Watching Mike Purzycki win the Democrat nomination for mayor of Wilmington — tantamount to election — brought to mind my last conversation with the late great Mayor Daniel S. Frawley, who died at 50 in 1994, just a year after leaving office.
Mayor Frawley did not have a casual, nuanced or subtle bone in his entire body. Conversations occurred with the vigor that one would expect of a lifelong rugby player and pick-up basketball player.
His face would move within inches of your own, and the vigor would only become more intense, not relaxed.
“Damned News Journal,” Frawley told me in our last conversation, when he saw me and crossed the street to buttonhole me, remembering my News Journal political journalism pedigree of the 1970s.
“What’s the matter, Dan,” I asked as his towering 6-foot-5 frame loomed over me like a principal intimidating a schoolboy.
“Damn it,” he said. “The News Journal keeps calling Sills Wilmington’s ‘first black mayor,’” he ranted, referring to Mayor Jim Sills Sr., the University of Delaware urban affairs professor and son of a sharecropper who challenged and beat Frawley in the September 2002 primary election for what would have been Frawley’s third term.
“Well, Dan, he is Wilmington’s first black mayor,” I replied.
“Damn it,” he said. “They should be calling me Wilmington’s ‘last white mayor!’,” he said, nearly yelling, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world.
Funny story — and I cleaned up his even more profane language, I still remember it and can picture it to this day. A couple of years after Dan’s passing just months after that street-corner conversation, I mentioned it to his widow Bonnie, assuming she heard that rant from Dan, that perhaps it was his favorite of the week or month. “No,” she told me, “I’ve never heard that story.”
It makes me wonder what Dan Frawley would have said about this month’s primary elections and the election of a white mayor in a city with a minority white population.
Race, which so many of us thought would cease to be a divisive factor, just continues to be exacerbated. And the failures of Mayor Dennis P. Williams — whose radio PSAs bragged that he’d never have become mayor if he’d not graduated high school — attracted so many minority candidates lusting for his job that it opened the door to the nomination and election of a white mayor.
Frankly, cognitive dissonance aside, I think the City of Wilmington will do just fine under Mayor Purzycki, and, even more frankly, it has the potential to excel under his leadership. Certainly, as State of Delaware taxpayers, employers and the rest, even when we’re not city residents, each of us has a stake in this city.
With Hanifa Shabazz in line to be president of the Wilmington City Council, I can’t imagine a more business-friendly and thoughtful pair who can work in tandem, and make Wilmington once again the city we hope it will be. And both Shabazz and Purzycki are smart enough to give the other the respect deserved.
I’ve known them for some 20 years each, although Purzycki was on the other side of a client I represented when we first significantly interacted in our work, an economic development group that wanted to put a non-racino casino on the Christina Riverfront across Walnut Street from the Amtrak Station about the year 2000.
I observed firsthand the fierceness of his ardor in championing the interests he was hired and paid to look after, and that prospective Christina casino did not fit his plans. His view prevailed, albeit more thanks to the effective lobbyists of the racino industry who never let the project get off the ground.
Yes, it’s a shame that things did not work out for Mayor Williams who put some good people around him — Leroy Tice, Leonard Sophrin, Jeff Starkey, Jeff Flynn and others — but simply failed in his ability to lead them in a thoughtful and cogent way that advanced the city that I’m sure he loves as much as he professes.
When people of good will reach across what, unfortunately, has become a larger racial divide in our society, they often premise it on the idea that “green is the color that matters, not black or white,” a reference to both the primacy of economic vitality as well as the way to fund social needs.
History will prove Dan Frawley wrong, that he was not “the last white mayor.”
In the end, though, that’s irrelevant to the ability of Purzycki and Shabazz to match strides in a way that helps our city regain the luster that once characterized it and make it the kind of vibrant community that it can be and it should be. It’s quite a challenge that awaits.