'A lack of focus on the people': Wilmington Mayoral candidates clash ahead of primary
A smaller pool of candidates is vying for Mayor of Wilmington in 2020.
But Delaware Public Media’s Sophia Schmidt reports the race is no less contentious.
Incumbent Mayor Mike Purzycki took office in 2017 after narrowly winning a crowded eight-way 2016 primary contest.
Now the Democrat seeks a second term against two primary challengers: former City Councilman Justen Wright and current City Treasurer Velda Jones-Potter. Jones-Potter originally filed to run for re-election as treasurer, then switched to the mayor’s race hours before the deadline.
Purzycki and Jones-Potter have already clashed, in their current positions.
Their disagreements over how to handle a debt incurred by a public-private housing partnership—and what powers the Treasurer has—led Purzycki and his office to sue Jones-Potter last year.
Jones-Potter condemns the suit as “baseless, frivolous, and sadly, costly.”
“We had to establish who runs the city,” he said. We cannot have other officeholders saying that they have prerogatives that they simply don’t have.”
Now Jones-Potter hopes to take the city in a different direction, as mayor.
“I’ve seen a lack of focus on the people in our city and a failure to address some of the core issues like crime, like lack of affordable housing,” she said.
Purzycki defends his record, pointing to accomplishments like renovations of parks and community facilities, the City’s now-annual HBCU week, and a web tool for City spending transparency, with only one property tax increase during his term.
“We started a lot of things,” he said. “But every time you find yourself making progress you realize that there’s so many more things that you can do to make things even better.”
Justen Wright’s ambitions are guided by his close connection to the city.
“I’m a local business owner, so I’ve had the opportunity to grow a business, know the worth of being in the City of Wilmington,” he said. “[I’m] born and raised, and [I’ve] probably been around every area and facet of our city, which has enriched my life.”
Improving law enforcement
Late this spring the city was rocked by protests against the police killing of George Floyd and broader racial injustice. One night of protests led to destruction and looting of downtown businesses.
Purzycki reportedly asked community organizers to postpone future protests because of the city’s economic “fragility.” Wright criticizes this.
“They tried to stop the [First] Amendment rights that individuals had to express the freedom of speech,” said Wright. “Those types of things hinder relationships and present distrust.”
Jones-Potter also supports the protests.
“The marches are important and valid,” she said.
Both Jones-Potter and Wright think a police force that better reflects the city’s demographics would help answer protesters’ demands. Last year City Council delayed calling for a new police academy class to protest what members saw as insufficient efforts by the police department to diversify.
Amid the early protests, Purzycki committed to finding money to fund body cameras for Wilmington police “without delay.” The Wilmington Police Department piloted body cameras in 2016, and has since made plans for a department-wide program but has not rolled it out. Residents, activists and elected officials have consistently clamored for the cameras in recent years, but Purzycki’s administration and some members of City Council have clashed over how to fund them.
“We always thought that body cameras made sense,” said Purzycki. “It was an expense that I had to deal with. And it’s a significant expense, by the way, it’s an operating cost. And it’s just something that I had to balance against the desirability of body cameras. But everybody, everybody oughta know this—that the people that we talked to in the communities, the people who we would expect to be 100 percent pro-body cameras, wanted local cameras more than they wanted body cameras. They wanted cameras in their neighborhoods. … They’re more terrorized by a lot of the young people committing crimes than they are about police officers.”
The police department is waiting to hear about a federal grant to fund part of the body camera program. Despite his commitment this spring to funding them, Purzycki won’t say definitively when the cameras will roll out.
Both primary challengers want body cameras.
In response to the protests, Puryzcki also published a version of the police policy and procedures manual online, to increase transparency.
Fighting gun violence
Gun violence remains one of the City’s defining challenges.
Purzycki recruited a police chief from out of state in 2017 to try to quash the violence. Robert Tracy brought a statistics-based approach, and emphasizes community engagement and familiarity.
The number of shootings fell dramatically in 2018—but ticked up in 2019. This year, it’s on track to be even higher. Purzycki notes the increase this year mirrors a nationwide trend amid the pandemic.
As of mid-August, more than 100 people had been shot in the city this year. Nearly a third were juveniles.
Jones-Potter and Wright see this as a failure.
“I think it’s rather clear that what’s being done currently and what has been done has not been effective,” said Jones-Potter.
Wright advocates for more community policing, which the police department already says it does.
