Republicans, Independents Seek Voice in Wilmington Mayor Race

Xerxes Wilson via The News Journal

More than 1,000 voters have switched registration to Democrat leading up to the September primary.

In Wilmington’s tight, eight-way Democratic contest to pick the next mayor, about 1,250 Republicans, independents, Green Party members and voters affiliated with other political parties are switching their registration to Democrat this year so their voices can be heard in the Sept. 13 primary.

Wilmington resident Joan Crifasi said she swapped her affiliation from Republican to Democrat so she could have a say in the heavily blue city, where the Democratic primary all but picks the winner of the mayoral contest every four years. Last election, the primary was won with only 4,200 votes.

This year, after seeing her city rocked by shootings and labeled “Murder Town” in a Newsweek article about violence, Crifasi said she has had enough – and viewed becoming a registered Democrat her only chance of lending her voice to who becomes Wilmington’s next mayor.

“I know for a fact the mayor’s race is decided in the primary,” said Crifasi, who lives in an affluent neighborhood near the Delaware Art Museum. “I’ve lived in this city for a really long time, and it is a critical time.”

Crifasi’s move to the Democratic Party is a reflection of Republicans feeling disenfranchised in Delaware’s largest city, where there are five times as many Democrats as members of the Grand Old Party. The practice of having closed primaries, in which only registered members of the party can cast ballots, further diminishes influence non-Democrats have on local government.

Voters had until May to change party affiliation with the state Department of Elections, and the more than 1,000 new Democrats on the city’s voter rolls represents a significant shift compared with the last mayoral primary in 2012 – when Dennis P. Williams won the primary and only 292 voters changed their registration to vote Democrat.

Williams, a former state representative who went on to win the mayor’s office in the general election, this year faces seven contenders in the September primary: City Council President Theo Gregory; former City Council President Norm Griffiths; Kevin Kelley, a former councilman who was runner-up to Williams four years ago; longtime state Rep. Robert Marshall; City Councilwoman Maria Cabrera; newcomer Eugene Young; and Mike Purzycki, head of the city’s Riverfront Development Corp.

The winner of the primary faces Independent Steven Washington, a special education teacher, in November. No Republicans have filed for the race.

The race for the Democratic nomination has seen candidates spar over economic development and slowing violence in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

With so many vying for city government’s top job this year, candidates and political observers say only 2,200 to 3,000 votes could secure victory in the Democratic primary.

That’s why the large number of new Democrats could put one candidate over the top if he or she is able to capture half the votes of those who switched, said Fred Sears, former president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit aid organization known as the Delaware Community Foundation and previous City Council member.

“It could be huge,” Sears said.

Sears said the city has not seen such a large push to change registration ahead of the primary since Republicans came out to help Dan Frawley beat then-City Council President Frank Vari in the 1984 Democratic primary for mayor. In 2008, Democratic voter rolls swelled by more than 4,100 statewide ahead of Gov. Jack Markell’s tight race with then-Lieutenant Gov. and current candidate for governor John Carney.

State GOP Chairman Charlie Copeland said the practice is damaging to the party. Only a quarter of Republicans who switched ahead of the Carney-Markell primary returned to the GOP, he noted.

Democrats make up 47 percent of the state’s electorate, followed by Republicans at 28 percent. Independents comprise 22 percent of the voting population in Delaware, according to the most recent voter registration statistics from the Department of Elections.

“I respect anyone’s decision to do what they want for their vote,” Copeland said. “I’m just saying they are going to be disappointed with their choice.”

Eight months ago, the state GOP conducted a poll of those who switched for the 2008 race and found the overwhelming majority were disappointed in the candidate they had jumped the aisle to support.

Some say this year’s influx of voters into the Democrat ranks in Wilmington residents’ unhappiness with Williams, as well as frustration among non-Democrats, who, for decades, have had no real say in the city’s leadership.

“People have been upset for years,” said Kelley, who was defeated in the 2012 primary by Williams. “This is due to a mass frustration toward Williams.”

Others point to a concentrated campaign by those supporting Purzycki’s campaign.

In the months leading up to the deadline to switch party affiliation, some of the city’s most prominent non-Democrats started the “Republicans and Independents for Mike” campaign, which saw telephone and mailing outreach persuading residents to switch registration to support Purzycki.

“It is no secret that the next mayor will be a Democrat and will be chosen in the Sept. 13 primary,” reads a letter posted on the Republicans and Independents for Mike website. “Our only option is to switch parties.”

The letter was signed by Jane Castle, the wife of former Congressman Mike Castle, the last Republican elected Delaware governor. State election records show Jane Castle has changed her affiliation, while her husband has not. Attempts to reach Mike and Jane Castle were unsuccessful.

The note was also signed by well-known Wilmington Republicans Joe DiPinto, a former state representative and Wilmington city councilman, and Bill Manning, a prominent local attorney.

“The Republican party in the city is presently and has been for a decade or so fairly moribund …,” DiPinto said. “If I am not registered for a party that has a candidate on the ticket, that is essentially a disenfranchisement.”

DiPinto said he switched party affiliations in the lead-up to the 2012 mayoral primary. He lobbied others to do so as well, but the effort started too late to convince enough voters to alter the outcome.

