Newcomer: Extended Web Q&A with County Executive Matt Meyer

He has a varied background, but Matt Meyer has never held elective office. After unseating incumbent Tom Gordon, he now sits atop New Castle County government. Here he discusses his new job with Out & About.

Editor’s note: This is an extended version of the interview which appeared in the March 2017 issue of O&A

He has worked as a teacher and as a lawyer. He has served with the State Department in Iraq. When he was 24, he launched an eco-friendly sandal manufacturing business in Kenya, hiring workers who knew little English and who lived in an impoverished neighborhood.

But until last month, Matt Meyer had never served as an elected public official. Now he’s the New Castle County executive.

A 45-year-old bachelor who lives in Wilmington’s Trinity Vicinity neighborhood, Meyer came out of nowhere last March, launching a challenge to three-term incumbent Tom Gordon, a Democrat. While Gordon touted his ability to manage county government efficiently without ever raising property taxes, Meyer campaigned on a platform emphasizing honesty and transparency in government, hammering away at the high-profile personnel battles that plagued Gordon’s administration, including charges of favoritism and nepotism that culminated in Gordon firing his chief administrative officer, David Grimaldi.

Meyer contended that the county could do many things better – not only raising ethical standards, but also improving its land use and economic development efforts, collaborating more with local governments in Wilmington and south of the C&D Canal, and taking a more holistic approach to fighting crime.

Relying heavily on data analysis as they developed their strategy, his campaign team concluded that Gordon was beatable – if they could transform 4,000 likely Gordon voters into Meyer voters in time for the Sept. 13 Democratic primary. For Meyer, an admitted data geek, the math was perfect. He won by exactly 2,000 votes, so, if he hadn’t flipped those voters, he would have lost by 2,000 votes.

The general election was a bit easier, as he got two-thirds of the vote in defeating Republican candidate Mark Blake, a Hockessin civic leader.

A Brandywine Hundred native who attended local public schools before graduating from Wilmington Friends School, Meyer now faces the challenge of carrying out his campaign pledges.

As he began his second week in office, he sat down with Out & About to discuss key issues facing the county and how he plans to address them.

(This interview has been edited for clarity and space considerations.)

Let’s start at the beginning. You entered the campaign without any political experience …
That’s not true. I was elected student council president in 11th grade. You don’t know what you don’t know. You run, and it’s democracy, and if you put up the best argument and are strategic and smart …

… and you challenged a three-term incumbent. Some questioned whether you could win. What prompted you to jump in?
I really believed it was the right thing to do. Everything I’ve done in my professional life, I’ve tried to add value, to do better than the status quo. The first issue for me was, if I actually got the job, could I do a better job? In my heart and in my brain, I thought the answer was yes.

The next question is: how do you win when you’re running against a three-term incumbent? I love math. One of my favorite things about Little League Baseball was doing the math, figuring out my batting average, and in my short-time pitching career my earned run average and my strikeouts-to-walks ratio. There’s this general principle that incumbents are hard to beat, and from that they say incumbents are unbeatable. Well, the first statement is emphatically true, but the second statement is pretty clearly false.

What does it take to beat an incumbent? I talked to people. I talked to Brian Townsend, the state senator, who four years ago beat an incumbent. I don’t want to get nerdy, businessy on you, but we used something called “lean startup methodology,” what you do when you start a technology company. You take preliminary data, do something small, test it, take more data, test it again, and your thesis gets slowly refined.

We had a poll, we went door to door, we refined our model. We anticipated a primary election with 40,000 votes. It turned out there were 43,000. We figured that if we could turn 4,000 voters from Tom Gordon voters to Matt Meyer voters, we could win.

You have a varied background. You have taught, started a business in Africa, worked as a lawyer and served with the State Department in Iraq. How will those experiences help you do the county executive’s job well?
While I’ve done a large variety of things, they’ve all involved leadership.  You go to Kenya to start a business. I’m 24 at the time. It’s a poor neighborhood, none of my employees speak English as their first language. That’s a leadership challenge. You need to deploy nonverbal leadership skills.

My experience in a corporate law firm – you had to get the right answer. Clients were paying top dollar. They didn’t want 98 percent, they wanted 100 percent.

