In Wilmington mayor race, wide field obscures choices
By Adam Duvernay and Christina Jedra via The News Journal
Candidates have struggled to distinguish themselves in a group of 11 bidding to lead Delaware’s largest city for the next four years.
At Delaware Technical Community College’s George Campus Aug. 17, eight of Wilmington’s mayoral candidates took turns speaking in 90-second clips. On any single question, likely voters in attendance were treated to policy discussions reduced to sound bites.
Each debate in the Wilmington mayoral race has allowed for little more than that, a recitation of seven or eight policy points delivered down a dais of candidates, limiting cross-talk and discourse on even the issues that have best come to define the campaign. It’s the reality of a crowded field — and it will affect the outcome of the election.
With little time before the Sept. 13 primary effectively decides Wilmington’s next mayor, the Democratic primary ballot remains unchanged from its tightly packed roster. Candidates disparaged a News Journal poll — the only one that’s taken the race’s temperature — and even those with the lowest ratings resisted calls to drop out.
Having 11 candidates to choose from is a triumph for democracy, experts say, and a disservice to seeing the most representative candidate chosen.
“I don’t think the turnout is going to be that great. If we’ve had 11,000 in the past, we might get 12,500 or 13,000, but it’s not going to be 11,000 turning into 20,000,” said Fred Sears, former board president of the Wilmington Economic and Financial Advisory Council. “That extra 1,000 people depends on where they come from. The problem is, with eight people, those extra 1,000 people all aren’t going to vote for Mike Purzycki or Theo Gregory. They’re going to spread those votes among all eight of them.”
Ending the type of crime that earned Wilmington the infamous “Murder Town USA” moniker is the issue at the heart of the election. No candidate is without a plan, and no discussion of the race has ignored the topic.
But few of them offer solutions that exist as radical departures from the others. There’s talk of leadership change, reallocation of police resources and the return of community policing, but almost never have the candidates, when placed in a single room to discuss policy, gone after each other.
“I haven’t really heard anything really radical from candidates separating themselves from one another. I would think, if I was sitting up on that stage, I’d want to be the guy that does,” said Rhett Ruggerio, campaign manager for former Wilmington Mayor Jim Baker. “With that many candidates, you’d think there’d be more fireworks and there just hasn’t been. By and large, the debates have been pretty tame.”
As pervasive as the mayoral question has been to observers, politicians and the media, the race hasn’t affected the lives of many Wilmingtonians. When asked about their preferences, some residents have trouble even coming up with candidates’ names and backgrounds.
Vincent Ford, 37, said he decided six months ago to vote for Purzycki. He said having so many candidates creates noise.
“It just causes confusion, and people don’t recognize the names,” he said.
Marvin Grayson, 51, is a landscaper who lives on the west side of the city where he said he knows many people who’ve been affected by gun violence and drug addiction. He’s aware of two candidates — Mayor Dennis P. Williams and City Council President Gregory — but doubts the abilities of any politician.
“I don’t think nobody can bring down crime,” he said. “There’s no difference. They all say the same thing, but ain’t nobody got no magic wand … Nothing changes.”
Still, he has a Gregory sign on his lawn and said he’ll vote.
“Gotta keep hope alive,” he said.
he race has become a test of character and a clash of personality, backed by résumé bullet points and a mad rush for name recognition through billboards, door-to-door campaigning, extra party courting and personal appearances. Personal and professional insults are starting to appear, especially from Williams, who recently characterized rival Mike Purzycki as a slumlord and “Mr. Republican.”
Each Democratic candidate — incumbent Williams, Gregory, City Councilwoman Maria Cabrera, former City Councilman Kevin Kelley, former City Council President Norm Griffiths, former Riverfront Development Corp. Executive Director Purzycki, Delaware Center for Justice Advocacy Director Eugene Young and state Sen. Bob Marshall — now essentially is running on credibility and leadership chops.
There can be only one mayor, and they’re set to slice and dice the vote so thoroughly a plurality has become more likely than a consensus majority vote.
Williams got his first executive job in 2012 by attracting just over 4,200 of the 11,000 votes in that election — 38.5 percent of the total.
