Matt Denn reflects as AG term ends

DOVER — Come Jan. 1, Matt Denn will be a private citizen for the first time in a decade. But unlike last time, this stretch will last considerably longer than a few weeks.

After 14 years of nearly uninterrupted service across three elected offices, Mr. Denn will depart the attorney general’s office soon. As he prepares to hand the reins to fellow Democrat Kathy Jennings, who was elected with about 61 percent of the vote in November, there’s one obvious question that remains unanswered: Is this the last we see of Mr. Denn the politician?

If he knows the answer, he’s not saying.

“I don’t know,” the 52-year-old said last week when asked if he would run for office again. “I’m looking forward to being in the private sector. Fourteen years in statewide elected office is a long time.”

For now, Mr. Denn plans to work for a law firm tackling issues involving children, particularly those who are impoverished or otherwise disadvantaged in some way, although he declined to share further details because “it’s not completely nailed down yet.”

A game of musical chairs

In August 2017, he surprised political observers by announcing he would not seek a second term as attorney general.

“This has been a very tough decision, but I’ve made it for a couple reasons,” he wrote on Facebook. “The first is selfish. Politics these days are grueling, with endless fundraising and traveling and constant attacks, which can be tough on a candidate but are even tougher on his family. If I ran again next year it would be my fifth statewide campaign.

“My boys, now 12, arrived five days before I was sworn in as insurance commissioner. I have been immersed in electoral politics since the day they were born. If you do the math, that means my wife soldiered through her first statewide campaign with me while she was pregnant with twins. Given the time required and the tone involved in politics these days, my boys deserve a change, my wife deserves a change and I would like a change as well.

“The second reason for my decision is that I would like to be able to spend more time on work that is going to fundamentally change the lives of kids growing up in our state. The job of attorney general is an incredibly important one that I am grateful to hold.

“Doing it right (which I think I’ve done) requires almost full-time attention to the hundreds of cases and complex issues that flow through the office day-to-day, leaving little time to focus on the big picture.”

He said last week he does not regret the decision.

Attorney General Matt Denn

Mr. Denn was elected to lead the Department of Justice in 2014, while serving as lieutenant governor. He had been expected by some to seek the governor’s office in 2016, with then Gov. Jack Markell being term-limited, but any inclination to do so changed in April 2014, when Beau Biden, Mr. Denn’s predecessor in the attorney general’s position, declared he would seek the state’s top job.

Four days later, Mr. Denn announced he would campaign for the attorney general’s post rather than challenge Mr. Biden in a primary, although he had no prosecutorial experience. He pulled in almost 53 percent of the vote that fall, defeating the Republican nominee and three minor-party candidates.

In 2015, Mr. Biden died from brain cancer, spurring then U.S. Rep. John Carney to enter the race for governor a few months later. The Democrat was successful in his bid.

Mr. Denn said he did not consider running for governor at that point because he was committed to serving as attorney general for four years. But as a result, he was left as the odd man out.

Assuming no unexpected retirements, neither the governor’s office nor any congressional spots would be open until 2024. That year could see an epic primary with several Democrats competing to replace Gov. Carney, Mr. Denn perhaps among them.

While it would be difficult to successfully seek the governor’s office after being out of office for six years — the last person to run for and win the post while not currently serving in an elected office was Russell Peterson in 1968 — 2024 is still far off, and plenty of things could happen that would throw a wrench into that possible future.

For his part, Mr. Denn said he never seriously considered running for governor while he was lieutenant governor, although he acknowledged it had surely crossed his mind at some point.

Mr. Denn made his first bid for elected office in 1996, falling short as he tried to unseat Republican state Sen. Robert Connor. When then Lt. Gov. Ruth Ann Minner ran for governor in 2000, Mr. Denn was one of several people considered as a candidate for lieutenant governor, although he ultimately did not run. (The candidate and eventual winner for that post ended up being a state finance secretary by the name of John Carney, a reminder of how small Delaware is and how much overlap exists in its political circles.)

After spending several years working as legal counsel to then Gov. Minner, Mr. Denn successfully campaigned for insurance commissioner in 2004.

Save for about two weeks in January 2009 in between his term as insurance commissioner ending and his swearing-in as lieutenant governor, he has held office continuously since George W. Bush was about to start his second term as president.

Heading the department

When Mr. Denn ran for attorney general in 2014, his campaign website touted his work of helping to “pass the toughest gun background check law in Delaware’s history,” preventing bullying and providing more protections and services for students with disabilities, among other things.

As he sought to lead the Department of Justice, he campaigned on better coordinating efforts between different law enforcement agencies, strongly prosecuting individuals caught with illegal guns, disrupting the drug trade, expanding drug treatment efforts and offering more services to prepare inmates to re-enter into society.

He said he believes those efforts have been successful in many ways, noting the violent crime rate has declined.

According to the Delaware Statistical Analysis Center, there were 86,610 “serious” offenses in 2014 versus 77,734 in 2017, while violent offenses decreased by just over 10 percent in that span.

Wilmington, heralded in 2014 as “Murder Town USA” by Newsweek, has seen a sizable decrease in shootings this year.

Although cautioning that a full analysis won’t be possible for years, Mr. Denn attributes the decrease to community policing efforts by law enforcement as well as large-scale investigations and prosecution, particularly involving gangs.