“In my view, this is the first time you have well-respected and well-known Republicans like DiPinto and Manning saying, ‘It is OK to do this,'” said Rhett Ruggerio, a Delaware lobbyist who ran mayoral campaigns for former Mayor James Baker.

Purzycki described the Castle family as “close friends.” He said wooing non-Democrats has been a feature of his campaign and is not something he is ashamed of.

“Everybody in the city has the right to be safe and have economic vitality,” Purzycki said. “There is nothing partisan about those issues.”

Experts and candidates are split on how the switch-campaign on behalf of Purzycki will influence the primary’s outcome.

Some point to the fact that nearly half of those who switched are in the city’s affluent 8th District, described by all as stronghold for Purzycki.

“I think it is huge,” Ruggerio said. “I think he will get a lot of support from Democrats as well.”

Purzycki said he is isn’t entirely sure how many will support him, though he is confident a large portion will.

“It can be a pretty significant number in determining the outcome of the election if you walk away with 700 or 800 of those votes,” Purzycki said.

Others said the situation is muddied by multiple city civic and neighborhood organizations that have been driving non-Democrats to switch parties on behalf of candidates other than Purzycki.

“A group of associations and candidates have all pushed Republicans and independents to change their registration,” said Paul Calistro, executive director of Wilmington’s West End Neighborhood House, who is supporting Young’s campaign. “I think what you will get is a greater turnout. Will it sway the election? No.”

Young said he has spoken with voters outside the Democratic Party about making the switch, but he has not focused on it to the degree Purzycki has.

“If there is an independent who feels they should be involved in the process of this election because they want their vote to count, so be it,” Young said.

Marshall said he thinks the votes of many who switched are up for grabs.

“I am encouraged because I believe that when those who have switched read about my record, I will get part of that change in registration group,” Marshall said.

Likewise, Gregory believes the new Democrats were more motivated by angst toward the Williams’ administration than support for Purzycki. Courting voters across the aisle has not been a significant feature of his campaign, Gregory said, but he is now working to woo those who have switched.

“I do not think it is enough for [Purzycki] to pull ahead,” Gregory said. “I don’t think he is popular enough with Democrats, and I am not conceding votes [of those who switched].”

Mike Brown, a Republican City Council member, shamed his fellow Republicans behind the push to switch. He doesn’t like the practice of lobbying others to switch parties for a primary vote. But after seeing the push for Purzycki, Brown began advocating for others to do so in support of Gregory.

Brown believes the effort to recruit Republicans on behalf of Purzycki is a racially motivated ploy to diminish black leadership in the city.

“Race is behind this. African-Americans have been in charge of the top layer of government for 20 years,” Brown said. “For ’12, we were getting it right under Baker. Then we fell short for four years. That doesn’t give anybody the right to undermine the voting process.

“You have Mike Purzycki, who folks are looking to be the great white hope, to ride his great white horse with his great white hat and say, ‘I’m here to save Wilmington,'” said Brown, adding that he does not feel Purzycki has the city government experience needed to do the job.

Purzycki called the allegation “offensive” and said it “makes no sense.”

“All anybody wants is the city to be safe and it to function well and government to work,” Purzycki said. “Nobody cares about the race of the individuals. It has never come up for one minute.”

Cabrera said she doesn’t believe race is motivating the Purzycki push.

“I’d say it is more selfish because he wants to get those votes,” Cabrera said.

She noted race always plays a role in Wilmington elections. She is the only Latino candidate running for mayor. She said a feature of her campaign has been registering more Latinos to vote. Cabrera has also encouraged independents and Republicans to switch registration to support her, she said.

Williams did not return a phone call seeking comment about his campaign. But his campaign manager, Ed Osborne, said in his time working with Williams, there has never been a suggestion to pursue voters of another party.

“Mayor Williams will either win as a Democrat or lose as a Democrat,” Osborne said. “But in the end, he will have been loyal to his party and the Democrat voters in the city of Wilmington.”

Osborne said Purzycki’s attempt to win votes from Republicans is an underhanded trick.

“Being from a generation that still respects our Constitution and democracy, I have a big problem with Republicans and Democrats switching,” Osborne said. “If you can’t win as a Democrat, then maybe you should be running on the Republican ticket.”

Purzycki disagreed, saying local government should be divorced from party politics because local issues are typically not partisan. He said changing the system would allow more people to have their say in who leads.

“We have thousands of people that say, ‘OK, I’d like to switch’ and it is too late,” Purzycki said of the May deadline for switching party registration. “Some days you just wonder if we should even have partisan elections in municipal government.”

Kelley said the deadline to switch parties should be moved to August. He said it is time for multiple candidates to drop out of the race so voters can get a clearer picture of who can win and who has the best ideas.

You split the pot up enough, the mayor is liable to get back in,” Kelley said.

Ruggerio said there has been movement in the past to reform the primary system for more participation, but politics always got in the way. “The Democrats are in power right now,” Ruggerio said. “They look at things and say, ‘We have it pretty good, why would we mess with that?'” Though he feels the campaign on behalf of Purzycki increased the number of voters who switched, Ruggerio said picking a winner this early is a “crapshoot.” “I do think the race is up for grabs,” Ruggerio said.

Contact Xerxes Wilson at (302) 324-2787 or Follow @Ber_Xerxes on Twitter

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