And we vote.
Today, the people of Harrisburg go to the polls to conclude a once-anemic mayoral campaign that seemed to go from zero to 100 mph overnight.
It wasn’t long ago (last month) that I complained that the two assumed frontrunners, incumbent Mayor Eric Papenfuse and former City Council President Gloria Martin-Roberts, were largely invisible from most voters. Boy, did that change fast.
Over the past two weeks, we’ve had three mayoral debates, endless social media posts by candidates and their surrogates and a flood of last-minute, often-entertaining, sometimes-vicious direct mail.
It may not be the way I would have run a campaign, but what do I know? I’m just a desk jockey with an opinion and some readers.
So, what are some takeaways from the just-concluded mayoral primary campaign, and what might we think about as we go to the polls today?
I don’t mean to sound like a broken record on this issue, since I’ve written about it repeatedly. However, a well-run, committed campaign can make up for a variety of candidate ills.
Papenfuse and Martin-Roberts ran similar campaigns in the sense that the general electorate had little idea from them that an election was approaching until maybe three weeks ago. Then the floodgates opened.
Since then, Papenfuse has relied on a strategy of using the power of incumbency (another ribbon-cutting!) and the power of money (how much direct mail can one man send?) to spread his message that Harrisburg has been well served under his leadership and wouldn’t be under Martin-Roberts. For her part, Martin-Roberts has stuck to her message that she would represent all of Harrisburg, a slap at Papenfuse that, while perhaps effective months ago, hasn’t done much to expand her base since. Policy-wise, the positions between these two candidates are not far apart.
Without question, challenger Jennie Jenkins has run the most dynamic campaign. Months ago, while the other campaigns were napping, she was out hustling for votes. As a result, I expect her to perform pretty well when the votes are tallied tonight, and she may even play a spoiler role in determining the next mayor of Harrisburg.
Typically, I don’t regard candidate debates as having a big impact on a race since they’re often attended by the usual assortment of activists and super-voters who’ve already made up their minds. However, this race may be an exception.
All three mayoral debates were well attended and televised, which makes my little civic engagement heart go pitter-patter. But they also gave thousands of people exposure to the candidates in a way you simply can’t get from your 20th piece of horrible direct mail.
Reasonable people may disagree with my analysis, but I thought that Papenfuse had three solid debates, with the final one at H*MAC his strongest, as, as the incumbent, he showed a mastery of policy and detail that none of the challengers could touch. Martin-Roberts seemed to go in the opposite direction performance-wise, congenial in the first debate but appearing upset and defensive in the last.
I thought that challenger Lewis Butts was consistently Lewis Butts, a big thinker, a dreamer, unorthodox in style and impractical in substance. Jenkins may have had the worst combined performance, not doing particularly well in any of the three. And she certainly had the worst single moment when she gave a halting, unsure response when asked, in the third debate, about her past tax-payment problems.
Over the course of the debates, I noticed the greatest growth from challenger Anthony Harrell. Most residents first encountered the newcomer at the initial debate. But he quickly established an identity as a no-nonsense, law-and-order type, perfecting that image by the third debate. His soldierly manner, full-throated support of gun rights and tendency to start answers with the phrase, “My fellow American patriots,” may not appeal to everyone, but it may appeal to enough conservative registered Democrats (yes, there are some) that he could do much better than I would have imagined a month ago.
I would date the start of this campaign to November, when Martin-Roberts declared her candidacy before a packed room at the National Civil War Museum. There, she stated what she hoped would be her path to victory—a claim that the current mayor (she never actually said his name) did not represent all of Harrisburg. In that sense, the campaign began on a negative.
And, indeed, she has continued that line of attack. This criticism, though, has had two problems. First, it seemed to peak early as, in the debates, Papenfuse tried to dilute it by repeatedly stating his efforts outside of Midtown. Secondly, if voters don’t agree with her supposition, Martin-Roberts has offered little other reason to vote for her. Meanwhile, Papenfuse has tried to mend some of the frayed relationships from earlier in his term, countering, with some success, another criticism.
Papenfuse eventually found his own line of attack—that a vote for Martin-Roberts was a vote to return to a more troubled time in Harrisburg’s recent history. The Papenfuse campaign may have overstated former Mayor Steve Reed’s support of Martin-Roberts, which, as far as we can tell, was limited to a single fundraising plea. However, it cannot exaggerate the involvement of James Ellison, a former Reed crony and Linda Thompson strategist who serves as her treasurer and key campaign adviser. Papenfuse’s attacks may not steal any of Martin-Roberts’ vote, but it may help solidify his own support or motivate some fence-sitters to flip the lever for him.
Ultimately, all close elections depend on turnout, and this one should be no exception. Ellison is regarded as a master of getting out the vote, so we’ll see if he retains his touch or if his involvement has turned into a negative. In my opinion, Ellison has violated a cardinal rule of the political operative–stay out of the limelight, which belongs to the candidate. His social media posts, which include some reckless, accusatory comments, have done no favors for Martin-Roberts.
The x-factor in his election may end up being new voters. Fresh faces are everywhere and, since the last mayoral four years ago, a number of new apartment buildings have filled up. The involvement of first-time voters may upend the best calculations of old-time political watchers.
As you venture to the polls, please remember that the battle for Harrisburg mayor is not the only primary race out there. In the city, four council seats and five school board seats also are at stake. In addition, there have been heated contests in races for magisterial district justice and judgeships.
The polls are open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. The weather is fantastic. Get out there and make your voice heard!