He was part of a five-man Democratic primary, which included second-place finisher Kelley whom he beat by about 1,100 votes. Besides the 67 percent of the vote they represented, 20.8 percent of the vote went to Bill Montgomery, 9.3 went to Robert Bovell and 2.9 percent went to Scott Spencer.
If Williams wins this year, it will be with the same kind of victory as before. A candidate who receives more votes than any other without surpassing the 50 percent mark has a plurality, and in Wilmington’s mayoral election, that’s all that’s needed.
The race was crowded, but back then Williams didn’t have going for him what he does now — the advantage of incumbency.
“I’m battle-tested, ladies and gentlemen,” Williams said at the most recent debate. “If you want someone who’s battle-tested, you’ll re-elect me. If you want one of these folks up here who’s telling you all this pie in the sky, vote for them.”
Williams has refused interviews with The News Journal throughout the election season and did so again when asked to comment for this article. He also has attended relatively few forums that put him in the same rooms as his opponents, preferring instead a strategy based on door-to-door campaigning and letting his record speak for itself.
Ruggerio said that record is tarnished by the lasting crime problem, which former police officer Williams ran his first campaign on mitigating. Though Williams’ administration can make honest claims about victories on that front, Ruggerio said the mayor had the “bad luck” of running the city at the time Newsweek magazine dubbed Wilmington “Murder Town” in 2014.
“It stinks, but you have to own it because you’re also someone who ran on public safety. Unfortunately, when you stake a position and you really dig in deep on that position, you’re held accountable by the voters,” Ruggerio said. “If there is one thing that happened to Dennis, that had to be the single most damaging thing.”
At the same time, rival candidates and political observers alike know Williams has strong support on the East Side, where he grew up, and in the city’s northern district, which sent him to the state Legislature. Williams has spread his message from one side of the city to another, and while his campaign manager wouldn’t talk strategy, political observers believe he’ll be counting on them to let him keep his job.
Unfortunately for him, all his opponents know that. Every vote taken from that bloc is a minus for Williams’ margin.
“He had a built-in constituency there, meaning he knew the folks, knew the players, knew the community association presidents well. He knew who mattered, so he had a huge advantage last time. This time, the ones who are running against him, they’re going right at the heart of his constituency. They’re campaigning there. They’re going door to door,” Ruggerio said. “You’re Mrs. Jones, and suddenly you’re approached by four or five other candidates and you start thinking maybe there is somebody who can do a better job.”
If anyone has a chance of nabbing Williams votes, Sears said, it’s Gregory. The two share part of that constituency, and both are well known to current neighborhood leaders, having served concurrently as the heads of the city’s executive and legislative branches.
Though he’s had some successes in the mayor’s chair — from establishing councils such as the Mayor’s Business Roundtable and the Citizen’s Police Advisory Council to a reduction in crime from his first day in office — Williams also has cultivated a public image as a combative, inaccessible and disinterested leader.
Dejean Graham, a 22-year-old certified nursing assistant, said she is not a fan of Williams. She would like the mayor to invest more in schools and youth centers, but she recognizes the advantage he has in terms of name recognition.
“He has had a part in making it harder here financially for our people,” she said. “But most of the time, people go with what they know.”
The split field
When Sears made a run for City Council president in 1984, it was a three-way race between himself, then-Councilman Tom Quinn and then-Councilman and future Mayor Jim Baker.
“The day we all signed up, the head of the city party at the time — a gentleman named Leo Marshall — told Quinn and I that as long as we were both in the race, we would lose and Baker would win. That was in February, before the primary and without anyone having spent 5 cents,” Sears said.
“We all said, ‘No, no no. We’re going to spend money. We’re going to get out there and knock on doors. We’re going to do all this extra stuff.’ I had a master’s degree. I had been a banker. I had been finance director of the city. I had been the head of economic development for the city before. I’d been a councilman for eight years. How could I not be the perfect candidate?”
Marshall was right, Sears said. The race split with about 4,000 votes for Baker, and Sears and Quinn each got around 3,000.
