Wilmington Mayor Dennis Williams’ Hope (and Plan) for Change

As a rookie cop on the city’s South Side in the ‘70s, Williams confronted crime head-on. As mayor, nothing changes.

Dennis Williams made his bones as a rookie cop on the mean streets of Wilmington’s South Side.

In 1976 the area around A and B streets—near the river—was something of a war zone. That’s where the former center fielder and cornerback for P.S. duPont High School, all of 5-9 and 145 pounds, pounded a beat alone, his weapon and his radio his best friends. Often, before he left the police locker room to begin his shift, he would hit his knees and pray.

“Guys laughed at me all the time,” says Williams. “But you know what? I’m still here.”

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The rookie proved to be a quick study. In less than two years, he had made detective. One of his partners, Marty Hageman, remembers Williams’ passion for his hometown.

“You’re in the car a lot,” says Hageman, now director of Downtown Visions, “getting from point A to point B—wherever your investigations take you—and Dennis would sometimes say, ‘I would really like to be the mayor of this city someday.’ And I would ask him why, and he would say, ‘I’d really like to make a change. There’s so much that needs to be done that isn’t done, and it’s  not coordinated.’” 

The partners were close friends, says Hageman, “So of course I would tease him and say, ‘Oh, Den, you’ll never be mayor.’ But he somehow felt he would. It was like a dream to him.”

On his 60th birthday—Jan. 8, 2013— that dream came true. Williams was sworn in as the 55th mayor and the first native-born Wilmingtonian since Bill McLaughlin (1977-84) to assume that office.

Crime was virtually the only issue in the mayoral campaign, not surprising for a city that was labeled “the most dangerous city in America” by Parenting magazine.

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The ex-cop was given a clear mandate (and an endorsement from the State Fraternal Order of Police), easily winning the five-person Democratic primary, which is tantamount to election in Wilmington. He rolled to a 25,000-vote margin in the general election.

He enters the office after serving continuously in the Delaware House of Representatives since 1995, when he won a special election to fill out the term of Orlando George Jr., who resigned as representative of Wilmington’s First District to become president of Delaware Technical Community College. In a district of 21,000 residents, Williams won that first election over Republican Karen Miller by a count of 1,757 to 897, and has been unopposed in every general election since except in 2008, when he crushed Republican James McClain Jr.

If, as Hageman says, being mayor was always Williams’ dream, the obvious question is, why did he wait so long to seek it? The answer reveals the shrewd politician who always seems to be dressed in a suit and tie.

“When you have good political sense,” Williams says, “you don’t want to take incumbents on, you look for the open seat, and that way you don’t ruffle a lot of feathers either. Timing is everything.”

Williams takes over for three-term Mayor James Baker, who couldn’t run again due to the three-term limit. Despite Baker’s bizarre behavior during his last year in office, he worked well with Williams’ transition team, and the new mayor hit the ground running, making key appointments a day after the election. He named the city’s first female police chief, Capt. Christine Dunning, a 26-year veteran, to replace Michael J Szczerba. For fire chief, he picked Anthony Goode, who was promoted from battalion chief to replace Willie Patrick Jr.

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Williams, the father of three girls, has said his administration will include “younger people and females.” At one press conference, he said, “The day of the grouchy old men in the room is over.”

Among his other appointments were Alexandra Coppadge as communications and media relations director and John Matlusky as chief of staff. A 2010 graduate of the University of North Carolina, Coppadge has worked as a television and radio reporter and as a constituent relations liaison in Gov. Jack Markell’s office. She is the daughter of Family Court Judge Arlene Minus Coppadge. A former Republican national committeeman, the 44-year-old Matlusky was a policy attorney and chief of staff in the state House of Representatives.

Matlusky went to work in Dover in 1997 and met Williams soon afterward. “I was impressed with him,” says the Salesianum graduate. “One thing I liked was that he’s a decisive leader. A lot of politicians will say yes to everybody, or they’re good at kicking the can down the road. There are times when you’ve got to say no. Dennis has an ability to do that more than a lot of other elected officials.”

Matlusky believes Williams has the ideal résumé to be mayor of the city of 72,000. “Besides his police background, he has experience on the budget side of things,” he says, referring to Williams’ co-chairmanship of the powerful House Joint Finance Committee and chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee in the General Assembly. 

