Wilmington mayor, without a mandate

Jenna Pizzi via The News Journal

Wilmington is by far Delaware’s largest city, both by population and influence over the rest of the state.

From the ninth floor of the City/County Building, its mayor can look out over a city of more than 71,000 residents and thousands more who commute in to work at its banking offices, corporate headquarters and dozens of small businesses.

For any politician to win statewide or national office, he or she needs to carry the city and its strong Democratic base.

But, historically, to win election as the city’s mayor and govern its diverse neighborhoods and constituencies, the winner has needed support by only about 6 percent of its residents, or roughly 4,400 votes.

“It concentrates the future of the city into the hands of the few, and we are not getting the broad-based support for a candidate that the city really needs,” said Scott Spencer, a Triangle resident who lost his bid for mayor in 2012.

Since 1956, when Democrats swept all the city races for the first time since the Great Depression, politics in Wilmington have been dominated by the Democratic Party. In a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 5 to 1, the primary is when leaders are chosen – not the general election.

The problem is that so few people show up to the voting booths for mayoral primaries.

Even though Wilmington mayoral elections are in the same years as presidential elections, the primaries for the two races are at different times. The presidential primary is in the spring, and the mayoral primaries are in late August or early September.

This year, there are seven Democratic candidates. If each were to receive about the same number of votes, technically and based on previous elections, someone could win with just 1,635 votes, depending on final voter totals.

In a city of more than 71,000.

The math is not lost on the candidates.

Back in 2012, just a month before the September primary, a coalition of community groups, including some from the Highlands, Forty Acres and Delaware Avenue neighborhoods, hosted a mayoral debate.

While four candidates took their seats at the front of the room at the Delaware Art Museum that Monday evening in August, there was one noticeably empty chair: State Rep. Dennis P. Williams, a favorite in the race, was missing.

Williams, who would go on to win the primary a few weeks later with 4,244 votes, was on the other side of town holding a rally for peace in an East Side park after a homicide.

Some critics said Williams didn’t show because he knew he wouldn’t win votes in the area where the debate was held, the city’s 4th District. Instead, he chose to spend his time that night in the 2nd District, which has more registered voters.

It is well known in city political circles that voter turnout is strongest in the 1st District, the northwest area that includes the Ninth Ward and Triangle. By winning the 1st and 2nd Districts, Williams easily won the primary and skated through the general election.

Political veterans and strategists say this kind of voter mathematics is essential to winning elections in Wilmington.

Of the city’s 71,525 residents, 50,329 are registered to vote, with 35,916 registered as Democrats and 5,946 Republican. In 2012’s primary, 31 percent, or 11,014 eligible voters, went to the polls.

“As a candidate, you have to know those numbers very well,” said former Mayor James Baker about the sort of analysis that goes into running a successful campaign.

This phenomenon – where mayors are elected without winning a majority of the vote – is an issue in many big cities, especially on the East Coast where Democrats dominate and low voter turnout for primaries is the norm.

Changing the election process is difficult and politically unpalatable. Efforts to “fix” this have focused on increasing turnout in the primaries.

If everyone who has declared for Wilmington’s mayoral race stays in through the summer, Williams will be joined on the ballot by current 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; newcomer Eugene Young; and Mike Purzycki, head of the city’s Riverfront Development Corp.

The field offers a mix of public service, private sector experience and candidates with varying backgrounds in elected office.

The more candidates who run, the fewer votes, potentially, one would need to win.

“Because everyone and their mother is running for mayor, that piece of the pie is starting to get pretty slim,” said Rhett Ruggerio, a Delaware lobbyist who ran mayoral campaigns for Baker.

The unspoken assumption is that if you win an election, you have a mandate or majority of support. However, in 2012, facing four challengers, Williams won with just 38 percent. With the current number of registered voters, a candidate would need 4,346 ballots, amounting to 6 percent of all city residents, to get the same backing Williams had three years ago.

“The number of people who will elect the next mayor of Wilmington will certainly be a minority,” said Griffiths, a retired attorney from DuPont who got his start as a police officer in Washington, D.C.

