn as the governor's legal counsel, stopped by to swear him in, the only witness being Lenny, the pug, because Michele Denn and the boys were at the hospital.

Denn's public oath taking was as sensible a ceremony as there can be. It was held at noon at the Carvel State Building in Wilmington and lasted about 25 minutes, giving the 200 or so people who attended the chance to attend on their lunch hour and sample the refreshments before returning to work.

Here was someone who realized he was not being inaugurated the president of the United States.

Among the well-wishers were two of Denn's fellow statewide Democrats -- U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper and state Treasurer Jack A. Markell -- plus legislators, Cabinet members, local officeholders, state Democratic Chairman Richard H. Bayard and other party officials, family, friends, former co-workers and any number of people needing favors from the Insurance Department.

In a moment of minor crisis, Denn forgot to bring a Bible. ("I've been busy," he said later.) Superior Court Judge Peggy L. Ableman, who was administering the oath, made an emergency call for one and got a pocket edition from Bishop Thomas Wesley Weeks, who was there along with Rabbi Peter Grumbacher to offer prayers.

Denn, who is really a closet stand-up comic, opened his short remarks by noting his wife was absent because she was home with one of their sons, the other expected to be released from the hospital shortly.

"Michele is planning on watching a videotape of the event later," Denn said, "and we have decided that we will use the tape in the future as a disciplinary tool for the boys. So, boys, if you're watching this . . ."

Denn also was serious, using the occasion to remember the recent deaths of his "Grandma Esther" and Steven J. Rothschild, who was a prominent Wilmington lawyer.

"I don't think they ever met each other -- maybe in passing, at my wedding -- but they would have liked each other. Neither of them had any time for nonsense. They were both about getting the job done. They were both brutally honest," Denn said.

"I will honor their memories and the memories of my other grandparents by working to make true for others their belief, gained through their own life experience, that this is still a state and a country where people can go as far as their talent and determination will take them.

"It was true for them, it's been true for me, it's the American Dream, and we ought to try to make it true for every person in this state."

As insurance commissioner, Denn joins a lineup of Democratic up-and-comers, namely Markell, Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., New Castle County Executive Christopher A. Coons and Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, the senator's son, hoping to make it to governor or the Congress.

Along with Denn's talent and determination, those other Democrats will have something to say about how far he goes, too.