'A tale of two cities': Wilmington mayor will have to win over more of divided city

Jeanne Kuang
Delaware News Journal

When City Treasurer Velda Jones-Potter made her eleventh-hour entry into the Wilmington mayoral primary last month, she told the public she was heeding the call of city residents who urged her to seek the nomination. 

Within Mayor Mike Purzycki’s administration, which had been in an escalating City Hall conflict with Jones-Potter, officials saw things differently. 

For them, this was what three-and-a-half years of bickering over email, in neighborhood meetings, before the City Council and in Delaware Chancery Court had been leading up to all along.

Jones-Potter and Purzycki's administration were at odds over her requests for a $20,000 raise after one year in office, for a different government transparency website than the one officials selected for other city departments, and for her office to have full independence from his.

Though Jones-Potter made a late entry to the race by switching her seat after the election filing deadline, it was no surprise she would run against him for mayor.

BACKGROUNDMayor Mike Purzycki's elected rivals make play for Wilmington city seats

Mayoral primary candidate and Wilmington City Treasurer Velda Jones-Potter, left, current Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzicki, center, and mayoral primary candidate and former Wilmington City Councilman Justen Wright.

The longstanding back-and-forth will all come to a head during the Democratic primary election Sept. 15, which in Wilmington guarantees the seat. So far, former Mayor Jim Baker has called the election a toss-up, with three candidates – including former City Councilman Justen Wright – who all have won citywide office before and all “strike favoritism in different parts of the community.”

Christopher Waters, an East Side resident and former member of the Democratic City Committee, put it more bluntly.

“We have people representing different factions of the city right now,” Waters said. “We have a tale of two cities.”

Those divergent tales only feed the years-long political feud between Purzycki and Jones-Potter to define the fight over who controls Wilmington.

While Purzycki touts growth and improvements made over the past four years, both his opponents are running on slogans of “people over property,” promising to prioritize the city’s working- and middle-class neighborhoods above a rebounding downtown and a gleaming Riverfront commercial district.

Wright, in a campaign email, rolled out an agenda to focus on revitalizing the city’s “crumbling” and “forgotten” neighborhoods, where he blamed Purzycki for making disproportionate investments. His “neighborhood restoration plan” includes more communication between the mayor’s office and local planning councils, and having city employees to specifically coordinate police and other services in each neighborhood.

In an interview, Jones-Potter proposed a similar plan for a city office that would support local civic associations and provide “dedicated resources that will focus on the unique needs in our various neighborhoods.” At a campaign event last week, she criticized the Purzycki administration's transfer of vacant properties to the nonprofit Land Bank and suggested making more funds available for local residents to purchase those properties and become homeowners.

She also picked up the endorsement of the popular local firefighters' union, with whom the Purzycki administration also has an acrimonious relationship.

Purzycki said complaints his administration has neglected the neighborhoods are “patently untrue.” 

He said relatively few public dollars were put toward downtown and the Riverfront area – $1 million for the 76ers Fieldhouse and $1 million to purchase a Market Street store building – compared with $13 million of park, community center and recreational facility improvements in low- and moderate-income areas, particularly West Center City.

He blamed a faction of City Council members, who often ally themselves with Jones-Potter, for blocking a controversial change to the housing code that he said would improve low-income tenants’ living conditions.

More:Controversial Wilmington 'blight bill' pulled from agenda, despite— twist to appease critics

Still, he won the last Democratic primary with only 23% of votes — some of them Republicans who had switched parties — in a crowded field. To keep his seat, the white, real estate developer-connected mayor from the wealthy Highlands will have to win over a larger share of voters in a majority-Black city where a quarter of residents live in poverty.

Purzycki called that merely an issue of optics and said he has the support.

“It’s a cudgel [in the election], but it’s the easiest one to use,” he said. “It’s pretty easy to look at me and say he doesn’t care for people in the neighborhoods. I can’t change what I look like.”

Current Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzicki.

The challengers also come during a resurgence of violent crime and record levels of unemployment driven by COVID-19. The pandemic has created uncertainty for city finances and could drive voter turnout down, "a different ballgame," Baker said.

"The growth of small cities is going to stumble," said Waters, the former member of the Democratic City Committee. "On a national scale, we don't know what the next two years, or even year, of policy is going to bring that's going to affect small-town growth. ... We don't know what's coming next and we'd better be prepared."

