The lively field for the Democratic Party’s nomination for mayor of Harrisburg grew by one more candidate Tuesday, with the entry of Otto V. Banks, a 50-year-old native son of the city who presented himself as an experienced and accomplished public servant, ready and eager to lead the place that gave him his start.
Banks joins a field that now includes David Schankweiler, founder and former CEO and owner of Journal Multimedia, which is perhaps best-known locally for its Central Penn Business Journal, and Lewis Butts Jr., a former state employee and community activist.
That field is still expected to include incumbent Mayor Eric Papenfuse, who told PennLive by text in December that he intends to seek a third term, but who has not yet formally launched his campaign.
Banks, in a bow to pandemic politics and this week’s snowstorm, made his announcement virtually, through the premiere of a brief biographical film in which he narrated both his personal story, and the story of the city that he grew up in, cut his political teeth on, and hopes to now return to lead.
There is no doubt that Banks brings a strong resume to the race.
Elected to Harrisburg’s City Council in 2001, Banks served one term before making a much-discussed switch to the Republican Party. It was a switch that — in a heavily-Democratic city at a time when then-Mayor Stephen R. Reed still could effectively push his “Reed Team” slates — cost Banks his bid for a second term.
Banks received an appointment to President George W. Bush’s Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2006. He served in several senior management spots there before returning to Harrisburg to serve as executive director of the REACH Foundation, which is dedicated to raising tuition scholarships designed to help low-income and minority families statewide have more choice in what schools their children attend.
In his campaign video, Banks explained his switch back to the Democratic Party last year, saying he couldn’t in good conscience remain in a party that was allowing itself to be led by a person, in former President Donald J. Trump, who Banks came to believe was a racist.
At this point, Banks said, he is a proud Democrat but also someone whose record shows that he is ready and willing to work with Democrats, Republicans and Independents for the greater good.
Banks couched his coming campaign as one that is a crusade for Harrisburg to not only reach its potential economically and socially, but to do that while making sure that the benefits of that growth are distributed evenly throughout the city’s various neighborhoods, instead of a select few.
That includes, he said, a heavy focus on creating new affordable housing in the Uptown, Allison Hill and South Side districts, growing local businesses to increase employment, addressing infrastructure needs and cracking down on absentee and neglectful landlords and illegal dumping.
“These are not ambitious goals,” Banks said. “These are the basic expectations that each of us are entitled to have in a shared vision of our city…
“Harrisburg needs a mayoral candidate who is not only from here, but is clearly understanding of the needs of this community, and is willing and prepared to address those needs on day one,” Banks said.
“I won’t be an absentee mayor who ignores the needs of the community, nor do I need to conduct a survey to understand issues that have plagued our community for over fifty years,” he said, in a pointed shot at both Papenfuse and Schankweiler, the latter of which launched his campaign with a civic survey to help formulate his platform.
“I don’t know about you,” Banks said, “but I cannot accept leadership that allows my expectations to languish, my voice to fall on deaf ears, or my needs to be disregarded because in their eyes, I just don’t matter.”
Though Banks has been back in the midstate since 2009, his candidacy is very literally a homecoming; Dauphin County records show that Banks, who had been living in Swatara Township, purchased a home in the 1200 block of South 19th Street in August of 2020, and moved his address for voter registration purposes there in September.
That would appear to put Banks in line to qualify with residency requirements to serve as mayor of the city.
But in many ways, Banks said in his announcement Tuesday, his heart has never left, and he is eager now to put the benefits of his experiences in city, regional and the federal government to use to help Harrisburg become a better version of itself.
The Democratic primary is often decisive in Harrisburg, because of the party’s overwhelming voter registration edge in the city, where the current population is estimated at 49,271.
This spring’s primary is scheduled for May 18.