Primary became a tipping point for political parties

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Mike Purzycki convinced about 1,250 Republicans and Independents to switch parties and vote for him.

by Kathy Canavan

Jim Baker, Bob Byrd, Charlie Copeland, John Daniello, Rich Heffron, Janet Kilpatrick and Larry Tarabicos — all longtime political observers — said there are new takeaways from the Sept. 13 primary.

The first primary since at least 1960 to feature eight candidates for mayor of Wilmington may have been a tipping point for political parties and for social media campaigns.

Some of the takeaways:

  • Incumbents beware.
  • Political parties are looking less necessary.
  • Social media moves thousands of local voters.
  • This year’s top contenders used the same strategies Mayor Dan Frawley used in 1984 and Gov. Jack Markell used in 2008.
  • While Delawareans think their state is small enough that candidates should knock on doors, Lisa Blunt Rochester’s campaign showed smart television buys can work, too. One insider said she spent more than $200,000 on TV in the last month of the campaign.
  • When about 1,250 Republicans and Independents switched their registrations to vote for Democrat Mike Purzycki, they may have unintentionally affected the county executive race results too.
  • Statewide, 1,737 Republicans switched to Democrat this year, although some jumped temporarily to vote in primaries.
  • The large number of candidates who stayed in until Election Day played havoc with the plans of candidates who thought they’d ultimately be in a two-or-three-person race. As former Wilmington Mayor Jim Baker put it, “Usually after a while, someone says, ‘Jeez, I know I’m not going to win. I better get out of this.’ This time, not one person moved. Some of them had to know the bell had already been rung.”
  • Even some Republican stalwarts crossed party lines to change the status quo. Jane Castle signed a letter suggesting Republicans switch their party affiliations to support Purzycki. Republican County Councilwoman Janet Kilpatrick said she volunteered for Democrat Matt Meyer’s county executive campaign. “The county has been in chaos for several years now, and we need to get back to a working government. I think we all have to look at the person. We should look for people who fit what government should be. In my mind, that doesn’t translate into only being Republican or only being Democrat,” Kilpatrick said.

What’s ahead for the city and the county if the Democrats sweep again in November?

“If it’s Carney and Purzycki and Meyer, they’ll work together pretty closely, because they all ran on the same thing — change in leadership, we need to be more open,” said A. Richard Heffron, president of the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce. “I know they’ve talked to each other already.”

Bob Byrd, current president of the lobbying firm The Byrd Group, who was first elected to the legislature in 1974 when he was 25, said he took two things from the results.

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Lisa Blunt Rochester captured nearly 44 percent of votes.

The first was the value of state-of-the-art, up-to-date social media as evidenced by the stunning vote totals for Sherry Dorsey Walker, Eugene Young and Lisa Blunt Rochester, who all ran social-media-savvy campaigns.  “In the future — and by the future I mean November — if you’re going to be in a close, contested election, you better figure out how to do that,” Byrd said.

The second was incumbents beware: “There’s a real anti-incumbency feeling out there. People are not happy. They threw out the county executive. They threw out the mayor, and they threw out a two-time insurance commissioner. I would not want to be a long-term incumbent running against a good candidate — I mean someone who’s young and aggressive and works hard and has money behind him. Take Tuesday as a wakeup call and work even harder between now and November. They need to be working at it and not taking it for granted.”

Several younger candidates made strong showings. Eugene Young, a relative unknown, bested veteran Councilman Kevin Kelley in the mayoral race and came within 234 votes of Purzycki. As Baker said, “He had good organization, money, supporters, social media. His problem was nobody really knew him.” Heffron said Young and Purzycki had the best organizations in the mayoral election.

City Councilman Darius Brown, 35, lost the city treasurer’s race to Velda Jones-Potter by just 3 percentage points. Justen Wright, 33, came within six points of winning the city council president seat.

Charlie Copeland, GOP state chairman, said he has hope for the general election with four young candidates who are working hard. “We’ve got some great millennial candidates,” he said. “Their average age is only slightly higher than the average tenure of the Democrats they’re running against.”

