Benefitting from connections made in 20 years of involvement in city politics, Harrisburg City Council President Wanda Williams will ride through the Democratic mayoral primary campaign with the endorsement of the party committeemen and women from the city’s wards.
Williams, the last to enter the race, is enjoying the win, which marks the first party endorsement for a mayoral primary in Harrisburg since 2009. But some of her opponents said the endorsement owed to special factors, and all contended that it’s not likely to be a decisive factor in the race.
The committee members’ vote, which occurred last Saturday but had not been publicly announced until today, came down to a two-person choice between her and incumbent Mayor Eric Papenfuse.
That’s because, County Democratic Party Chair Rogette Harris said, two of the candidates in the five-way Democratic primary – former Republicans Otto Banks and David Schankweiler – have not been registered Democratic voters for the two consecutive years needed to be eligible for the party endorsement.
A third, Kevyn Knox, did not participate in the process.
With the endorsement vote paired down to Papenfuse and Williams, among this crowd the city council president is the one who has built the connections. While no formal vote totals were released by the party, Harris noted Williams cleared the necessary 60 percent threshold to capture the endorsement.
“I’m honored to get the endorsement of the Democratic Party, a party I believe in and have been a member of my adult life,” Williams said when reached about the endorsement this week. “I want to thank all of my supporters, and look forward to a great victory on election day.”
Papenfuse and his allies said they weren’t surprised by the result, and they expect it to have little impact on the May 18 result.
Papenfuse, who is seeking a third term as mayor, argued the city committee slots are a last refuge for longtime Democratic activists who were allies of former Mayor Stephen R. Reed, and they’ve never had an easy relationship with him.
“They blame me for bringing him (Reed) down, and I think it just further emphasizes the point that Wanda Williams is a part of Harrisburg’s political past, and it’s not a past that we want to go backwards to,” Papenfuse said.
“To me, it doesn’t matter very much,” he said of the party’s endorsement of Williams.
Papenfuse contended he’s building strong support from organized labor and business interests that are working to create new economic growth in the city. The committee members in Harrisburg, he said, are “just a bunch of old politicos who have stayed past their time… It’s not a machine which delivers or will make any difference on Election Day.”
Banks and Schankweiler were quick to point out that the registration rule left them handcuffed from the start, and they want a second opinion from the city’s voters.
“I’m looking at it as it’s got to go to the voters,” said Schankweiler, the retired founder of the publishing company that gave birth to Central Penn Business Journal and other publications.
“I’m the newcomer among all of us, and I look back over these years (that Papenfuse and Williams have been in office) and say, you know, the shooting hasn’t stopped, the streetlights aren’t fixed, the city needs to be cleaned up… There’s issues out there and the issues haven’t been solved with the current people in place.”
Banks’ campaign released this statement to PennLive, on behalf of the onetime city councilman who went on to serve as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Economic Development in former President George W. Bush’s Housing and Urban Development Department:
“We appreciate the opportunity to interview with the Dauphin County Democratic Committee. While we are disappointed to not gain the endorsement, we are committed to moving forward on our journey to engage further with the voters, whose voices matter now more than ever.
“While we must continue to honor the traditions of longstanding organizations like the DCDC, we are also mindful that such traditions are examples of old systems that maintain a longstanding status quo which inhibits progress and limits fresh approaches to leadership. I am hopeful that an infusion of new ideas to these older traditions will help them evolve to meet the needs of a more progressive and inclusive system for nominations to occur in the future.”
Papenfuse supporters on the committee noted this week that the last time the city committee members endorsed in a mayoral primary, committee favorite and seven-term incumbent Reed was upset by then-City Councilwoman Linda Thompson in the 2009 primary.
In addition, more than a third of the Democratic committee slots in the city are currently unfilled.
Even so, there will be some tangible benefits for Williams. With the endorsement, Harris said, WIlliams’ name will appear on committee mailers and slate cards with other party-endorsed candidates.
Papenfuse, Banks and Schankweiler, meanwhile, all say they have the resources to get their message out through the next two months.
Schankweiler, whose campaign committee reported having $57,000 on hand as of the end of 2020, has been on the air with television commercials for several weeks. Papenfuse’s committee had just under $52,000 on hand, according to its year-end filing. Williams and Banks had no 2020 fundraising to report.
Efforts to reach Knox, general manager of the Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center, were not successful for this report.
The committee members also endorsed three Democratic candidates for city council: Shamaine Daniels, Crystal Davis and Ralph Rodriguez.