Delaware has played host to marked criminal justice reform in recent years, as officials and advocates push for a smarter system that is more rehabilitative than punitive, and while Mr. Denn has not always agreed with those efforts, he’s played a role in changing the system.

He’s particularly proud of a 2015 bill that ended mandatory life sentences, gave judges more leeway in sentencing and allowed repeat offenders a chance to petition the court to have their punishments altered.

“That was a big change for the office. It had been literally decades the Department of Justice had opposed any change in the habitual offender statute and had actually made it stricter at times, so it was a pretty big shift for the office to say that we were not only going to not oppose changing it but actually try to take the lead in shaping how that would be changed,” Mr. Denn said, “and as you know, it got changed and we’ve had about 18 months or so with it in place and … probably 11 or 12 people who were serving life sentences for either burglaries or drug offenses have been put on work release or released, so we’re actually starting to see the real-life impact of it.”

During his tenure, Mr. Denn has zealously tackled the opioid epidemic, which he called “the public health crisis of our generation” in the fall.

The number of overdose deaths in the First State has climbed every year since the Department of Justice began issuing reports in 2015, and only four states saw a greater jump from 2015 to 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There were 345 overdose deaths in Delaware in 2017 (encompassing all drugs), and the state is on pace to surpass 400 this year.

Mr. Denn has successfully pushed for the expansion of the overdose-reversing medication naloxone, also known as Narcan, which has been used by law enforcement to save lives.

However, other efforts have fallen short. In an October report, the agency highlighted proposals to use state funding to incentivize economic development around long-term treatment, provide money for a recovery high school and create an additional fee on opioids. None of those passed the General Assembly.

“I think that the state has done a good job in addressing the prescription part of the problem, but … there’s a significant unmet need for longer-term supervised treatment, sober living in-patient residential, and the state hasn’t made that available,” Mr. Denn said.

While he avoided saying he was disappointed lawmakers and the governor did not implement some treatment and prevention efforts he has called for, the attorney general said he believes those proposals are of tremendous importance.

“Part of the shame of it is the state last year was in very good financial shape and that’s when it’s easier to make those type of investments,” he said.

Along with opioid addiction, he also singled out a plan for at-risk children that was rejected by lawmakers.

In February, he urged the General Assembly to allocate $45 million to assist low-income children in various ways, such as by giving more resources to schools where poverty is common, creating additional after-school and summer programs and expanding early education for needy children.

Three years prior, he sought to use $36 million obtained through settlements with Bank of America and Citigroup for schools, substance abuse treatment and police patrols, but legislators were cold to the idea of being told how to spend funds, and they ended up using that money to balance the budget.

“We had a list of about five different areas where we thought this would help get crime numbers down in the long run and also it was just the right thing to do for these kids and we weren’t successful persuading the General Assembly to fund those efforts. But again, next year will be here soon,” he said.

He attributes that failure to a general reluctance to commit funding for new initiatives involving children, which may receive less attention than other causes, particularly those with dedicated lobbyists working on them.

Assessments of his service

Kathleen MacRae, the executive director of the Delaware American Civil Liberties Union, praised Mr. Denn for his efforts to tackle the opioid issue and join other state attorneys general in lawsuits against big companies and even the federal government.

However, it’s not all been rosy in the ACLU’s view: Ms. MacRae said Mr. Denn could have done more to identify at-risk youth and create job training programs.

“Instead, I think he looked to further criminalize gang association and strengthen laws that would just put these young men behind bars, and in the long run that’s not going to solve the problem,” she said.

She noted approvingly he did stay neutral in the debate to repeal the death penalty in 2015 and 2016 even though he has supported use of capital punishment in limited circumstances.

In the spring of 2016, the Delaware State Lodge Fraternal Order of Police voted no confidence in Mr. Denn, citing two cases involving alleged police violence.

The officer in the first incident was found not guilty of assault, and the involved officers in the second were not charged.

In the statement at the time, the FOP said it “only wishes that AG Denn would pursue criminal convictions against Delaware’s most violent offenders with the same enthusiasm as he does against law enforcement officers.”

FOP President Fred Calhoun could not be reached for comment last week.

Over the past four years, Mr. Denn has worked frequently with legislators, who haven’t always agreed with him. Lawmakers have privately griped about the attorney general at times, feeling he overstepped his boundaries in regard to opioid initiatives and settlement funding but have been complimentary in public.

Members of both parties shared praise for Mr. Denn when he announced he would not seek a second term, and they repeated that sentiment last week.

House Minority Leader Danny Short, R-Seaford, said the attorney general has been open to hearing other points of view and worked well with the Legislature, while House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, said Mr. Denn was not just a capable attorney general but also a good insurance commissioner and lieutenant governor.

“I’m hoping that he’s not done with state government,” Rep. Schwartzkopf said.

So, which office did Mr. Denn enjoy most?

“They’re all totally different. They really are totally different,” the attorney general said.

“This job, what you do day-to-day, you have less control over and you spend a lot more of your time than I did in either of my other two jobs dealing with things that come up in the course of a day or a week that are beyond your control, and it’s also just a 500-person office,” far bigger than the insurance commissioner and lieutenant governor’s posts.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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