Harrisburg, York make history

Both cities elect black women as mayors for the first time

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HARRISBURG -- Democrats lost some key elections around the state and nation on Tuesday, but in central Pennsylvania, two Democratic candidates came away with historic victories.

This capital city -- and another regional hub, the city of York, 25 miles to the south -- both did something they'd never done before: elect an African-American woman as mayor.

Here in Harrisburg, City Council President Linda Thompson became the first black candidate and the first woman ever to capture the chief executive's seat.

In York, Kim Bracey, the city's ex-economic development director and a retired Air Force sergeant, became the first African-American and only the second woman (after Elizabeth Marshall, who is white, in 1978) to be elected mayor.

On Tuesday night, Ms. Thompson told her happy supporters that her election "is a tremendous moment. It's a historic moment. It's a powerful moment and a humbling moment."

Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg political strategist, supported her in the May primary contest against longtime incumbent Mayor Stephen Reed, and in the general election race. "I thought it was time for a new direction for the city," said Mr. Gerow.

"I realized that Linda Thompson could win and provide that new direction, both economically and stylistically. She'll have a more open style (than Mr. Reed). This was a historic election, with Harrisburg getting its first black and first female mayor."

A candidate's race or gender alone "isn't a sufficient reason to vote for them, any more than you would vote for President Obama just because he's black," said Franklin & Marshall College political science professor G. Terry Madonna. "But there is reason to celebrate that another barrier has been broken and another level of leadership reached by black women. It's another step in the political evolution of women and African-Americans."

In York, Ms. Bracey will take office in January, replacing Mayor John Brenner, who has held the office since 2002. Ms. Bracey, who couldn't be reached yesterday, had been city economic development director for seven years, until resigning to run for office.

"Kim has solid experience in local government and she has the leadership tools to do the job as mayor," Mr. Brenner said yesterday.

Electing a black mayor marks a major turnaround for York, especially compared to 1969, when the city was plagued by race riots and two people, a black woman and a white policeman, were killed.

As the Democratic candidates in their respective towns, Ms. Thompson and Ms. Bracey were the frontrunners, with a major advantage in voter registration over their Republican opponents.

While Ms. Thompson was the favorite on Tuesday, she pulled a huge upset during the Democratic primary in May. That's when she ousted Mr. Reed, who was often dubbed Harrisburg's "mayor for life," since he'd held the office for 27 years.

He'd been credited for making major improvements, such as reviving Downtown nightlife and reviving "restaurant row" on Second Street, as well as cleaning up City Island in the Susquehanna River and building a stadium there for minor league baseball.

But Mr. Reed had also made some moves widely regarded as politically unwise, such as spending several million dollars of city funds on cowboy artifacts in a failed effort to create a "Wild West" attraction and also trying but failing to build a sports hall of fame here.

Harrisburg Councilman Dan Miller said that when Ms. Thompson takes over in January, she'll immediately inherit serious financial problems, including what to do about the municipal incinerator, which carries $300 million in debt but which, he said, isn't worth more than $100 million.

"You have to pity anyone who would be Harrisburg mayor right now," he said. "We have debt we can't pay off. She will take over with a real financial crisis going on. I don't know how Harrisburg avoids going into Act 47 protection in 2010."

Act 47 is a state financial program designed to help cities straighten out their fiscal problems. Pittsburgh has been under the program for five years.

Ms. Thompson was the center of some local controversy in October, as Harrisburg print and TV media focused on a nonprofit group she had created called Loveship Inc. A television report said the group didn't actually renovate a rundown house and then have a needy family buy it, as it had intended to do. The rundown house is still boarded up, despite Loveship officials calling the project a "success story" on their Web site in 2007. Other media reports questioned a $5,000 interest-free loan Ms. Thompson got from Loveship.

Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 717-787-4254.


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