Baker said the downtown-versus-the-neighborhoods complaint “has been a standard for years" that he said is untrue. He blamed the federal government for providing Wilmington – a small city with a tight budget – a shrinking share of the community development funds municipalities use to improve the housing stock.

“It's not a new argument," Baker said. "In this election, I do think it carries more weight than what it has in the past."

Rivalries and experience

Though a rivalry between Purzycki and Jones-Potter has lasted nearly four years, the treasurer has had political ambitions for much longer.

She got her start in Wilmington government in 1995, when Mayor James H. Sills Jr. brought her as a “loaned executive” from DuPont Co. to direct the city’s Finance Department, which had struggled to control five years of deficits.

Wilmington mayoral candidate Velda Jones-Potter speaks in front of the Louis L. Redding City/County Building during a Black Lives Matter protest on Market Street in Wilmington on Friday, Aug. 21, 2020.

In a year-and-a-half, Jones-Potter got water customers new meters and went after tax and parking ticket scofflaws, steering the city to a $5 million surplus and earning her accolades as a competent financial professional and an administration star.

In 2009, Gov. Jack Markell appointed her state treasurer. She lost her election to keep that seat the following year.

She was a top aide in the previous mayor Dennis Williams’ administration, from which she was dismissed in his first year for using her position to secure police staffing for her son’s hip hop concert. Williams said there was “no way around” the fact she misused her authority to ultimately direct more than $18,000 of public funds toward the private event to avoid its cancellation.

BACKGROUNDWilmington Mayor: Jones-Potter abused her authority

Despite that scandal, Jones-Potter has garnered vocal and loyal supporters, particularly in parts of the city’s north side, where she and her husband, Charles Potter Jr., live.

There, Potter was a city councilman and state representative, and Jones-Potter was heavily involved in fundraising for the Police Athletic League community center.

She made her political return running for city treasurer in 2016 with the support of Williams loyalist Ed Osborne, and won with 39% of votes.

Mayoral primary candidate and Wilmington City Treasurer Velda Jones-Potter.

Since then, her relationship to Purzycki's administration has made her more of a polarizing figure. Supporters see her as a watchdog willing to challenge the mayoral administration on city spending and its friendliness with developers, while allies of Purzycki see her as a thorn in the side. 

Throughout his term, Jones-Potter has led a faction of supporters and council members in a so-called “resistance” of city government. She and Potter held a literal “resistance” event in 2018 and have, in a legal dispute with a home contractor, blamed the city for a lack of proper code enforcement.

Potter now is running for an at-large seat on the City Council.

More:Wilmington not obligated to join Potters' housing battle, judge says

Ed Osborne hung a sign outside his auto repair business urging Velda Jones-Potter to enter the race for city treasurer.

Carol Townsend, a Cool Spring resident, said it appeared the Potters are after power and “looking to stir the pot.”

“They want it their way,” said Townsend, who did not vote for Purzycki in 2016 because she found him “pretty corporate,” but said she likely will this year.

But Jaehn Dennis, president of the Vandever Avenue Civic Association in northeast Wilmington, said Jones-Potter would look out for neighborhoods like his. 

“I think she’s a fair person,” he said. “We have a lack of representation. Each one of them swore they would represent the community, not just one side of town.”

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Purzycki sued Jones-Potter in Delaware Chancery Court last year to force her to release payments that she had withheld that the city was making on behalf of its insolvent nonprofit Wilmington Housing Partnership. He said it was “probably the 20th problem we had” of Jones-Potter refusing to cooperate with other city departments. 

BACKGROUNDWilmington mayor's suit against city treasurer costs taxpayers double the attorney fees

Jones-Potter said she had a duty to flag payments she found suspicious and maintained there’s been “a lack of accountability” for the partnership’s falling apart.

Rows of houses sit vacant on Bennett Street in Wilmington on Thursday, July, 2, 2020. Wilmington officials plan to demolish more than 30 boarded-up houses owned by the defunct nonprofit Wilmington Housing Partnership on the East Side.

When asked whether the election came down to a personal dispute between her and Purzycki, she said she represents a larger subset of residents than he does.

“I’ve lived in parts of this city that give me a real lived experience at how people currently live in many of our neighborhoods, that the current mayor doesn’t seem to have,” she said. “The essence of my platform and the policies generally that I’m looking to implement as mayor … That’s what the people will hear. That’s really all they need to hear.” 

In this atmosphere, Wright is presenting himself as an alternative to either candidate. 