How about teaching? How did that help?
In my first year as a fourth-grade teacher, I wrote in my journal: “I am a teacher sometimes. I’m also a babysitter. I’m also a police officer. I’m a judge. When parent teacher conferences come around, I’m a lawyer. Sometimes I’m a sanitation worker, a server in a restaurant, all those different things.” But a teacher can never give up, no matter what crazy things happen that are out of your control.

I think the common perception throughout the county was that Tom Gordon ran the county pretty efficiently but his tenure was punctuated by high-profile personality conflicts that detracted from his work. Do you think that’s an accurate assessment?

I ran on a platform that our county government could and should be more honest, transparent and efficient. I believe now, as someone who has gotten to know Tom Gordon better the last couple of months, that he is someone who really cared, and cares, a lot about the communities of this county for decades. I ran on a platform that we can do much better, and our county can do much better.

In terms of culture and work environment, how will the Meyer administration be different from the Gordon administration?
There are a lot of good people working in county government. We’re going to work hard to find them and make sure they’re incentivized to do what’s right for the county. There are certain employees who are great employees who have been discouraged in recent years.

Does this building (the County Government Center) seem like a house divided – populated with pro-Gordon forces and anti-Gordon forces?
I’ve talked to a lot of county employees. We don’t really talk about that because it’s not relevant to what we’re trying to do right now. There are people who love Tom Gordon, and people who didn’t like Tom Gordon, and they all seem ready and very able to work hard for the Meyer administration and for the people of the county.

Do you see the workplace changing at all?
The tone from the top will change. The tone from the executive office has already changed. The collaboration between departments, among members of the executive team, has already changed. I’m passionate about the use of technology. Most people, and in the private sector, use technology efficiently, and government uses technology of decades ago. That’s not acceptable to me.

You kept some key people from the Gordon administration, and you brought in some new department heads. What’s the value in keeping some experienced leaders on board and bringing in some new ones?
I don’t look at it as who we keep and who we don’t keep. My obligation to the people of New Castle County is to put in every slot the highest quality individual we can find. In some cases, that was someone who has been working in county government for years.

It is important to me that we have a team with a diversity of backgrounds. I wanted a lot of new energy.

You will be dealing with a County Council with a new president, Karen Hartley-Nagle, but 11 of the 12 district representatives have considerable experience. As a newcomer, how will you convince them that what you’re proposing is better than what they’ve seen before?
It’s hard to figure out County Council as a “they.” Like any legislative body, you have a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. We’ve met individually with every member of County Council. We’ve introduced a new level of communication with council members.

One thing you learn in school is we have an adversarial system. We have checks and balances, the legislative and the executive. Maybe because so many council people have been in this for so long, they’re eager for some new blood. People want to talk about ideas and how to move their districts forward.

Let’s turn to some specific issues that you highlighted in your campaign. In land use, you said you wanted to streamline the process so rezonings don’t take forever. How do you do that without giving the public the impression that you’re a rubber stamp for developers?
I promised during the campaign that we would have a more professional land use and development process. I brought in one of the finest land use professionals in the country to lead our land use department. We somehow managed to fool a guy who has eight years’ experience as a cabinet secretary in Maryland to come and be in charge of land use for New Castle County. I couldn’t get former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley or anyone else to say anything negative about Rich Hall.

Rich is working to address some of the deficiencies in our land use department. I see eye to eye with him on some of the smart growth strategies he has deployed in Maryland.

It’s my view, not necessarily the county’s view, that the Unified Development Code has a one-size-fits-all approach. If businesses that want to create high-quality jobs want to come into the Route 9 corridor or the Claymont development corridor or other areas that are desperate for high-quality jobs, the land use approval process should not be quite the same as it is for Pike Creek or Greenville.

In the economic development arena, the county doesn’t have the resources to be a big-time player …
We have to win them over with our personality. I’m joking, but I’m serious. I’ve been in the room, in the private sector, where deals are won by the power of personality. We have to convince business leaders that New Castle County has an extraordinary location, has for its size an extraordinary art scene, and really offers a family-friendly environment in which to grow a company in ways that will far exceed any tax break that another state may be offering. I think we will win some.

And you have to make sure the county is supportive of small businesses.
We can spend all our time and money trying to attract people and sometimes the answers are right in front of us. There’s extraordinary innovation, especially in chemical technologies, going on right here. The game may be less how we attract people and more how do we retain people as they leave their existing companies and start their own businesses.