Meredith Chapman is challenging David P. Sokola in the 8th Senatorial District. Sokola took office in 1990. In the 14th, Carl Pace is challenging Bruce Ennis, first elected in 1982. In the 7th district, Anthony Delcollo is challenging Patricia Blevins, in the legislature since 1990. In the 1st district, James Spadola is challenging Harris McDowell III, who was first elected in 1976, seven years before Spadola was born.

“In New Castle County, we’re out-registered two to one, but these are good candidates who are working hard, and we’re going to knock on doors and see what happens,” Copeland said.

Candidates criticized Democratic State Chair John Daniello last July when he wrote a letter to all 63 Democrat candidates asking them to reconsider their runs for the health of the party, but Daniello said the primary proved him correct.

“What I predicted would happen, happened,” Daniello said. “A lot of people overestimated their ability to get it done. They spent a lot of money. Take the lieutenant governor’s race. When it’s totaled up, for what amounts to a part-time position really, over a half million dollars has been spent, if you put the six candidates together. That’s not necessary, as far as I’m concerned.”

Daniello said he’s concerned that self-nominated politicians might eventually create a climate where only candidates with their own money can run. “If we’re not careful, and I might not be around to see it, but it gets pretty bad when the main requirement to run for office is ‘I’ve got money.’ Then we won’t see a Joe Biden or a Tom Carper or a John Carney,” he said.

Kilpatrick, a Hockessin Republican, said self-nominating candidates can bring fresh ideas into the political mix and they often have a drive to accomplish goals that don’t necessarily materialize when politicians talk a candidate into running.

Observers said they saw some of the primary results coming, but they didn’t foresee some surprises:

  • Sherry Dorsey Walker capturing almost 22 percent of the vote in a six-way race for lieutenant governor with savvy social media and upstate-downstate door knocking.
  • The large margin of Rochester’s win in the lieutenant governor race. She captured nearly 44 percent of the votes in a six-person race, thanks to heavy name recognition, a strong organization, target social media and effective television ads.
  • Tom Gordon’s inability to hold on to his county executive job. “I thought he would squeeze it out in the end, but the numbers caught up with him,” Byrd said.

Heffron said he thought Gordon would win too, but he said a Gordon staffer’s negative tweet about Meyers just before the election was a tipoff.  “Usually when you see nasty stuff coming out from a candidate, that tells you they think they’re in trouble,” he said.

The fact that Mayor Dennis Williams had seven opponents showed lots of dissatisfaction within the city, Baker said. “A lot of people were just trying to find a candidate that could win,” he said.

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James Spadola’s opponent Harris McDowell III took office seven years before Spadola was born.

“I think Mike’s [Purzycki] a very smart guy and I think he’s going to get good people around him,” the former mayor said. “I don’t think he knows the full extent of the problems though. There’s no money to pay the city contracts that have been signed.” 

Baker said the city’s union contracts and water and sewer costs will hit so hard that a new administration won’t be able to pay for everything even if they used all the reserve funds and raised taxes 10 percent. “There is no way they can pay their way out of this,” Baker said. “And they have at least seven or eight new council members coming in. The last thing those new members want to hear is, ‘I’m going to raise taxes’ or ‘I’m going to raise water and sewer.’”

While crime is the problem that makes the headlines, Baker said the solution should start with preschoolers — not police. “We added more police than any other administration in the history of the city, “the former mayor said. “It doesn’t change the reality. Police are after the fact. Wilmington police arrest an average of 13,000 people a year. Does it change anything? No. Violence can only be addressed if you address young children.”

“The idea that we’re going to make a positive business climate by changing things is not going to work,” said Larry Tarabicos, a land development attorney whose family ran a business on Market Street for almost a century. “The first step is fixing it for the people who are there now, people who have stuck it out all these years. They’re struggling. They need jobs. They need security. They need public safety. They need good education for their children, and that doesn’t exist now. It’s a shame that we spend money on bike trails for wealthy people while we have people right here living in horrible poverty and conditions no American should live in. It’s easy for people to turn to crime when they can’t support their families on the jobs that are available.”

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