“I spent 10 times the money Baker did, eight times the money Quinn did. I had four headquarters all over the city, billboards all over the city,” Sears said. “The problem was Quinn knew if he dropped out, I become president of the City Council. He couldn’t sit on City Council and look at me sitting up there for four more years and now possibly being in line to run for mayor, and I felt the exact same way.”
The moral of the story, Sears said, is members of a crowded electoral fields need to look at the big picture. If the seven candidates believe unseating Williams is in the city’s best interest, Sears said their candidacies might ensure that doesn’t come to pass.
Who will come to the polls in September is the election’s great question.
“All of them have their own constituencies, meaning they all have a certain bloc of voters. The key is whoever is the most organized and can get out the vote from those constituents will win,” Ruggerio said.
Cabrera, a single mom, is courting women, mothers and Hispanic voters. There has never been a female mayor of Wilmington, and she was the first Hispanic woman on the City Council.
“Women want to see more women in leadership roles,” she said. “These mothers are afraid for their children, and they need to know someone will go in there and fight for their kids.”
Well documented in the race will be the participation of an odd group for a Democratic primary —Republicans.
Purzycki actively has courted Republicans and independents during the campaign, prompting prominent local figures and other non-Democrats to switch their party affiliation in order to vote in September. He had to defend his standing in the Democratic Party when attacked in the most recent debate. Top Wilmington Republicans last week rejected Purzycki as a credible alternative to typical Democratic governance, but the Riverfront developer still wants their votes.
“Everybody in the city has the right to be safe and have economic vitality,” Purzycki said last month. “There is nothing partisan about those issues.”
It’s a strategy Williams attacked personally and on his campaign’s door-to-door mission. Hangers left on doorknobs across the city show on their left and right images of Purzycki and Kelley, and between them is a picture of Donald Trump.
“Mike Purzycki and Kevin Kelley are both lobbying for Republican votes. A lot of those Republicans voted for Donald Trump in the presidential primary — we have the numbers — and switched the following week or so,” Osborne said. “I have the right to choose who represents me in my Democratic primary. I don’t want it watered down with Republican votes.”
Ruggerio isn’t sure if Williams’ attacks will backfire — he doesn’t think it will earn him any votes and could turn off others he needs to court.
“It’s definitely going to make the difference for Purzycki, no doubt. In terms of Dennis trying to attack him on that, look, they’re city residents,” Ruggerio said. “It is a Democratic primary, but if I’m Dennis, I’m going with the big tent approach. I wouldn’t alienate those voters or any voter. I don’t think he can afford to because the margins are so thin.”
Sears said Marshall, a longtime Wilmington politician who even ran for mayor in 2012 before dropping out ahead of the primary, likely is playing for blue-collar voters while Griffiths has a good message to collect votes from the business community. And Kelley, well known on city streets, continues to tout his history of talking face-to-face with residents across Wilmington.
Young has youthful energy on his campaign but said that campaign’s polling shows the average age of his supporters is 49-50 years old. He said he wouldn’t be pinned down as a candidate seeking a single demographic, claiming he and his people have knocked on more doors than anyone and that he wants to be everyone’s mayor.
“We’re knocking down the normal status quo, typical way of campaigning of having just a base, and we’re more or less making the city our base. While some candidates focus in certain areas or certain districts, our message is to create a citywide movement so it does not solely rely on specific districts,” Young said. “The way we look at it, if we finish second in every district, we win.”
Graham, who lives in North Wilmington, said that on principle, it’s good to have options, but a crowded race puts the onus on voters to do research.
“It makes it a little difficult to choose,” said Graham, who is most familiar with Gregory. “As far as the other candidates, I barely hear about them. I’m going with what I know.”
Graham said some the candidates should have come together to defeat Williams.
“They definitely should have come together,” she said. “That’s what half this country is missing, is to come together to make our decisions.”
Contact Adam Duvernay at (302) 319-1855 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact Christina Jedra at email@example.com, (302) 324-2837 or on Twitter @ChristinaJedra.
Candidates for Wilmington mayor
Dennis P. Williams