Posted: Jan. 7, 2015


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Matt Denn was sworn in as the Democratic attorney general, his third statewide office.

Who does he think he is, Tom Carper?

From a Democratic treasurer to congressman to governor to senator, Carper has hopscotched to four offices, as if he were a throwback to the days of Caesar Rodney and John Dickinson, when the leading Delawareans traded offices like playing cards and George Read turned up as a member of the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, a senator and chief justice.

If Denn is not quite in Carper's company yet, he has nevertheless migrated over the last 10 years from one term as insurance commissioner to one-and-a-half terms as lieutenant governor, the post he is leaving mid-way with no means for the state to backfill it, to attorney general.

Carper's trajectory was steadily upwards. Denn has appeared to be taking a series of half-steps forward, although it looks like attorney general could be his breakthrough office.

Denn is not messing around.

There were four other statewide officeholders taking their oaths on Tuesday -- Chris Coons as the Democratic senator and John Carney as the Democratic congressman in D.C. and Ken Simpler as the Republican treasurer and Tom Wagner as the Republican auditor in Dover -- but it was Denn's swearing-in that came with the most urgency.

As much as Delaware likes being first, it was a burning embarrassment last month to see Wilmington come across as fatally first when Newsweek called it "Murder Town USA."

So Denn planted his swearing-in ceremony inside the Police Athletic League on North Market Street in one of the scruffy parts of the city, kept the formalities to a brisk 20 minutes and committed himself in brief remarks to answering the call.

"It is time to get some things done," Denn said. "We will be judged by our actions."

The first thing came right away. Denn invited city officials to join him -- or maybe dared them not to -- in applying for a $650,000 state grant to bolster the law enforcement presence on the city's most dangerous streets with foot patrols at night from March through September, the warmer months with higher crime, by bringing in state and New Castle County police to aid the city force.

A day later, Denn moved again by setting up a new civil rights office, which would give him the means to sue the rest of government or prosecute it for corruption.

As Denn said at his swearing-in, "Those that look to be partners in our efforts will find us to be stalwart allies. Those who defend the status quo will not."

So it was noteworthy that Dennis Williams, the Democratic mayor, stayed away and left himself looking less stalwart and more status quo. Theo Gregory, the Democratic president of the City Council, did attend, and so did Tom Gordon, the Democratic county executive who used to be the county police chief.

Altogether, about 230 people accepted Denn's invitation to attend. The place was standing room only, and with good reason.

It was like a visual show of offering Denn all the help there is because, really, he has to succeed. Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, was there, and so was Charlie Oberly, the U.S. attorney who was once the Democratic attorney general himself, along with a number of legislators from both parties and lots and lots of cops.

Also a sizable contingent of lawyers, especially from Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, the prominent law firm where Denn once practiced. This included Jan Jurden, the Superior Court's newly confirmed president judge who swore Denn in.

Jurden always swears Denn in. They have been separately together, so to speak, for a long stretch, both leaving Young Conaway at about the same time. Denn became the counsel to Ruth Ann Minner, the Democratic governor elected in 2000, and Jurden was Minner's first new judicial appointee for an opening on the Superior Court in 2001.

Nine months ago, this was not where Denn expected to be. He was positioned to try to advance, if not Tom Carper-like, then Mike Castle-like or Ruth Ann Minner-like, from lieutenant governor to governor in 2016.

Instead, Beau Biden stunned state politics by declaring he would not run for a third term as the Democratic attorney general in 2014 but sit out two years and then run for governor. Maybe he does, maybe not, as it stands today, but he is a Biden and it boxed Denn out.

Denn pivoted immediately to the open office for attorney general. The Republicans, who had been acting like they wished a race against Biden would just go away, initially were delighted, optimistic they could recruit Colm Connolly, the former U.S. attorney best known for convicting Tom Capano, and exploit Denn's lack of prosecutorial experience.

Connolly could not be wooed, however, and the Republicans wound up with Ted Kittila, a lawyer who had not been a prosecutor, either, and there went that plan.

It was a Republican year, and who knows how much it cost the party, which otherwise could have paired Simpler for treasurer and Connolly for attorney general with the logic of a-finance-guy-for-a-finance-job-and-a-prosecutor-for-a-prosecutor's-job?

Prosecutorial background aside, Denn actually comes to the office with about as much perspective as anyone could have. He ran a state department as the insurance commissioner, and as such, he was a client of the Justice Department. He also engaged with it, sometimes as an ally and sometimes as a foil, as counsel to the governor.

Denn was elected with 53 percent of the vote against Kittila and three minor-party candidates. It did not seem like much of a mandate at the time, but the dire circumstances are changing that.

If this office as attorney general works out, Denn could be catching up to Carper yet.