You have said that the ethical standards of the Gordon administration don’t match those that you hope to implement. What will you do to raise the bar?
The first page of my ethics policy in the campaign spoke about the need to hire ethical people. Nothing addresses ethical concerns more than hiring people who you can look in the eye and have confidence that they’re ethical. And we’ve done that.

We’re comparing the ethics code of the county with other counties and the state of Delaware and making sure we have the highest standards.

Quite frankly, people on my executive staff are on notice that if anything close to funny stuff goes on, they’re out of here. There’s no tolerance for that. That’s not me having no tolerance for it, it’s my boss having no tolerance, and my boss is the people of New Castle County.

The county police are well respected, but you’ve pointed out that they can improve with hiring policies and diversity. In what other areas can the police do a better job?
We have an extraordinary police force, probably operating now at its highest level ever, using technology and collaborating, probably better than any police department in the state and would rival most police departments in the country.

Yet in certain areas of our county, violent crime is increasing, in areas served by county police and in other areas, such as Wilmington. I believe excellent policing can only go so far in reducing violent crime. We have had a dramatic decrease in well-paying middle-class jobs. In such a situation, it’s hard to think of what a police department can do to prevent certain criminal activity.

We’re looking at collaborating with the city and state, we’re looking at reports on recidivism and on shootings in Wilmington, and taking that data and trying to put it to use. There’s a lot of data out there that indicates who shooters will be before they even pick up a gun.

How far are you drilling down – to blocks or neighborhoods, or down to individuals?
If it were up to me, you would protect confidentiality, but you would put together a team to drill down to individuals.

You don’t want to take 10- and 12-year-old kids and turn them into criminals before they do anything wrong. But I would help them. They do it all the time in schools. They say, “this child is exhibiting these characteristics. We have to get him some services.” I think we have to do that in a more extensive way. That help might mean teaching them how to read.

Crime doesn’t respect city and county lines. There was a lot of talk four years ago about more police collaboration but not much happened. What are your thoughts on collaboration?
There is a lot to be done. Mayor Mike Purzycki and I don’t think metropolitan government is a good idea, but we know there are a number of ways we can get our police forces to collaborate. We’re working on it.

Even if metro government isn’t the answer, do you see more opportunities for city-county collaboration?
It’s early. Mayor Purzycki and I are still putting the finishing touches on staffing our administrations. We’ve had conversations. It has been very positive so far, but very preliminary. But it’s more than just Mike and I talking to each other. It’s our staff people, those who hold similar positions, regularly communicating, sharing ideas and knowing what each other is doing.

Can these collaborations lead to cost savings?
I don’t want to make predictions. People talk about school districts, how money would be saved if districts were merged. But I was told that’s not true because teacher salaries would probably be raised to the highest level.

In his 12 years, Tom Gordon never raised taxes, but Chris Coons had to raise taxes when he succeeded Gordon in 2005. Can we expect a tax increase in the county this year?
I’ve only been in office seven days …. I want to do what’s in the best interest of the citizens of New Castle County. A lot of people have made it very clear they don’t want their taxes raised. We have a very low tax rate in the county. I’ll do everything in my power to keep taxes low.

As you prioritize, what do you hope to accomplish in your first year?
We want to make some headway on land use. We’re taking a hard look at the finances. We think we can do more within the confines of our budget. And we’re going to look at stronger collaboration with towns south of the canal. The county has not been very active with towns south of the canal.

When it’s time for the public to assess your work, what standards should be used? How will you judge your work and how do you think you should be judged?
At some level, we’re a customer service enterprise. When customers come to us, they deserve to get an answer, and to get it quickly and to get an answer that is fair, even if it’s not the answer they want. So, I want them to think that this is a government that treats the citizens right. Whether you have a tremendous amount of money and power or you walk in here penniless and homeless, you get the same level of service from the county.

There are two other things that are personal passions of mine, even though the outcomes are somewhat out of our control. The first is increasing the level of job opportunities in the communities that need them the most. And related to that, in communities where kids don’t feel safe going outside today, they will feel safer going out [in the future].

If residents want to meet with you to discuss their concerns about county government, how can they do this?
Not only do I plan on doing it, I’ve already done it. Right after the swearing in, I came back to the office and anybody could talk to me. We’ll continue to have sessions like that, and we will be announcing them.