Mayoral primary candidate and former Wilmington city councilman Justen Wright.

Wright also is promoting his relationships in Wilmington neighborhoods, taking a reporter on a walking tour through the Ninth Ward area where residents frequently greeted him on the street.

Backed by former Williams aide Alexandra Coppadge, he promised to hold more town halls across the city and wants to create a city health office to handle COVID-19.

“The infighting between the fifth floor and the ninth floor, it’s irresponsible,” he said, referring to the treasurer’s and mayor’s offices. “There’s so much division that all of us have witnessed and that our tax dollars are paying for. … I’m not part of that.”

Time for a 'new generation leader'?

Purzycki, too, has drawn criticism that his opponents have seized on.

He has close — and closely guarded — ties with the city’s largest real estate developer, the Buccini-Pollin Group, whose executive he’s hailed as “heroes” for their role in the downtown revitalization. 

Wright took aim at this in a recent campaign email, saying, “Wilmington needs a new generation leader, who understands that the true heroes of the city are the residents who work hard to provide a better Wilmington for their families.”

Purzycki has courted controversy with public statements about the negative impact of social services agencies on home values. With the loss of the emergency homeless shelter RVRC and additional homeless beds during his time in office, many accuse him of pushing the poor out of the city as luxury restaurants and hotels move in.

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Fans of the Potters were furious when members of his administration on the city’s cable commission chose DeTV to run the city’s leased access television channel over the longtime operator Leased Access Preservation Association, for which Potter hosted a talk show. 

LAPA supporters accused the administration of shutting out political commentary broadcast for a mostly older, Black viewership in favor of a less critical, more polished image of the city.

A man pushes a grocery cart across the street from Creative Vision Factory.

A fear of gentrification that has simmered for years throughout the city has been fuel for the primary citywide controversy of Purzycki’s term: the blight bill, which would raise fees for rental unit owners and crack down on those who don’t fix up their buildings by imposing escalating fines, instead of taking them through the current slow-moving court process.

At first, it was held back in the City Council by uproar over the potential that low-income homeowners could be taken to tax foreclosure if they couldn’t afford repairs. Then, after Purzycki agreed to take homeowners out of the picture, the proposal was beset again by housing advocates and landlords who said sharp fee increases would only lead to higher costs for tenants.

The issue remains unresolved, which visibly frustrates Purzycki. He said if reelected, it is his top priority "to go after every lousy landlord in the city.”

Residents packed a Wilmington city council meeting to oppose proposed changes to the housing code

The city is majority renters, and while rental units make up about half the city's properties, they account for three-quarters of housing violations, Purzycki said.

“It was easy to say, 'Purzycki doesn’t care about us, all he’s trying to do is gentrify the city,'” he said. “All we want is young kids brought up in a safe, clean environment … and we’re going to have it out. It’ll be the very first thing we do."

His opponents are skeptical. Jones-Potter said she supported providing homeowners and tenants more funds to keep their properties up.

“The heavy-handed approach with just enforcement and taking people's homes isn’t a formula for building strong neighborhoods,” she said. 

Wright questioned whether the fines were really a revenue generation tool.

“Is it revenue generation or minimizing blight?” he said. “Everything can’t be punitive.”

Purzycki believes he’ll be vindicated — on the blight bill, and the accusations his administration’s been out of touch.

Some in West Center City, where much of the revitalization has been targeted, have started to notice a difference. Community advocate Sister Elzelphia Douglas said she's seen increased trash pickups in the neighborhood.

"We have been calling the city to come out and do that, and I'm telling you it's a wonderful thing," she said, adding that residents continue to struggle with the presence of drug dealers.

Purzycki rattled off highlights like adding LED lighting to West Center City, hiring local residents to clean their own neighborhoods, improving the speed of city services, increasing rental inspections and holding an annual historical Black colleges fair where local students have gotten admissions and scholarships.

“In time, people will recognize those things,” Purzycki said.

Whether that time is now for much of the city, Waters, the East Side resident, isn't sure. He said he and his neighbors continue to see a clean Riverfront compared to other areas where they notice "trash on the ground and this grass hasn't been cut."

Then my perception is, one part of the city is being taken care of while the other part is not," he said. "That's what people are seeing and what people are basing their opinions upon."

Jeanne Kuang covers Wilmington for The News Journal. Contact her at jkuang@delawareonline.com or (302) 324-2476.