A financial grounding will come in handy for a mayor who faces a $5.5 million deficit and a struggling business climate. 

Williams appears not to be intimidated by the economic challenge. “As chairman of the JFC, I had an $800 million deficit four years ago. I got out of that nonsense, and we’ll get through this.”

During the campaign, he said his first act would be “to conduct a top-down review of city government and audit the books,” in an effort to “eliminate waste, fraud and abuse.” While that may save some money, it’s doubtful it will make up a significant portion of the deficit. That in turn raises the possibility of increased taxes, which Williams claims is a last resort. “I think city residents have been taxed enough over the last 12 years,” he told The News Journal.

The business community representsanother possible revenue source. Months before he took office, Williams formed a Business Roundtable of 35-plus members. He says they will serve as “a sounding board for new initiatives to grow business and jobs in the city.” He contends that businesses have been frustrated with the city’s regulations and bureaucracy, both of which he hopes to reduce. Matlusky is more direct. “Over the last few years, I think there’s been a little bit of alienation with the business community in terms of dealing with the city.” He says Williams is “more customer-friendly” than the previous administration and views both businesses and private citizens as “customers, not constituents.”

Fellow Democrats control the power in county, state and federal offices, and Williams has reached out to them, seeking alliances—particularly around crime issues. He says the city may share resources, including police, with New Castle County, which is once again under the direction of fellow ex-cop Tom Gordon. And in mid-November, the new mayor and Matlusky went to Washington for meetings with the Department of Justice and other federal agencies. The meetings were arranged by Sen. Chris Coons.

Says Matlusky: “You’re going to see a lot more collaboration between Wilmington and the U.S. Attorney and the state Attorney General’s office and some federal agencies, which hasn’t been happening [recently].”

Collaboration with experts from both the public and private sectors was a thread that ran through a post-election interview at P. S. duPont Middle School, an interview in which Williams showed he’s far more than simply a law-andorder mayor. 

Education is a key issue for Williams, who in 1999 got the final credits needed for his associate degree in criminal justice from Delaware Tech.

“A 59 percent dropout rate is deplorable,” he said. “If we don’t stem the tide of these dropouts, you can make all the arrests you want, nothing’s going to change. Because when folks are not educated, they feed right into the criminal justice system. It’s a proven fact. It’s a revolving door.”

He said he would talk to the superintendents and set up a roundtable of counselors and teachers “who have worked with problem kids who have been arrested, been in and out of the system, and pick out the things we think will work.”

Williams even demonstrated knowledge about a low-profile but potentially serious issue that never came up during the campaign: flooding in low-lying, mostly poor areas of the city. According to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, a large portion of South Wilmington lies within the 100-year floodplain, and many locations experience chronic flooding issues. (Mortgage holders on properties within the 100-year floodplain, as defined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, require owners to carry flood insurance.)

“Southbridge is on a floodplain like New Orleans,” says Williams. “I have never understood why the Army Corps of Engineers hasn’t come in to take a strong look at that. We are going to advocate for that. We are going to bring in some engineers— some we may have to pay, some we may ask to volunteer—because if we ever have a major storm like Sandy, and we don’t get people out quick enough, the death toll could be severe, never mind the economic devastation.”

Still, crime is the vortex around which all of Wilmington’s problems swirl. Cut crime, and more businesses and visitors will come to the city, bringing more funds for municipal coffers. Take drugs and guns off the streets, and more kids will stay in school. 

Wilmington to the bone, the native son is confident he’s the right man for the job of stopping his city’s 16-year rise in violent crime. “One thing I know how to do, I know how to fight crime,” he says. “I don’t want to tell the criminal how I’m coming at them, but you’re going to see a major change, a major change.” 

Williams promises to provide the police with “the best training, the best leadership, the best equipment and support,” along with a new command structure that will energize them.

Marty Hageman waxes downright philosophical when predicting his former partner’s impact on his hometown: “Dennis sticks to it until he solves the problem. I think we’re going to see a new city arising.”

Echoing that optimism, Williams seems to hark back to his days as a rookie cop when he speaks of Wilmington’s future.

“We’ll get through this, I’m telling you, we will. All we have to do is persevere, stay focused, don’t panic, and call on the good Lord every now and then.”

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