Wilmington mayor charts his own path to Election Day
Adam Duvernay via The News Journal
Wednesday’s debate was unusual because of the police protest outside and the attendance of the man who is at the center of their grievances. Until the debate, there were few public campaign spectacles in Wilmington where police could have made their protest that also included Mayor Dennis P. Williams.
Williams’ appearance on stage for the WDEL/WHYY debate at the Delaware Technical Community College’s George Campus highlights an unusual strategy of invisibility the incumbent has deployed in his re-election bid, one that has drawn the contempt of his opponents.
“We chose today to come out here because the other candidates for mayor will be out here and we thought, armed with the information we had to offer, it would give them some food for thought, something to debate about,” said Harold Bozeman, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 1 in Wilmington, which this week cast a vote of no confidence in the mayor’s administration.
And though the debate’s audience was packed with vocal Williams supporters, many others have been looking for him at previous events.
“If you’re running for an office, you need to be there for everything, every debate so people can see you’re interested in the position, not just be mayor already and think they’re going to pick you again,” said Lorna James, a 41-year-old Wilmington resident who’s attended three debates.
But seeing Williams there Wednesday night didn’t draft her. James said the mayor’s behavior — which she called combative, disruptive and seemingly disinterested — “really wasn’t convincing to people who are trying to vote for the next mayor.”
Absence from the spotlight probably hasn’t hurt Williams’ re-election bid as much as his opponents would’ve hoped.
Confronted online in June about his refusal to appear beside his competitors, Williams made clear invisibility is strategy: “Why should I when all I will be is the punching bag? I will not get a word in because the deck is stacked against me.”
That wasn’t the case Wednesday.
Williams was aggressive in his approach and threw insults at candidates Mike Purzycki and Kevin Kelley when it was his turn to speak and during their answers.
“I’m battle-tested, ladies and gentlemen,” Williams said. “If you want someone who’s battle-tested, you’ll re-elect me. If you want one of these folks up here who’s telling you all this pie in the sky, vote for them.”
Williams has said his campaign strategy is about running on his record. Others defined it more simply as a political strategy of avoidance — let the other candidates split the vote while the incumbent rides the constituency that gave him victory in the first place.
“Dennis is a longtime elected official from the legislature and everything else. He was brought up knowing how to do this. Don’t take him lightly,” said former Board President of the Wilmington Economic and Financial Advisory Council Fred Sears. “Just looking at the numbers, I think he’s going to be very hard to beat. It’s only because somebody from the other seven has to step out.”
Those seven – City Council President Theo Gregory, City Councilwoman Maria Cabrera, former City Councilman Kelley, former City Council President Norm Griffiths, former Riverfront Development Corp. Executive Director Purzycki, Delaware Center for Justice Advocacy Director Eugene Young and state Sen. Bob Marshall – all have resisted withdrawing from the race.
Each showed up for a series of four News Journal debates to make their case for leadership and to berate Williams for perceived failures, though remarks often fell flat because they sparked no debate or tension.
No one got personal Wednesday except Williams, who at one point called Purzycki a slum lord and “Mr. Republican.” Without using a name, he accused one of his opponents of “already running for mayor 24 hours after I was sworn in.”
The debate format almost never allowed candidates to respond to each other, but looks of frustration appeared across the dais.
“Now is the time to change the politics of our city. As you can see evidenced from this debate today, we have to start moving in a different direction,” Young said in his closing statement.
The mayoral campaign has revolved around Wilmington’s crime problem best encapsulated by the now infamous moniker “Murder Town USA.”
“One clear message I’ve received going and meeting with Wilmingtonians in every neighborhood is that the No. 1 issue on everyone’s mind in this city is public safety and the lack of confidence in the way we police and deliver public safety,” Marshall said.
It’s a failure that belongs to the incumbent, his opponents argue. It’s one he does own, Williams campaign manager Ed Osborne argues, but only because progress has been slow, not nonexistent.
“He thought that he could solve this city’s crime problem. He really did. In his heart he thought he could do it, and it wasn’t just a campaign promise of empty words,” Osborne said.