East Side resident Gladys B. Spikes, 68, said this trend is very concerning to her.

“They are violating the fact that I walked on the picket line and fought for this,” said Spikes, who said she always makes it a point to go cast her ballot. “People are taking advantage of it.”

A winning strategy

Having run five citywide elections previously, including a few narrow, contested races, Griffiths said he knows that every voter, every interaction counts from now until the polls close.

“It is more important than ever that after you have finished all of your canvassing, that you don’t just let the ball drop right then and there,” Griffiths said. “You have got to go back and continue to remind folks that not only are you in the race but that you need their support on Election Day.”

Ruggerio suggests running a campaign in Wilmington as if you were in a small town like Bridgeville, a Sussex County town with a population of about 2,000.

“Go door to door and talk to Mrs. Jones and see where she is leaning,” Ruggerio said. “You have got to make it that personalized. You can conceivably win this race with 1,500 votes, and you could knock on half that amount of doors.”

Each candidate has his own style. Some offer to drive or bus voters to their polling places. Others pay people a small fee to wear a shirt or stand on a busy street holding campaign signs or go door to door to hand out fliers. Robocalls are another way to remind voters, but candidates have to be careful not to annoy their supporters into the hands of another candidate.

Even candidates who are struggling to raise money for expensive outreach like television and radio ads can easily invest in some shoe leather, said former Mayor James Sills.

“When I ran for mayor in 1992 in the primary against [incumbent] Dan Frawley, he had a $100,000 budget, but I had a $30,000 budget,” Sills said. “I spent months knocking on doors, and I think that had a great deal to do with my winning.”

Baker, the city’s first three-term mayor, said his first stop on any campaign was to check the voting records to compile a list of those who had voted in the last three or four elections.

Baker said he often found success in the northern and western rims of the city, with the most dependable votes in the Ninth Ward and Brandywine Hills neighborhoods. In those areas, where established families have lived for decades, there is a larger number of homeowners who have purchased their mid-sized houses built for mid-income residents in the middle of the last century. Most residents there don’t pull into a driveway, but into a parking spot on the street in front of their house.

Southbridge, an area that has seen a steep decrease in crime as investments were made over the last few years, is also an important area for a serious candidate, Baker said. Residents there are civically involved and invested in the future of their neighborhood, which is isolated from the rest of the city’s east side by the Christina River.

Winning both of these areas led Williams to victory. He secured 2,096 votes in the northwest section of the city and another 983 on the East Side.

James Rollins, who lives a few blocks from Williams’ house in the Ninth Ward, said he can always tell when an election is coming up because politicians start coming around and passing out fliers.

“You will know,” said Rollins, 61. “They will come knocking on your door. That is just the way it is in politics.”

Angie Lee voted for Williams in 2012, but isn’t convinced he should be re-elected.

“I’m looking at my options,” said Lee, who came out of her house on the 3100 block of N. Van Buren St. last week to walk her dog, Nee Nee. “The crime has gotten worse it seems, but I’m not too sure. I’m torn.”

Lee, 45, said she will be paying attention to what the candidates say about crime because she is worried about the future of the city for her 17-year-old son.

While candidates said they try to solicit votes throughout the whole city, some areas are given priority because they have the largest number of dependable voters.

Many of these areas, with their tightly spaced row homes, are easy to campaign in, Ruggerio said.

“You can go knock on the door, talk to someone for a few minutes, step 10 feet away and knock on another,” he said.

In areas like the Highlands, where expansive homes are separated by large yards and long brick walks lead to the front door, it is not as efficient.

Baker said Williams has a leg up on his challengers next year because he is the incumbent. In addition to having the advantage of being in the news, he is able to use city funds for things like billboards.

“Jim Sills put up all these billboards with people thanking him for getting them housing,” said Baker about the 2000 election when he successfully challenged Sills, an incumbent. Baker noted that Williams has a number of billboards up around the city right now encouraging kids to stay in school.

“It is free money to campaign,” Baker said.

Voters from your own backyard

In Wilmington, candidates often lean on their base for support.

Williams’ 2012 win was secured thanks to the strength of his own neighborhood in the Ninth Ward and his former state legislative district, which covers the 1st District.

