Backed by business, Mike Purzycki, Wilmington's 71-year-old rookie mayor, beat the low-energy incumbent last year in an eight-way Democratic primary race and went on to win the top elected job in Delaware's largest town.
With just 75,000 residents, Wilmington is smaller than some Philadelphia suburbs. But it has many of the assets and troubles of a larger community: with highrise office, retail and cultural districts long sustained by large, locally-based employers, it has lost its 5 major corporate headquarters in the past decade, and has been scarred by gun violence, mostly in its poor African American neighborhoods.
It's 50 years since the new mayor, a New Jersey native, was a star receiver for the NCAA Delaware Blue Hens. Purzycki played briefly for the New York Giants, went to Delaware's only law school, and never left.
He was an elected lawmaker in New Castle County (which includes the city), then worked a string of government-related jobs, eventually shepherding Wilmington's equivalent of Philadelphia's Navy Yard, the drive-in redevelopment district between I-95 and the Christina River.
The mayor now finds he's in even deeper than he expected, he told a Del-Mar-Va Council Boy Scout breakfast at Wilmington's Ed "Porky" Oliver golf club in early March:
"This has been the most extraordinary experience in a blessed life," he told the easy crowd. "So many people depend on the mayor. I wanted to run as a city manager - 'I know I can fix this place.'
"But I don't think I appreciated the enormous leadership role that's associated with being chief executive of a city. You think of yourself as problem solver. But there's so much more. People depend on you.
"Our job transcends simple fiscal management. We have to go into communities that have been broken a long long time. To 'fix them' sounds too facile. We have to strengthen them. Uplift them. Transform neighborhoods that have been damaged for decades. That's a tough job. There is no quick fix."
Purzycki says former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter gave him this advice: "When people come to you and tell you they have a solution for changing crime and dysfunction, stay away from them. They are dangerous."
More from Nutter: "The worst corruption is a problem poorly stated.
"Sometimes you're better doing nothing, than doing something that doesn't work. When you implement something that's supposed to fix everything, everyone relaxes." And nothing gets done.
Purzycki added: "When we look at the pain in our cities you have to ask itself why it is. For all of you who don't read the newspaper, this first four or five weeks has been a big challenge.
"My first five days in office in January, three homicides. I have a phone that rings from the Chief every time there's a shooting or some incident we don't want to hear about. I get a call every single morning.
"What do we do with people whose thought processes are so different from yours and mine? What makes a person pick up a gun and shoot someone else to settle a conflict? You cannot process experiences like this because your own behaviors are so different.
"I can modify behavior of everybody in this room. I can get you do to something you don't want to do by telling you, 'If you don't, you'll spend one night in Gander Hill" (the Wilmington state prison). You'll do anything not to spend a day in Gander Hill.
"But we have young kids who use a gun, where someone else will die, or they will get shot, or get 20 years in Gander Hill.
"In a simple, stupid world there are things we have to do. The first thing I decided I was going to do, was change the culture of our city."
He started with city employees: "For every single department of our city, I have a message you Scouts would get: 'Everybody in this building gets treated with respect. Nobody puts his finger in anyone's face and barks out orders.'
"You'd be amazed how that resonates with employees. Think about the times we've had to pay out money because some knucklehead didnt treat people with respect.
"Two, everything we do, from cutting grass, we do excellently, or we don't do it at all. When we try to do everything we do nothing well at all... You (sometimes) spread your troops so they are ineffective. I see a lack of effectiveness all over the city.
"So I said, 'We're going to pick a neighborhood that needs a lot of help and we're going to help it for strategic reasons. So it means, when L&I get complaints, they are not going to chase chipped paint all over the city. We have too many houses with chipped paint. They're all going to go into one neighborhood. To go after the slumlords...
"We have rental houses in rotten condition where the owner owes the city (thousands in back taxes). On what planet do we allow this?
"We will have Licenses & Inspections go to this neighborhood, police officers, Parks & Rec. We'll GSI the neighborhood. We'll give people what they have to have, confidence that people can actually affect a change, when the city deploys its resources effectively.
"So we're conducting analysis of our police department and interviewing candidates for Chief. Including our existing Chief.
"But what do I know about it? I'm talking about hiring a police chief like I do a cardiologist... You can hire someone who's a great guy, or a good friend, or a good Lieutenant. But that doesn't mean he'll be a good Chief. That's why we hired the Police Executive Search Foundation. We want stability in that department, going forward.
"People have asked me, how are we going to deploy the police? I have no idea. It's like hiring a football coach. It'll be his strategy. I know one thing, he won't be hiring my brother-in-law as defensive coordinator.
"We're putting into place strategies I believe will turn our city around.
"We have tremendous financial stresses. We did not anticipate $7 million of dollars in costs when those firefighters were tragically killed (three Wilmington firefighters died fighting a Canby Park rowhome fire last year). The city chose not to insure their workers' comp fund. So we went up to $7.5 million in unanticipated costs." (Wilmington's budget is $154 million this year; Purzycki has called for fewer firefighters and modest civilian staff reductions.)
"We have a $15 million deficit, against a $40 million (yearly) property tax revenue. It would be a 30 percent increase in property tax if we chose to balance our books that way. But we're not, because people didn't elect me to do that.
"We have fine people working for your city. I dont think they're deployed well. Work rules impair their function...
"At the end of the day, I am incurably optimistic about the future of the city."