Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Enemy of My Enemy

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City Council President Wanda Williams (back, center) looks on as Gloria Martin-Roberts announces her candidacy for Harrisburg mayor.

In the long, storied run of “The Simpsons,” one of the most famous episodes is a hilarious parody entitled “Who Shot Mr. Burns?”

In this two-part episode, police question the resentful citizens of Springfield as they search for a suspect in the shooting of nuclear power mogul C. Montgomery Burns. It turns out that nearly everyone in town is a suspect because they all feel wronged by him.

That episode strangely came to my mind yesterday as I watched former City Council President Gloria Martin-Roberts announce her candidacy for Harrisburg mayor. To my knowledge, Martin-Roberts has never had a personal falling out with Mayor Eric Papenfuse. However, those gathered around her—her supporters—were a veritable who’s who of people who might find reason for targeting (politically, that is) the often-combative first-term mayor, who has not yet declared for reelection.

City Treasurer Dan Miller sat quietly in the audience. He lost to Papenfuse twice in the last mayoral race.

Current Council President Wanda Williams held high a “Gloria Roberts for Mayor” sign. She’s called Papenfuse a liar and much worse.

The owners of the Third Street Café stopped by to applaud and offer support. Papenfuse has tenaciously tried to put them out of business.

There was vocal critic/former school board President Jennifer Smallwood, former political rival Nate Curtis, one-time Broad Street Market Manager Rafiyqa Muhammad and several old supporters of Steve Reed, whose legacy the mayor has tried to dismantle piece by piece. And, speaking of which, the event was held at the National Civil War Museum, which Papenfuse has famously tried to shut down, making it perhaps the most delicious setting in the city for his enemies to gather together.

I didn’t spot any of the county commissioners, nor anyone from the Harrisburg Chamber, DCED or the regional visitor’s bureau, who all have done battle with Papenfuse. However, PennLive—which Papenfuse is boycotting—was represented, if just by the website’s ubiquitous city reporter doing her job.

Now, most politicians, if they stay in office long enough, accumulate a pile of critics, naysayers and downright haters. It’s the nature of the job. However, Papenfuse has managed to tick off, at one time or another, members of nearly every power center in the region outside of his own administration.

It will be fascinating to watch how this plays out in next year’s election. In my opinion, Papenfuse has done a good job in his core duties as mayor: the budget, finances, service delivery, economic development, management—the things I care most about. He’s also a passionate advocate for the city and can be almost amusingly jovial at public events. But, in doing his job, he’s stepped on a lot of toes and vociferously criticized a host of the important and self-important.

Papenfuse has told me that he’s taken often-controversial positions out of principle and believes his strong, vocal tactics were correct and defensible. However, what he calls justified, others have seen as unnecessary in substance and pompous in style.

Interestingly, Martin-Roberts didn’t speak Papenfuse’s name at all, allowing her criticisms to be implicit. For more than a half-hour, she took her rapt audience on a nostalgia trip of old Harrisburg, naming store after store that made up a part of her childhood (Martha’s Turntable, anyone?). She also said she would seek to unite the entire city.

“I don’t favor an individual neighborhood,” she said, in a clear dig at Papenfuse.

Martin-Roberts even complimented Steve Reed, with whom she often battled, for helping to revitalize downtown, even though Reed was frequently criticized for paying too much attention to white, wealthy downtown, a similar criticism now directed at Papenfuse and Midtown.

Perhaps Martin-Roberts’ appeals to nostalgia and unity will have some takers—and certainly there remains a contingent resentful that Dan Miller did not become mayor three years ago.

But, in the end, most reelection bids are a referendum on the incumbent. Therefore, I expect this campaign to hinge on how folks feel about Eric Papenfuse, especially his strong personality and his governing style. Given his administration’s success in returning a degree of normalcy to the city’s fiscal funhouse, he may have had a pretty easy path to reelection. However, due, at least in part, to his confrontational manner, he’s cracked open a window for his enemies, who now have banded together behind a genial, formidable opponent.

Author: Lawrance Binda

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