Harrisburg woes play big role in city's mayoral race
Sharp-tongued incumbent trailing 2 of 3 challengers
May 19, 2013 8:00 AM
Harrisburg Mayor Linda Thompson, running for re-electon
By Tom Barnes Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
HARRISBURG -- As she runs in a tough primary on Tuesday, first-term Mayor Linda Thompson confronts numerous hurdles: increased killings and other street crime, finances that threaten bankruptcy and caused city income taxes to double, unsightly trash filling city lots and skeptical suburbanites shunning city businesses. Emblematic of the city's overall condition, more than 40 sinkholes dot the streets as old waterlines implode.
But her biggest enemies in a battle against three Democratic challengers -- two of whom were far ahead of her in a recent poll -- may just be her sharp tongue and quick temper.
The negative fallout continues from a strange remark she recently made about residents of a rural county just west of the capital city. She claimed that "scumbags from Perry County" were coming into the city to dump their trash in vacant city lots. The video of her remark, made at a news conference, was replayed repeatedly on local TV stations and became juicy fodder for radio talk shows.
As the uproar grew and Perry County folks vowed to boycott city businesses, the mayor claimed her remark had been "taken out of context." There's already a prejudice among "West Shore" dwellers, as Perry Countians are, against Harrisburg, which is on the East Shore of the Susquehanna River.
Eyebrows were also raised two years ago when an ex-aide leaked a disparaging comment she'd made about city Controller Dan Miller, calling him "that homosexual, evil little man." Mr. Miller, one of her main opponents in the primary, is openly gay.
Another leak made by a staffer was that she had criticized a Jewish developer for bringing "Israel money" into a Harrisburg construction project.
Ms. Thompson and Mr. Miller have repeatedly clashed over whether the city should file for bankruptcy if its annual budget deficit, now at $14 million, keeps rising. She opposes bankruptcy for the city of nearly 50,000, but he said it should be considered as a way to keep creditors at bay.
The budget deficit -- outsized in comparison with the city's total budget of $60 million -- has forced city officials to skip several bond repayments in recent months, to make sure city workers get paid.
The debt on the city's problem-ridden trash-burning incinerator is $370 million and rising. Other agencies also have bond repayments due, raising the total debt to an estimated $1.5 billion.
Mr. Miller said city creditors should share in the city's financial plight, as they could under Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Ms. Thompson -- and others -- fear that filing for bankruptcy would make national headlines and further stain the city's reputation.
Running against Ms. Thompson and Mr. Miller is businessman Eric Papenfuse, who presents himself as a reformer and outsider. He and his wife own a popular bookstore-cafe, The Midtown Scholar, near the Capitol building that also hosts public events and debates on city issues. Mr. Papenfuse opposes the idea of bankruptcy, as does the fourth candidate, community activist Lewis Butts.
Noting his 2007 resignation from the Harrisburg Authority, which oversees the deficit-ridden city incinerator, the paper said, "We are concerned whether he has the staying power to be mayor." It also said he is "distressingly thin-skinned" and has a "close relationship with a group of developers" who are giving him contributions.
But it also said his bookstore "has sparked a renaissance of a once-troubled corridor" along Third Street near the Capitol and has turned his shop into "the focal point of community discussion and debate."
The editorial called Ms. Thompson "a polarizing figure prone to public missteps and a seemingly uncontrollable propensity to blame others for every problem."
Ms. Thompson made history in May 2009 when she defeated 28-year mayor Steve Reed in the Democratic primary, and later went on to become the city's first black, and first female, chief executive. She took office in January 2010 but has often alienated people with a belligerent attitude toward critics and a temper that has led several key staff members to quit.
She ran into more trouble last week when a local TV station released a poll of 300 likely Democratic voters, showing that 67 percent of respondents had an unfavorable opinion of the mayor and that 74 percent thought Harrisburg was "headed in the wrong direction."
According to the survey, done by a Harrisburg pollster on May 9-10, the Democratic primary has turned into a tight race between Mr. Miller and Mr. Papenfuse, who have been engaging in increasingly angry public arguments, especially about finances.
They were tied at 30 percent each in the poll, with Ms. Thompson at only 13 percent, Mr. Butts at just 1 percent, with the rest undecided.
Since Democrats far outnumber Republicans in Harrisburg, as in most of the state's larger cities, the Democratic candidate will have a major advantage in November. But there is an independent candidate running for mayor in the fall, Nevin Mindlin, who lost to Ms. Thompson in the 2009 general election.
The top two in campaign donations are Mr. Papenfuse, at $143,000, although $100,000 of that is his own money, and Mr. Miller, at $102,000. The mayor has raised $66,000.
Mr. Miller and Mr. Papenfuse have been sparring over a highly critical report of city bond documents made recently by the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. It alleged city officials had made "materially misleading statements" about its financial condition to potential investors in 2009. Harrisburg is the first city the SEC has ever publicly linked to this kind of securities fraud, although no civil or criminal sanctions were imposed on the city.
Most of the misleading and inaccurate data that the SEC criticized predated the Thompson regime, having been compiled when Mr. Reed was still mayor. However, in 2009, Mr. Miller and Ms. Thompson were members of city council and Mr. Papenfuse is trying to use the report as a political weapon against them.
He claims they bear "heavy responsibility" for the misleading statements found by the SEC -- a charge they both strongly deny. Ms. Thompson said she told city agencies to cooperate fully with SEC investigators in 2010-11, after she became mayor.
Mr. Miller is a certified public accountant and owns his own accounting firm in the city. He said someone with his financial expertise is needed to get the city out of its deep financial hole.
Mr. Papenfuse bills himself as a political outsider and a "change candidate," which he said the city needs now. He said he stepped down from the authority that oversees the incinerator because he questioned whether fraud might be involved with the money that was borrowed to pay off the debt. He said he was the only one to make such warnings.
However, the Thompson and Miller camps have called him "a quitter" for leaving the incinerator board after just a couple months.
"Eric Papenfuse is trying to run as an outsider, but is running the kind of negative campaign only a seasoned political hack would run," Mr. Miller told reporters last week.