Last week, I was chatting off-the-record with a Harrisburg city official who said to me, “Whoever wins on Tuesday, I’ll just be glad it’s over.”
I think many city residents share a sense of relief that the painfully drawn-out mayor’s race reached its conclusion on Tuesday.
The Democratic nominee, Wanda Williams, won decisively, meaning that the city won’t be dragged through weeks of ballot challenges or even possible court petitions in the wake of the write-in campaign of incumbent Mayor Eric Papenfuse.
I’ve joked with my staff that I’m not very good at Election Day predictions, despite covering municipal races going back some 30 years. I can’t count the number of times I expected one result and got another.
But this year proved to be an exception. In May, I told our city reporter that I thought Williams would narrowly defeat Papenfuse, and she did—by 46 votes. For the general election, I said that Williams would win decisively, which again was correct (though I underestimated her impressive margin of victory).
Why did I predict this? Actually, it was pretty easy.
Write-in campaigns almost always fail, so Papenfuse had an extremely steep hill to climb and, simply put, I didn’t think he had climbed it.
Not that he didn’t try.
In mid-September, Papenfuse made the announcement that he was tossing his hat into the write-in ring and immediately followed it with a burst of activity.
First, he hired his former primary opponent, Otto Banks, as his new economic development director, perhaps hoping to scoop up a chunk of his voters. He then gained the support of former administration critics like James Ellison and Jennie Jenkins-Dallas.
Papenfuse had practically disappeared from public view after his primary loss in May, but suddenly he was everywhere. He held press conferences, cut ribbons and made announcements, garnering tons of free press, including from us.
He held two separate press conferences to announce his plans for federal pandemic relief funds: $13 million for two elaborate public pool projects (or, as I termed them, the Taj Mahal of pools) and another $12 million for senior assistance, including monthly direct payments to low-income seniors.
He campaigned vigorously and used the powers of incumbency aggressively. Did you happen to catch the trailer for “The Harrisburg Children’s Hour,” in which a puppet version of the mayor hops through the city? Seniors, parents, public housing residents—he checked off all the constituent groups one by one.
Yet I could sense that it still wasn’t enough.
Many residents saw these efforts as too little, too late, or, even worse, as political pandering. To me, it seemed that he was trying to strategize his way to victory—a move here, a move there, attempting to cover this or that base. In any case, his efforts didn’t come across as genuine, whatever their intention was.
For years, Papenfuse had been criticized for being out of public view, preferring his second-floor, city hall office to the bustle of the city’s sidewalks and streets. The warning bells should have rung loudly in his ears after some residents began calling him “The Mayor of Midtown.” I chuckled whenever I heard phrase because I immediately thought to myself—“Hell, he’s not here either!” Yet he took no corrective action, did nothing to make himself more visible in the community.
If Papenfuse wanted a third term, he needed to engage with city residents going back years, not weeks. I appreciated that he put in long, grueling hours at his desk, and I believe that he did some very good things for the city over the course of his eight-year tenure. However, a lack of public engagement was his Achilles heel, and a 45-day blizzard of activity wasn’t going to fix that.
In contrast, Williams leveraged a lifetime of relationships to win the Democratic nomination then claim the mayor’s office. Her campaigns weren’t especially vigorous, but she had a solid base of support to build upon and was blessed with an opponent who many residents had grown tired of or simply decided they didn’t like. This dynamic proved to be good enough for a win–a strong win.
Williams now will make the transition from legislator to chief executive. The Harrisburg city government is an unwieldy beast, consisting of a $100-plus million annual budget and some 500 workers delivering mission-critical, high-impact services for residents. In addition, the city has been bleeding key employees lately, including, just this past week, the business administrator, Marc Woolley.
Woolley’s departure, however, presents Williams with an opportunity. The job of business administrator—the highest salaried position in the city at $125,000—was crafted about eight years ago as part of the city’s financial recovery plan. It was originally called the chief operating officer and was intended to be a sort of city manager for a city that doesn’t have a city manager.
A strong person in this vital post could be a lynchpin to the smooth, day-to-day operation of the city government and contribute greatly to the success of the next administration. I personally believe that this position hasn’t been used to its fullest potential, or even very well, under the current administration. In fact, it took Papenfuse years just to fill it.
However, there it is now, just sitting there vacant, waiting for the right person to become the mayor’s right-hand person. In my opinion, the creation of the business administrator/COO was one of the best ideas to come out of the otherwise uneven Harrisburg Strong Plan. Putting a top candidate into the position—and then giving them the authority and respect so they can confidently do the job—would be a very smart early move for the new administration.
In any case, it soon will be out with the old mayor and in with the new mayor. Come January, Harrisburg will have a new chief executive, and I personally wish Mayor-Elect Wanda Williams all the best and hope for great success, both for her administration and for our city.
Lawrance Binda is co-publisher and editor-in-chief of TheBurg.
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