Wilmington primary will be a hot one
The race to watch, say some, is council president

By ADAM TAYLOR — The News Journal

A whopping 28 candidates filed for seats on Wilmington City Council, but the race attracting the most attention is between two incumbents who are battling to become council president.

That’s because the two incumbents — Norman Griffiths and Theo Gregory — are giving up their seats to run for the council president’s post being vacated by Ted Blunt, who is not seeking re-election. That puts three open seats up for grabs on the 13-member council.

In all, only two Republicans filed candidacies. Registered Democrats have a 4.5-to-1 edge over GOP voters in the city.

Most think the Gregory-Griffiths Democratic battle is the most interesting — and not only because they are running for the council’s highest seat. They are both popular longtime incumbents, but have different areas of expertise, different bases of support and different styles of governing.

Both are 56. Griffiths has been a 2nd District councilman for 16 years, while Gregory has represented the entire city as an at-large councilman for 23 years.

Griffiths, a DuPont Co. attorney, serves on the boards of Christiana Care, Westside Health, Delaware Technical & Community College and the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League — where he is now the chairman. He is a former Washington, D.C., police officer.

Gregory, the director of Maurice J. Moyer Academy charter school, is the chairman of the Wilmington Democratic Party, founded the Greater Wilmington Youth Athletic Association and played fullback for University of Delaware.

Griffiths said he is concerned that Gregory’s post as city party chief helps him get more street money to pay for poll workers on primary day. Other than that salvo, the campaign has been cordial to date.

Rhett Ruggerio, a national committeeman for the Delaware Democratic Party and one of the state’s superdelegates, said voters have a clear choice between the candidates.”Both really have their heart in the right place when it comes to helping Wilmington citizens,” he said. “But Griffiths has a financial background and is a consensus builder. Gregory is a grass roots and down-and-dirty guy whose top three issues are youth programs, youth programs and youth programs. They’re equally passionate about the city, but the differences in their styles couldn’t be any more stark.”

The at-large contests

The council president represents the entire city, but there are four other citywide at-large council seats as well. By law, only three candidates from any one party can be on the Nov. 4 ballot, even though four at-large candidates will be elected.

There are eight Democratic at-large candidates vying in the Sept. 9 primary for three spots on November’s ballot.

Two are incumbents — Loretta Walsh and Charles M. Freel. The challengers are Justen Wright, a funeral director; Vincent M. White, a Realtor; Samuel L. Guy, a former councilman; Darius J. Brown, a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Joe Biden; Gary E. Hutt, a former councilman and more recently an official in the city’s personnel department; and Dwight L. Davis, who runs a small program to help people apply for pardons.

The two Republican at-large candidates are incumbent Michael A. Brown Sr. and Paul Degnars, a Downtown Visions employee. Because only two Republicans are running, there is no need for a primary, because up to three candidates can appear on the general election ballot in November, New Castle County Department of Elections Deputy Director Howard Sholl said.

Gregory’s council president run creates a vacancy in the group of four at-large seats, meaning at least one new at-large member will be on the new council in January.

Ruggerio, the political analyst who has led successful get-out-the-vote efforts for Delaware Democrats, thinks the incumbents Walsh and Freel, and Brown, the former council member, are favorites for three of the four seats.

“Who gets the fourth one is anyone’s guess,” he said. “I will say that I think Councilman Brown really dodged a bullet by not having to face a Republican primary, though. I don’t think he’s viewed as a Republican Party guy. It’s well known that he’s attended more Democratic fundraisers this political season than Republican events.”

The district races

Seven of the eight incumbent district council members are running for re-election. The only one who is not is Griffiths, who is seeking the president’s post held by Blunt. All of the district council candidates are Democrats.

Because vacant seats are easier to win than those occupied by incumbents, it’s not surprising there is a four-way race to succeed Griffiths in the 2nd District. They are Michele A. Griffiths, the councilman’s wife and a former Washington, D.C., police officer herself; Devon Hynson, who owns a janitorial service and heads a citizens’ group in the district; Larry Smith, an administrator in the state’s Department of Health and Social Services; and Ernest M. Congo III, a funeral director.

“That’s going to be an intriguing race because all four candidates have significant name recognition in the district for the respective good things they’ve done there over the years,” Ruggerio said.

The 8th District race could be interesting because incumbent Campbell Hay has never been elected by the voters. He was appointed by the council to replace Gerald Brady, who won a special election to replace state Rep. Joe Di Pinto in Dover. Hay is being challenged by Stephen Martelli, a popular Wilmington police officer who retired a few years ago to work with the U.S. military in Iraq. He since returned and now does communications work for Delaware Technical & Community College.

“That’s going to be a real barn-burner,” Ruggerio said. “Hay’s got some of the privileges of incumbency, but he’s not really viewed as an incumbent in the eyes of the voters. Martelli brings a wealth of knowledge about public safety to a city that desperately needs it.”

Small businessman Joseph D. Zilcosky is the third candidate in the 8th District race. He lost to Brady in the 2006 special election to replace Di Pinto. Hay was selected by the council to replace Brady over a crowded field that included Martelli and Zilcosky. Some said Martelli might have been given the appointment had he not been overseas at the time. He interviewed for the position by phone from Prague.

In the 1st District, incumbent Charles Potter Jr., a businessman, is running against Nnamdi Chukwuocha, the associate executive director at Kingswood Community Center and a member of the Twin Poets spoken word group. Stephanie T. Bolden is running against Richard Dyton, a businessman. In the 4th District, incumbent Hanifa Shabazz is challenged by Mack Cochran, an independent insurance agent.

Cochran said he’s running mainly because he is against the city’s efforts to potentially condemn more than 60 South Wilmington properties near the Christina riverfront by using eminent domain. The properties are in the 4th district and Shabazz sponsored the bill that became law, which makes the condemnations possible.

Ruggerio said if he had to guess, the incumbents will prevail in those three contests.

Three incumbents have no opponents: Kevin K. Kelley Sr. in the 6th District; Sammy Prado in the 5th District and Paul F. Ignudo Jr. in the 7th District.

Candidates have until Aug. 1 to switch positions, Sholl said. For example, if an at-large candidate thinks the field is too crowded for him or her to compete, they could switch to a district race.

The party organizations have until 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 2 to nominate candidates in slots where no one has filed, Sholl said.