Over the past week, I was interviewed twice about the state of the Harrisburg mayor’s race.
In both interviews, I said two things.
When asked who might win, I declined to pick a frontrunner, as I believed that the race was extremely tight and too close to call.
When asked about the major issue in the race, I didn’t pick public safety or police reform or infrastructure—things that the candidates often discussed while campaigning and in debates. I said that, among the electorate, the major motivation, even if hidden a bit beneath the surface, was a judgment on the incumbent.
Let me address this issue first.
Re-election campaigns are almost always a referendum on the incumbent. While serving, mayors build up a record, and challengers then attack that record. It’s just the way it works. Ultimately, voters get to decide who has the better argument and if they want to live with the same mayor for another four years.
Simply put, people get tired of the incumbent after eight years. Grievances build up over time, motivating opposition. The maverick candidate of eight years before becomes the face of problems unsolved and dreams unrealized. Traits that seemed like strengths two election cycles ago—he’s a fighter, she’s a problem-solver—become tiresome or even annoying. People get sick of looking at you. You wear out your welcome.
Most incumbents run on a platform of, “let me finish the job,” or “we have more work to do.” This often works once, as it did for Mayor Papenfuse four years ago, but rarely works a second time. After eight years, more and more people want change; they want someone different. In other words, a third term is a very steep hill to climb for most city mayors.
Having said that—it’s not impossible either, which brings me to my second point, the incredible closeness of the Democratic primary race, which City Council President Wanda Williams won by all of 56 votes.
I’ve said it before in TheBurg, and I’ll say it again: campaigns matter. This is especially true in a multiple candidate race, in a divided electorate and in a low-turnout election, which all applied here.
I expected a neck-and-neck contest between Papenfuse and Williams, given that both had the most experience and name recognition among the five candidates in the Democratic primary. They’ve been the face of city government for eight years—one as mayor, the other as council president. They were going to be tough to beat.
However, I wasn’t terribly impressed by either campaign. Both started late and weren’t especially energetic or inspiring. The incumbent mayor, in particular, had a lot of ground to make up, given a widespread feeling that he hadn’t been present enough in the community. He wanted to run on his record, which is expected of an incumbent, except that many people in this small city don’t want just that. They want to see their mayor. They want to know that their mayor sees them and cares about them, that he or she is trying to help them in their lives and with their struggles.
This is where Williams’ deep ties to the community paid off. Williams was able to turn a lifetime of relationships into votes, as she’s done repeatedly during her long council career. She also performed better than I expected in some of the river wards, especially among people who were looking for an experienced alternative to the incumbent.
Who ran the best campaign, in my opinion? That would be Dave Schankweiler and Otto Banks, who both made running for office practically their full-time jobs since last year. Both candidates declared early, campaigned vigorously and creatively and used a variety of means to reach voters over many months.
Yes, they lost, but both far exceeded my expectations, each winning just over 20% of votes cast. That’s an incredibly impressive result considering that, six months ago, most voters didn’t know who these men were. In fact, until pretty recently, both were registered Republicans. Banks didn’t even live in the city until last fall.
But this is where my predictive powers failed me. Yes, I forecast a nail-biter between Papenfuse and Williams, but thought the winner would get just north of 35% of the vote. Instead, the winner received 28.9%, with second-place at nearly 28%. Credit Schankweiler and Banks for coming out of nowhere to get within striking distance of the much better known, politically experienced candidates—and taking a substantial portion of the electorate with them.
So, where to now Harrisburg? How does a city manage to go on with such a divided electorate, the presumed next mayor receiving less than 30% of the primary vote? Well, first Williams will need to get past the general election, where she’ll face Republican Tim Rowbottom. Given that Harrisburg is overwhelmingly Democratic, that seems likely.
In January, city government then will have a change in administration, the first in eight years. From a policy perspective, I think that residents will see a great deal of continuity. The policies we have now in Harrisburg are a joint product of both the mayor and city council, as it should be. As council president, Wanda Williams has been instrumental in formulating and passing ordinances and resolutions over the entirety of Papenfuse’s tenure. So, I don’t expect radical change from Mayor Williams.
In my view, the wildcard is how Williams will populate her government—with which advisers and directors—and how she will run the sprawling city government. As I wrote in my column in TheBurg magazine this month, most of the mayor’s job isn’t policy or legislation—it’s administration and management. This unsexy, tough, time-consuming portfolio of duties doesn’t get much attention from voters, but it’s foundational to the job and ultimately to the smooth delivery of core city services.
I want to wrap up this column by congratulating Wanda Williams and her team. Likewise, congratulations to the winners of the city council and school board races. I may be an editor and media guy, but, above that, I’m a Harrisburg resident and business owner. I care deeply for this city and am thoroughly invested in it. So, in that spirit, I wish the next administration a very productive and successful term in office.
Lawrance Binda is co-publisher and editor-in-chief of TheBurg.
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