“To God be the glory,” Mayor Linda Thompson said at the start of her inaugural address. It was January 2010, and Harrisburg, whose population at the time was 52 percent African-American and 30 percent white, had elected its first black mayor. As Thompson spoke, voices in the crowd assented, as if to a sermon. “To God be the glory,” she repeated, nodding.
Three and a half years later, in the Democratic primary, Thompson was resoundingly ousted. She carried a mere 28 percent of votes, a smaller share than either of her opponents. In some neighborhoods, her returns were shockingly low for an incumbent. In the 5th Ward, which roughly corresponds to the Midtown neighborhood between Forster and Verbeke, she received 9 percent of votes. In Shipoke, she received 1.6 percent, representing a mere two supporters.
Yet other parts of town remained Thompson strongholds. Her support in the 10th Ward, 2nd Precinct—an area bordered by Maclay, Schuylkill, 4th, and 7th streets—was nearly 64 percent, constituting the largest share of any precinct by any candidate. The neighborhood’s population, estimating from 2010 census figures, is close to 80 percent African-American. In her inaugural, Thompson had urged Harrisburg citizens to overcome the “temptation to view the challenges facing our city through the prism of racial, economic, and geographical differences.” But if the primary returns are any measure, the prism remains electorally significant.
So it is with considerable interest that many folks have been watching the write-in mayoral campaign of Aaron Johnson, the city’s deputy director of public works. If you don’t know who Aaron Johnson is, or that he’s running for mayor, you’re not alone: he has run what you might call an unorthodox campaign. He did not officially announce his candidacy until October 4, after denying rumors in August that he planned to run, according to the Patriot-News. (A Facebook page, “Aaron K. Johnson for Mayor,” went live on September 26.)
Since then, the public face of his campaign has been a mixture of serious endorsements and makeshift electioneering. When Johnson made the live announcement of his candidacy, on a baseball diamond in Hall Manor, City Council President Wanda Williams stood by his side. Jennifer Smallwood, the school board president, endorsed him in a Facebook post in late September. (After mentioning Johnson’s role in reviving the city’s Little League baseball team, where he has coached for more than 20 years, Smallwood wrote, “This is the man I will support in November!”)
James Ellison, the former chairman of the Harrisburg Authority and a close aide to Mayor Thompson’s 2009 campaign, has also indicated his support on Facebook. And the campaign signs that have cropped up around the city—including across the street from the Midtown Scholar, the bookstore owned by Democratic candidate Eric Papenfuse—note that they were paid for by Revitalizing Our Communities, the political action committee that had previously boosted Smallwood, school board candidate Autumn Cooper, and former City Council President Gloria Martin-Roberts.
In the mainstream press, however, Johnson’s presence has been remarkably scarce. Johnson himself has not returned calls. A self-identified assistant to his campaign, Charisse Grayer, returned an initial call and then, after explaining that the campaign was run entirely by volunteers and has no payroll, promised future correspondence which was never received. Gina Roberson, Aaron’s sister and, according to Grayer, his campaign manager, has also not returned calls. Both Roberson and Grayer, meanwhile, are full-time city employees under Johnson; Grayer is a secretary in the department of parks and recreation, and Roberson is a grants officer.
Yet the campaign has an active Facebook account, with just short of 300 likes. That pales to the nearly 2,100 on Papenfuse’s page, and the 1,200 or so on Dan Miller’s, although post for post, they draw about an equal number of likes and comments. In contrast to the campaign of the other write-in candidate, Lewis Butts, the Johnson campaign appears to be prominently and proudly backed by a core of influential public figures. Meanwhile, the NAACP has announced yet another mayoral debate, to take place tomorrow night—Thursday, October 24—at the Allison Hill Community Center, which Johnson has confirmed he’ll attend.
What does all of this mean for November? Write-in campaigns, of course, are notoriously unlikely, though it’s not unheard of for them to draw meaningful support. (Wikipedia’s run-down of notable write-ins makes for an illuminating read.) But barring the outside odds of a Johnson victory, the real question is what portion of disaffected primary voters his ticket will corral. The difference between Miller and Papenfuse in May was 400 votes—a sizeable margin, but far below the 1,800 votes for Thompson that are presumed to be up for grabs.
The other question posed by the Johnson campaign is broader and, you might say, more existential. In one section of the community, he is known as a Harrisburg native, a military veteran, a legendary mentor and coach, and all-around upstanding man. In another, he’s largely notorious for one event: carrying out Wanda Williams’ order to bulldoze a community garden in Camp Curtin, in a spectacle whose fallout was racially charged. (Gina Roberson, who spoke before City Council after the event, in 2012, distinguished between the gardeners, who were sitting in a row behind her and were apparently all white, and “our community.”)
I referred above to Johnson’s silence in the mainstream press. But a fair reply might be: whose mainstream? In November 2009, when Thompson won the general election, James Ellison introduced her at her victory party by saying Thompson “is of us, she is by us, she is for us.” It would be a mistake to assume that Ellison’s “us” corresponds neatly to racial and geographical lines. But it would also be a mistake to think Johnson’s campaign means nothing. All voters want a candidate who is for them—and for a significant number in Harrisburg, he’s not on the official ballot.