Wilmington mayoral race may have crowded field
By Jenna Pizzi, The News Journal
Democrats aren’t rolling out the red carpet for Wilmington Mayor Dennis P. Williams to waltz easily into a second term as chief executive. Former City Council members Norman Griffiths and Kevin Kelley have announced plans to challenge Williams in a primary contest next year, and political observers expect more will enter the field before the end of the year.
“I think people feel that everything is not right,” said James M. Baker, a Democrat who served three terms as mayor before leaving because of term limits, in 2013. Baker said he expects a tough fight within his party.
The primary contest is Sept. 13, 2016, with the winner facing a possible GOP challenger in the general election on Nov. 8, 2016. So far, no Republicans have entered the race or publicly announced they are exploring seeking the position. A representative from the state GOP did not immediately return a request for comment.
On the Democratic side, City Council President Theo Gregory, Councilwoman Maria Cabrera and Eugene Young, advocacy director for the Delaware Center for Justice, also have said they are considering jumping into the contest.
Williams, a former police officer who served in the state House from 1995 to 2013, said he welcomes competition and deserves a second term.
“People want the job,” he said. “They want to do what I do and they have a right to run, so we will see.”
Kelley, a former councilman who ran against Williams in the primary in 2012, said the interest highlights the need for change at City Hall. Both Kelley and Griffiths have said they plan to make public safety and Williams’ leadership style major parts of their campaigns.
“It is a very large field and the reason is that many of us do not have any confidence in the current administration,” he said.
Said, Griffiths, who also served on the City Council for 20 years: “It seems to me that the city is in such a state that there needs to be some concrete direction.”
The deadline for filing to run is next September. The mayor makes $113,016 a year.
Williams also had a crowded primary in the last election, with five candidates seeking the nomination, the most in two decades. While popular Wilmington mayors including James Sills and Daniel Frawley faced more than one primary challenger in bids for re-election, Baker faced no opposition in the primary for his second term in 2004 and one primary opponent in 2008.
“There was no serious candidate,” said Rhett Reggerio, who ran several campaigns for Baker and has since become a lobbyist. “Baker also had a considerable amount of support in his campaign chest that scared off candidates.”
The 2012 contest featured the first open mayoral seat in 12 years, and Williams secured the party nomination by 1,100 votes. With this election, Ruggerio said crime will be the major issue. Twenty people have been killed and 100 injured in 89 shootings this year as of Friday. Concern about crime prompted the General Assembly to create a state commission to propose public safety improvements. Williams has been criticized for not implementing some of the suggestions. “These guys, they see an opportunity and rightfully so,” Ruggerio said. “If you are a city resident that would be the No. 1 issue and for the challengers when you read the headlines about murder they say, there is an opportunity for me to run.'” Ruggerio said he expects the Wilmington business community to play a major role in the race, since the economy is shaping up into such a hot topic.
Samuel B. Hoff, a Delaware State University political science professor, said Williams was slow to put in place a policing plan or get a handle on violent crime, which will become a campaign issue.
“I think Dennis came into that office thinking that his direct experience as a detective would really be a lot of help in solving the crime problem and all of its sources, and unfortunately I think that really became something that almost eclipsed his ability to deal with it for a certain amount of time,” he said.
Hoff said violence is an issue in many urban areas in the country and credited Williams for program such as Operation Disrupt, a policing effort to halt violent crime by reassigning officers from other duties and putting them on the streets.
Williams was more successful in resolving issues with the city’s finances and relations with City Council, Hoff said. Williams butted heads with council members and Gregory, especially over disagreements over the city budget. Hoff said it seems Williams and City Council have since learned to work together, with this year’s budget negotiations going smoothly.
Hoff said Williams has also improved his relationship with the business community, who criticized the mayor for skipping meetings or failing to respond to requests.
“It is one of those cases where it is hard not to learn on the job and he has certainly been able to improve those relations,” Hoff said.
From his perspective, Hoff said Williams has a good chance of winning re-election, given his advantage as an incumbent and ability to adjust to challenges.
“What I saw was a person who had a little trouble moving from the legislative area to the executive area,” said Hoff. “I think there were a number of shortcomings and others where he learned on the job.”
Baker also said a crowded primary could be beneficial for Williams, who has a leg up on his challengers because he is an incumbent. The more candidates in the race, the fewer votes are needed to win a majority, he said.
Challengers need to prove they have a vision for the future, he said.
“They have to show they know what needs to be done and what they are going to do about the issues,” Baker said. “You’ve got three strong candidates right now who have good ability to campaign, so I don’t know if you could say who has the real edge, except to say the incumbent.”
Wilmington mayoral race
Three candidates have announced plans to run for mayor of Wilmington, and three more have said they are considering campaigns. The deadline to submit paperwork to run is next September.
Status: Considering running
Background: Elected to Wilmington City Council at-large seat in 2012
Status: Considering running, formed campaign committee
Background: Elected to Wilmington City Council as at-large candidate in 1984 and in 2012 was elected as council president
Status: Running for mayor
Occupation: Retired from DuPont
Background: 20 years on Wilmington City Council, 16 representing the 2nd district and four as president
Status: Running for mayor
Occupation: Division director for the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services
Background: Served on Wilmington City Council for 20 years representing the 6th district
Dennis P. Williams
Status: Running for re-election
Background: A former Wilmington police detective and served 17 years in the state Legislature representing North Wilmington; elected mayor in 2012
Status: Considering running for mayor
Occupation: Advocacy Director for the Delaware Center for Justice
Background: Co-founded the nonprofit Delaware Elite to help student athletes become successful in college and previously worked as an aide to U.S. Sen. Cory Booker