In the 2012 Democratic primary, about half of William’s’ votes came from this area.

The trend was true for other candidates, too.

Kelley was strongest on the West Side, his former council district. Bill Montgomery was strong in the northwest, where he lived.

“You’ve got people with real name recognition, real experience in the city,” Ruggerio said.

Although many of the candidates running in 2016 acknowledge that they have pockets of support, all say they will campaign citywide.

Williams declined to talk about his strategy in 2012 or if he will change his approach as the incumbent.

“You are trying to find what my magic is,” he said. “You will see then, when the primary begins.”

Going into this campaign season, Kelley said his strategy is to try to swing voters who “know” they made the wrong choice four years ago.

“You still target your base, but you try to get people who were maybe on the fence to realize and remind them that you ran last time and they have a second chance to get it right,” said Kelley, who works as a division director for the Delaware Department of Health and Human Services..

Young, whose experience in politics comes from his time alongside U.S. Sen. Cory Booker from New Jersey and working for the state Legislature, has built his campaign on going door-to-door and having direct interaction with residents.

“There is essentially no base,” said Young, who has never held elected office or been a candidate. “Wilmington is your base and that goes hand in hand with our message of representing the entire city.”

With so many candidates with strongholds in so many different areas, he said he can’t consider their bases, but just try to get as many people on his team as possible.

He is not the only one with that approach.

“I’m going after it all,” Marshall said. “I’m an optimist.”

Marshall said he believes Williams will have to change his strategy this time around because of his poor performance in office over the last four years.

“His base has probably been compromised significantly just by the common sense human disappointment,” Marshall said. “Had the mayor’s record been strong on public safety as he had indicated when he sought the position four years ago, you probably wouldn’t have the high level of competition you see today.”

Griffiths said he plans to attack the heart of his opponents’ base.

“I will go right into the stronghold of my opponent,” Griffiths said. “I’m not scared of anybody.”

Purzycki did not return calls for comment.

Not just a Wilmington thing

Low voter turnout is a problem everywhere. There are many theories as to why Americans have a low appetite to flex their political muscle at the polls, but regardless it is a national trend, said Paul Brewer, professor of political science and communication at the University of Delaware.

In cities like Wilmington, where one party dominates the political spectrum, it is even more apparent because even fewer people turnout for primary elections.

Brewer pointed to Philadelphia where this year the city’s Democratic mayoral primary saw the lowest voter turnout in history with only 234,000 of 806,000 registered Democrats casting a ballot. The race, where six candidates faced off for the party’s nomination, also set a record for the most money ever spent on an election in that city.

“In those low-turnout elections, it doesn’t take much to win,” Brewer said.

To try to get around these problems and create a more representative democracy, proposals have popped up over the years to have open primaries, where anyone from any party can vote, or have a runoff election, where the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, face off in the general election.

In Louisiana, the state has a nonpartisan primary, often referred to as the jungle primary, where everyone running for an office faces off and the top two vote-getters meet again in a runoff election. This form of election leaves voters with a choice, but it is not without its problems.

“It does lead to some other weird quirks,” Brewer said.

In 1991, Louisiana voters were dissatisfied with incumbent Gov. Buddy Roemer, a moderate who had switched his part affiliation from Republican to Democrat during his term in office. Roemer was faced with two major opponents in the primary – David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and Edwin Edwards, an embattled former governor who was at the center of several corruption scandals. Duke and Edwards garnered more votes than Roemer.

“Then you have two bad choices,” Brewer said.

Edwards won because people would rather choose a crooked politician over a clansman, Brewer said.

“That system has not caught on elsewhere because the problems it creates are sometimes worse than the issues it solves,” he said.

Even if there was a push for a new electoral system in Wilmington, it would be difficult, likely requiring a charter change, which would have to be approved by the state Legislature.

“To do that it requires widespread agreement and breaking with tradition,” Brewer said. “It would be a very big deal.”

Contact Jenna Pizzi at jpizzi@delawareonline.com or (302) 324-2837. Follow her on Twitter @JennaPizzi.