Former Mayor Jim Baker’s campaign manager Rhett Ruggerio said he thinks Williams knows he didn’t live up to his own expectations on crime but is too deep in his campaign to change gears. “The patience level of the average Wilmingtonian is low on the crime problem,” Ruggerio said. “Everybody in Wilmington has been affected by crime in one way or another.”
Beyond the human cost, Purzycki pointed to crime as a deterrent to growth.
“We have a reputation that hurts us throughout this entire country. It’s very difficult to get people to come here and consider Wilmington when we have this terrible reputation for violence,” Purzycki said.
Griffiths couched resolution in terms of leadership: “There’s no doubt the mayor has to lead by example and actually be there. You have to be there to bring the neighborhoods together.”
And Gregory’s plan called on four simple points.
“Crime must be challenged on four fronts: prevention, intervention, law enforcement and re-entry,” Gregory said. “It all goes to leadership of the police department and leadership of the city of Wilmington.”
Williams argued he would continue his current policing efforts if re-elected, but some of his opponents want a different direction.
“We’re going to police smaller sectors so you get to know the police officers working in your area,” Cabrera said. “We’re going to use the tools to the full capacity we have.”
Others noted problems in policing that appear on both sides of the badge.
“Right now, I don’t believe there is a clear path and direction,” Kelley said. “I’ve been around a long while and we’ve never had this perfect storm where the police and fire departments at the same time have no confidence in their leadership.”
Despite splotches on his record, Ruggerio said Williams is a potent force in the mayoral race. “Don’t underestimate his tenaciousness in terms of campaigning. He works really hard,” Ruggerio said. “He connects well with people and he cares about the city.”
Wednesday, Williams touted thousands of new business licenses granted since he took office, his ability to keep the budget balanced despite too few dollars and his enthusiasm for reaching out to the city’s most vulnerable children.
Osborne rejected the idea Williams has purposefully avoided scrutiny by dodging public events.
“Dennis Williams has been working in this city for three-and-a-half years. He’s been working in all communities. If you look at the downtown business district today, you’ll see that it is 95 percent better than it was three-and-a-half years ago when he took over,” Osborne said.
But many voters have voiced otherwise, and Sears believes Williams is hedging his bet on loyal constituents.
“I definitely think he’s been invisible,” Sears said. “It’s a political strategy. He feels he’s done enough for the people that really count on him that they will continue to vote for him. If he’s got that confidence, if you think you’ve got enough votes in your pocket, maybe this is a strategy that works. It’s an unusual strategy, but far be it from me to say it might not work.”
One of those votes will belong to Earl Woodlen Jr., who runs the re-entry non-profit Harriet Tubman Safehouse. He’s ready to cast his second ballot for Williams in the Sept. 13. Democratic primary.
“I’m not going to jump ship on Mayor Williams,” Woodlen said.
Woodlen pointed to improvements in security downtown as an improvement for which Williams should be given credit, and he dismissed the idea Williams is an invisible candidate.
“I’ve seen him in the community. That’s how I got my sign. I saw him knocking on doors and I said, ‘I’m with you. I was with you last time and I’m with you now,’” Woodlen said. “He was out there knocking on doors all by himself on the East Side and all around.”
Osborne said what Woodlen described is his boss’s preferred campaigning method.
“He doesn’t show up for celebrity bartending. He doesn’t show up for cocktail parties. He doesn’t show up for media events. He does show up in the neighborhood where people need him the most,” Osborne said. “He’s always been about the people, the people he grew up with. He grew up on the East Side of Wilmington and he’s always been about his people, the African-American community.”
But it’s not just a message for black voters, Osborne said, and in his own way, Williams is making his case to the city as a whole.
“He’s reaching out to as many people as he can reach out to,” Osborne said. “He’s been in pretty much every section of the city.”
If that’s the case, Ruggerio wants to know why rumors of invisibility persist. “I haven’t seen it. If he has a message we haven’t heard about, it’s got to be more than just door to door,” Ruggerio said. “If I were him, I wouldn’t want to talk about what I have done, I’d want to talk about what I’m going to do.”
Contact Adam Duvernay at (302) 324-2785 or firstname.lastname@example.org.