Harrisburg mayoral candidates Gloria Martin-Roberts and incumbent Eric Papenfuse defended their records last night, taking jabs at each other, while challengers Lewis Butts, Anthony Harrell and Jennie Jenkins tried to introduce themselves, and their ideas, to a live TV audience.
The moderators, CBS21 Anchor Robb Hanrahan, PennLive Opinion Editor John Micek and PennLive City Reporter Christine Vendel, asked candidates about pressing city issues and their backgrounds. Candidates sat in the order they appear on the May 16 Democratic primary election ballot. About 60 audience members filled the room at HACC’s Midtown Campus for last night’s hour-long, live-recorded event.
Mayor Eric Papenfuse took the first rhetorical punches at Martin-Roberts as candidates answered a question about improving blighted neighborhoods.
Martin-Roberts started off the panel’s responses with a common phrase of her campaign.
“I don’t have a favorite neighborhood, and I’ve been saying this,” she said. “This entire city would be the city that I love. I would start focusing on those neighborhoods that have been overlooked for a very long time.”
She added that, as mayor, she would listen to the needs of the community, use the law’s full force with absentee landlords and encourage buyers “to see blighted properties as diamonds in the rough.”
Papenfuse responded first with a dig at Martin-Roberts.
“I first would l to say that I do not have a favorite neighborhood,” he said. “I care about this whole city equally, and I find Ms. Martin-Roberts’ rhetoric, frankly, divisive. If the city is going to succeed, we are going to have to look for all of us to succeed together.”
He cited South Harrisburg’s sinkhole remediation plan, Allison Hill’s $3 million grant-funded MulDer Square development project and LERTA, a city-wide investment incentive program, as three of the “most important anti-blight remediation efforts” in many years.
Harrell, a veteran, mentioned a program to help veterans purchase houses before turning his answer back to crime.
“As long as crime is on the rise, no one will move into [these neighborhoods],” he said.
Butts referenced his “Harrisburg First” plan to train workers and contractors with a trade center in an attempt to connect job creation with neighborhood development.
Jenkins said she would go after federal funding for crime and blight, before criticizing the current administration.
“I thought three years ago, that’s what we were going to do: fight blight,” she said. “Here we are, three years later, wondering about blight,”
“Any funding that comes in for blight, that is what I am going to use it for,” she said of her plan.
Jenkins defended her troubled career as a police officer. The city fired her after accusing her of misappropriating $7,000 from the city’s Police Athletic League. She also found herself in trouble when thieves stole two guns from her unoccupied car. Currently, she is in a federal discrimination lawsuit against Police Chief Thomas Carter.
When asked about her transparency with these lawsuits, she said she couldn’t talk about the discrimination lawsuit as it is currently in progress. She said lawsuits prevented her from speaking about the embezzlement case with the city, though the case ended in January 2016.
Moderators asked a follow-up question about how, as mayor, she would manage a police department led by Chief Thomas Carter, who she said she would keep in office. She said that the discrimination lawsuit would be over in January, before she would take office.
“I don’t hold anything against anyone,” she said. “I’ve grown from it. I’ve learned from it.”
Martin-Roberts also defended her record in response to questions about her City Council vote to increase the incinerator debt and about her connections to former Mayor Linda Thompson and to James Ellison, a former associate of Mayor Stephen Reed.
Though Thompson had “hiccups with her personality,” she had “her hands deep in the Harrisburg Strong Plan,” she said.
“We would not be where we are today without her work,” she said.
She said that Ellison, now her campaign treasurer, would not serve in her administration. Ellison, a lawyer, found himself in controversy while serving both with the Harrisburg Authority under the Reed administration and, later, as counsel to the school district of Coatesville, Pa.
Papenfuse’s responses to certain questions elicited their fair share of groans, including one about the lack of a residency requirement for police officers.
“As a result, we have been able to attract some of the best and brightest from the nation and across the state,” he said.
Coming after Harrell and Butts commenting that police officers should reflect city neighborhoods, some members of the audience took Papenfuse’s comment as an insult.
As Harrell offered his closing remarks, Midtown resident Chris Siennick crashed the live television recording, introducing himself—complete with red headband and skateboard—as the Socialist candidate in the November general election.
After the audience erupted in laughter, Hanrahan closed the evening with these remarks: “[Last night was] a great example of how anything can happen on live television.”
Author: Danielle Roth