Wilmington: Some already campaigning

By ADAM TAYLOR– The News Journal

WILMINGTON — Though state Rep. Dennis P. Williams plans to run for re-election
to his legislative seat later this year, he already has been involved in a debate as a candidate for another office – city mayor.

It doesn’t seem to matter that Mayor James M. Baker’s term doesn’t end until
Dec. 31, 2012 – more than two and a half years from now.

Williams is one of at least 16 people whose names have come up as possible candidates to succeed Baker, the first three-term mayor in city history. And because Baker is barred by law from seeking a fourth term, more names than usual are
being floated – and it’s happening earlier than ever before, according to observers
of Wilmington’s political scene.

Wilmington’s mayor earns about $113,000 a year.

“Everyone is talking about the 2012 mayor’s race already, and everybody’s heard the names,” said Rhett Ruggerio, a former national committeeman for the Delaware Democratic Party. “Normally you don’t hear about this kind of stuff until the year of the election”.

But in some corners, the race has already begun. Williams, for example, clashed with the Rev. Derrick Johnson, pastor of Joshua Harvest Church, at an East Side community meeting last month.

Williams, a retired city police officer, sparred with Johnson about anti-crime strategies. Johnson pleaded no contest to killing a man in the 1970s and was pardoned this year by Gov. Jack Markell.

“I’m going to whoop your butt at the polls,” Williams told Johnson.

Johnson said to expect much more of the same from now until 2012.

“An ex-cop and an ex-convict — what better debate about guns could you have
had?” Johnson said. “It wasn’t just historic because it was happening almost three years before the election, it was because the two candidates actually knew what
they were talking about.”

The other names on the list include six of the 13 members of City Council: Mike Brown, Steve Martelli, Kevin Kelley, Hanifa Shabazz, Norman Griffiths and Charles “Bud” Freel.

Other potential candidates are Bill Montgomery, Baker’s chief of staff; John Rago, Baker’s communications director; former Council President Ted Blunt; state Sen.
Bob Marshall; Republican attorney Tyler Nixon; bail bondsman Robert Bovell;
and Paul Calistro, head of West End Neighborhood House.

Williams, Johnson, Bovell, Brown, Kelley, Shabazz, Marshall and Nixon confirmed their intentions. Montgomery, Martelli, Calistro and Rago didn’t rule it out. Martelli,
for example, said, “You obviously have been talking to my mother. Other than that, my only comment is, ‘That’s a heck of a list.’ ”

Griffiths and Freel also wouldn’t rule out a run. Blunt couldn’t be reached.

Theo Gregory, a former councilman who recently stepped down from Moyer Academy, a school that lost its state charter, said he is running for council
president in 2012.

Before Shabazz would say why she was considering a run, she asked to hear
the names on the list.

“That list is in need of a rose among thorns,” she said.

Gregory, former chairman of the city Democratic Party, said the herd will thin as time goes on.

“Most people are jockeying for position and many will wind up running for a lesser office, such as council president,” he said. “I think saying they are considering the mayor’s race is to give them a sense of importance in the eyes of others.”

City Democratic Chairman Mark Murowany agreed the field will shrink.

“Until they pay their filing fees and the check doesn’t bounce, they’re not
candidates,” he said.

Many also won’t have the $100,000 or so it would take to make a viable run, he said.

But, Murowany said, the field is likely to grow before it shrinks. If a large number of people do remain for the September 2012 Democratic primary, an underdog could sneak in as the nominee.

The winner of the Democratic primary is a huge favorite to be mayor because registered Democrats in Wilmington outnumber registered Republicans by a more than 5-1 ratio and by more than 3-1 over independents. Most potential candidates are Democrats. Brown and Nixon are Republicans. Rago is an independent.

A large field could convince residents such as Herman Holloway, a former state lawmaker, to make a run.

“The laundry [list] is so darn long, it’s become humorous, to say the least,” he said. “But if it’s still a really crowded race later on, I will seriously consider it.”

Republican Nixon wants a big Democratic field, too.

“I hope they all run,” he said. “They’ll beat the living heck out of each other.”

Calistro, a former mayor of Newport, said he has been asked 100 times if he’s running and also has had many discussions with people about who would be best
to succeed Baker.

“There are a lot of names, but no one who has confirmed that they’re running has emerged that people have gotten excited about,” he said. “The process of finding
the right person to be our next mayor is going to be very interesting.”

Ruggerio said it will be important to see whether all the mayoral ambitions among those who hold other public offices will affect their performance in the next two years.

“Some of the candidates are pretty high-profile and are already carving their own alliances,” he said. “I’m sure the candidates are thinking about constituency groups such as the labor and business communities and that it’s in the back of those groups’ minds as well. The politics of the future could upset some current legislative decision-making.”

Contact Adam Taylor at 324-2787 or ataylor@delawareonline.com.