Thursday, December 18, 2014

The race in the Capital City

Harrisburg votes Tuesday in a hotly-contested race for mayor. Can an embattled incumbent survive in a city on the brink of bankruptcy?

The race in the Capital City

Harrisburg residents are voting Tuesday in a contested Democratic primary for mayor that features an embattled incumbent and offers the winner a chance to preside over a Capital City deeply in debt and facing the prospect of bankruptcy.

The four-way race seems torn from the pages of a bad TV sitcom.

One candidate, Lewis Butts, was just charged with criminal mischief for defacing campaign signs of another candidate. That candidate's name is Eric Papenfuse. Butts is accused of using black spray paint to change the name on signs to "Papenpuss."

I am not making this up.

The one-term incumbent, Linda Thompson, is the city's first black and first woman mayor. She has made news for heckling protestors, referring to nearby rural neighbors as "scumbags from Perry County" whom she claimed dump their trash in vacant city lots, and for once calling an openly-gay opponent "that homosexual, evil little man."

That would be her long-time rival and mayoral opponent City Controller Dan Miller who supports bankrupcty as an option to recovery. Thompson says such a move could further harm the city's image.

Which already is pretty badly harmed.

In addition to the usual urban woes of crime, poverty, crumbling infrastructure, bad schools and an ever-shrinking tax base, Thompson's city of about 50,000 has made international news for its dire fiscal straits -- more than $1 billion in total debt -- and it recently became the first city tagged by the federal Securities and Exchange Commission for fraud related to city bond work.

The aforementioned Papenfuse is a local bookstore owner running as an outsider and change advocate. He's endorsed by the Harrisburg Patriot-News which on one hand praised his "coherent vision of what Harrisburg could become" but also noted "it's not altogther clear how Papenfuse intends to pay for his plans."

The race has played out as both comedy and tragedy. Local polling seems suspect. Local media predicts high voter-turnout.

John Baer Daily News Political Columnist
About this blog
John Baer has been covering politics and government for the Daily News since 1987. The National Journal in 2002 called Baer one of the country's top 10 political journalists outside Washington, saying Baer has, "the ability to take the skin off a politician without making it hurt too much." E-mail John at

John is the author of the book "On The Front Lines of Pennsylvania Politics: Twenty-Five Years of Keystone Reporting" (The History Press, 2012). Reach John at

John Baer Daily News Political Columnist
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