Posted: June 7, 2008


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

There would have been more drama if Matt Denn had declared his candidacy for lieutenant governor a month ago.

He had two opponents then. Before he could concentrate on Charlie Copeland, the state Senate minority leader who is the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, he had to go through Ted Blunt, the Wilmington Council president who also wanted the Democratic nomination.

Blunt is gone now. He folded his candidacy in mid-May, erasing a primary in September, and gave Denn a direct path to the general election in November.

No one should be surprised. Denn has a knack for moving his rivals aside. He has motivated more politicians into retirement than anything since the establishment of the state legislature's generous pension plan. It is still the champion.

When Denn set out to be elected insurance commissioner in 2004, he expected to challenge Donna Lee Williams, a three-term Republican, but she suddenly heard the private sector calling. Dave Ennis, a Republican legislator who ran instead, lost and mothballed his political career. Now Blunt is out, too.

Denn obviously is someone with a sense of purpose that gets attention. A Yale-educated lawyer, he progressed methodically to be where he is -- from an unsung office as the state Democrats' vice chair to a line-of-fire post as counsel for Gov. Ruth Ann Minner to insurance commissioner.

Republicans mutter about single-minded ambition. Denn talks about dedication to the public good, particularly on behalf of the state's children. Either way, or both, he is known for sending e-mail at three in the morning.

Denn will need all his drive now. Copeland will not cave the way the others did. He is a du Pont, he owns a printing company, and the Republicans have hailed him as the future of their party.

Furthermore, the race between these two contemporaries -- Denn is 42, and Copeland is 45 -- is not just a contest for lieutenant governor, a post elected separately in Delaware. It also is expected to generate a governor-in-waiting.

Both Denn and Copeland are nearing the end of four-year terms. Whoever loses is out of office.

With the stakes so high, they already were whaling away at each other Saturday as Denn declared for office during the customary three-county tour, which took him from Millsboro in Sussex County to Dover in Kent County to New Castle in New Castle County.

Before Denn reached his second stop, Copeland had a press release advancing his campaign's constant attack on a do-nothing Dover and lumping Denn into it. (Apparently no one was supposed to notice that Copeland was elected to state government two years before Denn was.)

"More of the status quo is the last thing taxpayers need, but that is exactly what the Dover insiders are offering. Once again, they are trying to trade one office for another as if our state government is their own personal carousel," Copeland said.

Denn had plenty to say, too. "My opponent has almost unlimited funds, and he will use that money to flood our state with negative campaign ads, but I'm not worried," he said. "We will walk right through that river of half-truths and innuendos that is coming at us. We will run and not be weary. In the end we will prevail."

Pugnacity seems to be in the family genes. As Denn wrapped up his remarks in Dover, his three-year-old twins Adam and Zach had a fistfight. It was their father's favorite moment of the day.

Whatever happens to Denn in this election, he already has made his mark. He is the first insurance commissioner to elevate the office from a boring backwater to the political forefront.

Denn was instrumental in galvanizing the Democrats' ongoing assault to seize the majority in the state House of Republicans by blaming the Republicans for stalling legislation to create a pool for affordable health insurance and denying his office the authority to regulate health insurance rates, as it does home and auto insurance.

Denn's announcement drew appearances from both Lt. Gov. John Carney and Treasurer Jack Markell, the Democratic rivals for governor. Denn is not aligned with either one.

Carney said, "He's done a great job as insurance commissioner, that's for sure. He's got a great focus. I understand the office of lieutenant governor, and he will be able to get things done. He has an incredible persistence."

Markell was particularly impressed with the people, two Republicans and one independent, who introduced Denn, one at each stop. All of them had turned to Denn to sort out nightmarish battles with insurance companies, and he did -- without knowing anything about them except that they needed help. In fact, his announcement tour was the first time he met them in person.

"This is a guy who gets the job done, and he does it because it's the right thing to do. He's elected to serve, and that's what he does. He's got this thing figured out. He'll make a great lieutenant governor,' Markell said.

To say the political season was heating up was the literal truth. The day was sweltering. Denn was on his second shirt by his last stop in late afternoon before about 50 very hot people crowded into the Old Courthouse in New Castle.

It was a place Denn knew well. He announced his candidacy there in 1996 against state Sen. Bob Connor, a redoubtable Republican who was that rare opponent Denn failed to send to early retirement. He lost.

Not that Denn minds now. The General Assembly has a comfortable way of entombing its occupants. In fact, if Copeland makes it to lieutenant governor, he will be the first in recent politics to go from the legislature to statewide office. In the last 10 years, all newly-elected statewide officials -- Markell, Carney, Denn and Democratic Attorney General Beau Biden -- went there directly.

"Things just have a way of working out," Denn said.