“Officers are on the corners, and they’re just on the corners talking amongst each other, they’re not branching out into the actual community that they’re serving,” said Wright. “There might be some officers that may do that, but the overwhelming majority are not actually meeting the community, knowing who the businesses, community leaders are and even the residents who are on those streets.”
Jones-Potter says she would focus on the root causes of violence. She plans to clean up and invest in high-crime neighborhoods and pressure state lawmakers to improve education for Wilmington kids.
Purzycki sees the current police department as a success.
“By and large, the relationships are good.,” he said. “By and large, our police officers attend all community meetings.”
But Purzycki agrees progress on building quality of life and economic opportunities for residents is needed
‘How can we get our arms around our problems, and try to ameliorate the condition that people live in so that they’re much more likely to take advantage of an American economy, an American middle class, American aspirations—however you care to characterize it—how do we get people to think of themselves as having a fuller life taking a different road?” said Purzycki.
Purzycki says he was disappointed not to able to get anti-blight legislation passed in his first term. He wanted to change the housing code to speed up the process of taking delinquent vacant and rental properties to sheriff’s sale. But City Council members and landlords pushed back.
Purzycki thinks his plan will pass under what he expects will be a “new” City Council next year.
But Jones-Potter thinks the former developer’s whole approach to fighting blight is wrong. She claims the City’s model has been “landbanking” properties, then making them available to developers to rehab and rent out.
“I would focus on placing those homes in the hands of individual families who would live in them, helping them afford to acquire and rehabilitate them,” said Jones-Potter.
Building homeownership would be a priority of Jones-Potter’s administration. She says she would try to leverage government money to convince banks to give mortgages to Wilmingtonians with low credit scores.
Weathering the coronavirus pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic will likely still be raging when the next mayor takes office.The full impact of work-from-home trends on City revenue, which relies heavily on a wage tax, remains to be seen.
Purzycki says he’d love to be able to “write checks” to help small businesses like restaurants stay afloat—but the city itself will likely struggle to balance its budget.
“If we had a problem in the $5 to 7 million range, we could certainly cover it from reserves,” said Purzycki. "Payments scheduled out 10 years, we could schedule them out 11 years and miss a payment. We have some things that we could do. But I will tell you that if we do another year of this, it will start being very difficult. If we went into Fiscal Year 2022 with severe reductions in our revenue sources, we would have to reimagine the City in every way.”
Jones-Potter says City government will need to be flexible from a licensing perspective and facilitate innovative entrepreneurship.
“Out of the most severe adversity often comes some of the greatest opportunity,” she said. “Innovation is I think highest when people are under pressure, and we certainly are now.”
Even before the pandemic, Wilmington was an unequal place. A 2019 study by the nonprofit Prosperity Now found the median income for Black and Latino households in Wilmington is roughly half that of white households.
Both Purzycki and Jones-Potter point to the need to increase homeownership.
To Wright, the solution lies in job training programs and government investment.
“Maryland Ave., that should be a gateway into our city,” said Wright. “You see the disproportionate investment in the Riverfront, but it’s not trickling over to the community. We want to make sure that we’re building our communities as well as building people. Because when you put money into people over property—which this administration has focused on property over people—you have what we have."
Adapting to climate change
Wilmington is built on a tidal river, and some of its infrastructure and neighborhoods are vulnerable to sea level rise. Many residents already deal with the urban heat island effect.
All three mayoral candidates believe climate change is an issue the City must prepare for.
But Wright says it’s not something the City should be expected to do on its own.
“It’s going to take partnerships with various entities to make sure we’re doing our part,” said Wright. “It’s going to be with the county, it’s going to be with the state to ensure certain things are taking place. It’s not that the City can basically fund its way out of everything.”
Jones-Potter says she would form a task force with regional and national experts to assess the City’s climate risk and propose solutions.
Purzycki points to the South Wilmington Wetlands Park. The multimillion dollar project started construction last year but was planned under a previous administration. It’s expected to make flood-prone Southbridge more resilient to sea level rise — but it only drains part of the neighborhood.
Purzycki admits climate change is not the City’s most immediate focus.
“Frankly, my plate is full worrying about basic services, and crime and poverty to worry about climate change from where I am,” he said.
Purzycki, Wright and Jones-Potter face off in the Democratic primary September 15. All polling places will be open—but voters can also submit their ballots by mail without excuse.
Those voting by mail should do so as soon as possible.