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Eric Papenfuse makes it official; he will run for a third term as Harrisburg’s mayor by write-in

PennLive.com logo PennLive.com 9/15/2021 Charles Thompson, pennlive.com
Eric Papenfuse smiling for the camera: Mayor Eric Papenfuse will launch a write-campaign for a third term as Harrisburg mayor, seeking a rematch against Democratic nominee Wanda Williams this fall. Republican Timothy Rowbottom will also be on the ballot. © Charles Thompson | cthompson/pennlive.com Mayor Eric Papenfuse will launch a write-campaign for a third term as Harrisburg mayor, seeking a rematch against Democratic nominee Wanda Williams this fall. Republican Timothy Rowbottom will also be on the ballot.

Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse, the one-time outsider who helped spark a movement that turned Harrisburg’s insider-dominated city government on its head in the first decade of this century, has decided that he wants to get a second opinion from voters this fall on the question of whether the Papenfuse era at City Hall should now be over.

The incumbent, who narrowly lost a five-way Democratic primary race to City Council President Wanda Williams in May, said Tuesday that he thinks no one won a clear mandate in the spring, and the city’s voters — including independents and Republicans as well as the majority Democrats — should get a fresh chance to make a final choice in November.

He said he’ll offer that choice through a write-in campaign, which he expects formally launch Wednesday.

Williams and Papenfuse finished one-two this spring, with Williams winning 1,791 votes (28.85%), to Papenfuse’s 1,745 (28.1%). Timothy Rowbottom was unopposed for the Republican nomination and will also appear on the general election ballot, though the GOP is in a severe minority position in the city.

Papenfuse painted that choice between he and his opponents, but especially Williams, in stark and personal terms Tuesday, just as he often did when he began taking on the old “Reed Machine” 14 years ago.

“I’m concerned that the city will collapse under a Williams administration,” Papenfuse said. “There will be corruption. And everything that we’ve fought to achieve for the city over the last eight years will be undone. I think the voters need a choice, and I’m prepared to offer them a choice in the fall.”

Williams declined to comment when reached by PennLive Tuesday afternoon; she indicated her campaign would be issuing a statement on Wednesday.

In the past, however, she has called Papenfuse’s intimations that she is controlled by allies of former Mayor Stephen R. Reed’s power base as outrageous, and countered that her alliances with old Reed friends like businessman and former magisterial district judge James Pianka are no different than Papenfuse’s current political alliances with several of the city’s leading real estate developers.

Williams has one large advantage in the general election campaign: By virtue of her primary win, she holds the Democratic Party’s slot on the fall ballot.

She has been running less on policy and more on her record of community service and lived experience in Harrisburg: A city native, she’s spent a career in state government; and boasts 20 years in public service between stints on the school board and City Council. She’s also felt the acute sting of the city’s gun violence problem, having lost a granddaughter in an open-air shooting in 2013.

Williams, 67, says her demonstrated concern for all of the city’s residents — including many in neighborhoods that she and her rivals charged have become somewhat forgotten by the Papenfuse administration — make her the best candidate to take over City Hall. She also seeks to become the second Black mayor in what is a majority Black city (51.5 percent, according to 2020 Census counts).

Papenfuse, by contrast, is a white Maryland native who came to Harrisburg by way of Yale University, and found success and a community platform after opening the Midtown Scholar bookstore with his wife, Catherine Lawrence.

Papenfuse, 50, served briefly on the board of the Harrisburg Authority before resigning in protest over the state of the city incinerator’s finances and another planned borrowing. At that point, he became a voice for reform in Harrisburg and ran unsuccessfully for council and county commissioner before breaking through in the 2013 mayoral race with a primary win over incumbent Mayor Linda Thompson and then-City Controller Dan Miller.

In the coming campaign, Papenfuse will not only have to convince more Harrisburgers to vote for him than did in the spring, but in doing so he will have to quickly educate them on the intricacies of casting a write-in ballot — the first mail-in ballots for the general election could be sent out before the end of this month.

Still, Papenfuse does have the name recognition that comes with eight years in office, and he has brought one of his primary rivals, Otto V. Banks, onto his team.

Just Monday, Papenfuse named Banks to the vacant economic development director post at City Hall.

Papenfuse said he will base his revived campaign on three planks: His return of fiscal stability to city government; his insistence on ethics in government after years of what he has termed pay-to-play; and what he says has is a proven ability to work with Republicans who control the Dauphin County courthouse and the Pennsylvania Legislature.

All, he said he believes, have helped nurture a still-fragile comeback for Harrisburg that, as he argued this spring, is on the cusp of reaching the next level, but that could also be blown apart if city government falls into the wrong hands.

“My whole motivation for running (for office) in the first place was to save Harrisburg from collapse and offer a path for a stable future. I mean, it was very dark days at that time,” Papenfuse said Tuesday. “And when I feel that that can all be easily reversed, I feel obligated to stay.”

This week’s announcement is a far cry from the telephoned congratulations Papenfuse offered Williams on primary election night, when he pledged to “do everything I can to make sure that we have a smooth and seamless transition.” They didn’t connect personally that night, however, and by all accounts, have done little talking since.

Papenfuse and Williams have never been close, but their relationship has deteriorated since the primary.

One of the breaking points, Papenfuse has said, has been council’s failure to move forward on a debt refinancing deal that the mayor proposed as the logical next step in the city’s financial recovery. And he also is incensed at what he calls Williams’ failure to engage with him this summer on the use of more than $20 million in federal pandemic relief funds.

Beyond the policy differences, the two rivals haven’t even been able to agree to meet.

So now, Papenfuse said, the concession is over, and a new campaign is on.

“Now, this is going to be my last term. I still see the goal of this term to lead to an orderly transition” to a next generation of leaders, Papenfuse said Tuesday. “But I don’t think Wanda Williams, as successor, is in the best interests of the city and that ultimately outweighs any desire I have to go back to private life.”

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