Ready for the Challenge

The new mayor faces a lot of old problems in Wilmington. Here, Mike Purzycki tells Out & About how his administration will address them.

After leading the redevelopment of the Christina Riverfront for more than two decades, on Jan. 3 Mike Purzycki will take on a much broader challenge—serving as mayor of Wilmington for the next four years.

Purzycki, a lawyer, former New Castle County councilman and onetime pro football prospect whose career ended when he injured his knee during the New York Giants’ preseason 49 years ago, scored a resounding victory in the November election, securing 82 percent of the vote while topping Republican Robert Martin and Independent Steven Washington.

Despite that overwhelming number, Purzycki takes over what is in many ways a fractured city. He got less than 24 percent of the vote in an eight-way Democratic primary in September that, in this heavily Democratic city, is tantamount to winning the general election.

Contributing to Purzycki’s victory were about 1,250 city voters who heeded a suggestion from Jane Castle, wife of former Republican Gov. Mike Castle, that they change their affiliation from Republican to Democrat so they could vote in the primary. Those switches likely provided Purzycki with the edge he needed to top youthful runner-up Eugene Young by 234 votes and former City Councilman Kevin F. Kelley by 415 as he ended the controversial Dennis P. Williams’ bid for a second term. (Williams finished fourth.)

Purzycki becomes the first white mayor in this majority black city since the late Daniel Frawley concluded his second term in January 1993.

Williams’ term was marked by repeated debates over policing strategies, an ongoing struggle to reduce shootings and violent crime, staffing battles between firefighters and their chief, and the move of the headquarters of the DuPont Co., the city’s most prominent business for more than a century, into suburban New Castle County.

Those episodes overshadowed some of the positives of the last four years, including the first steps toward development of a Creative District downtown, forward movement in community revitalization efforts called West Side Grows Together and Eastside Rising, and the launch of co-working spaces downtown that offer the promise of filling the void created by the departure or downsizing of larger business entities.

As Purzycki puts it in the following interview, “One minute we’re the Chemical Capital and the next minute we’re Murder Town,” a label pinned on the city by a highly critical December 2014 article in Newsweek.

As he prepared to take office, Purzycki sat down with Out & About to discuss key issues facing the city and how he plans to address them.

(This interview has been edited for clarity and space considerations.)

What will the first year of the Purzycki administration look like? What are the key priorities?

I think I’d like to change the aspirations and the culture of the city and city government. I think we have a fine workforce that just needs direction, and I’d like to get them focused on a mission that’s a lot bigger than all of us and go to work every day excited about reaching it.

Are you suggesting that there has been complacency within city government?

I don’t know if there is complacency as much as it is a lack of direction. I hear there are morale issues. I’m not sure where that comes from. If you have direction, if you have goals, everybody doesn’t have the time to indulge every little irritation.

Who will be on your team?

I can’t say right now. I know 60-70 percent of it. I want to bring in people who are genuinely committed to seeing the city turn around.

(Since this article was originally published, members of the new administration have been announced.)

Will any members of the Williams administration stay?

There are people there who have talent. It’s irresponsible to change personnel just to change them.
You have a new council president (Hanifa Shabazz) and major turnover on city council. There’s going to be a lot of “new” in city hall. What are your expectations for getting started right away?

Hanifa and I have been friends for a long time. We share a mutual respect. I know a number of people on council and I have met every single one of them. I don’t expect to agree with them all the time. What is important is how we disagree. Respectful disagreement is good. We’re going to work together. Everybody shares a deep concern for the wellbeing of the city.

Why did you decide to run for mayor? You had the Riverfront, you had plans mapped out. It was a safe position for you.

The concern is that if the Riverfront thrives and the city falters, the Riverfront can only go so far by itself. Watching the city fail while the Riverfront was progressing would not have been very satisfying.

The second thing is the Riverfront, like everywhere, was suffering from the reputation the city had to deal with. One minute we’re the Chemical Capital and the next minute we’re Murder Town. This restrained economic growth. We had to create a cause for optimism. I believe in my abilities to lead the city. I think my skills are right for being mayor at this time.

Since November, the Fire Department has been using brownouts and staffing changes to cut overtime spending. The union says this impacts response time and public safety. What are you going to do about it?

Today there is absolutely no confidence between the rank and file and the chief. There have been a lot of hard feelings that have not been productive for the smooth operation of the fire department. I don’t have to ascribe blame. For me to weigh in (before taking office) would be counterproductive. I intend to have a new chief one of these days. I’m going to select a chief in whom I believe in his or her judgment and that chief will tell me what we should be doing.

By “one of these days,” do you mean soon?

Yes, I expect to have a new fire chief.

The police department has taken its share of criticism over crime problems and varying approaches to community policing. Do you have any preferences on deployments and strategies, and what will your relationship be with the police department?

I have no interest in telling my police chief how to run the department. My sense is, it’s your department. If the department succeeds, you succeed. If it fails, you fail. I intend to hire the best police chief that I can.

I have no particular expertise on how to evaluate the department. Some of the problems have to do with administration, and some of them are structural. We are not competitive with other departments. We have acquiesced to our financial realities and have not acknowledged the impact that has on the performance of our officers. Every time we have negotiations we say “we can’t afford to pay you.” The state and county and University of Delaware continue to outstrip our officers by something on the order of 20 percent. Morale is poor. The pay scale is corrosive and really hurts the functioning of our department. It’s hard for me to make a judgment on leadership. Everyone weighs in on community policing. I believe the job of the mayor is to hire the very best individual to run the department and to be guided by his or her judgment.

I’m going to find the finest police chief around. It could be the incumbent. I’m not going to make that selection on my own. I’m going to be guided by professionals and get recommendations.

The fire and police departments have significant impact on city budget, which has been stressed by the loss of the DuPont headquarters, uncertainty over Chemours and vacancies in downtown office space. Where do we go next? Are we going to have a property tax increase?

The mayor hasn’t raised taxes in four years. We keep getting farther and farther behind. Our deficits aren’t just financial deficits. Our baseline can’t be what it’s going to take to pay this year’s bills; it has to be what it’s going to take to run the city properly in the future. We will put everything on the table. I’ll be as transparent as possible. There are things that are costing us money. We can’t have $45 parking tickets, we can’t have $110 red light fines … everything can’t be directed at raising revenue. My ideal budget is going to be scaling back on some of those punitive revenue measures.

The situation is not dire, but it is daunting. But the variable is the ability of the administration to create such optimism in the minds of the business community and in the residential community that they believe that the people who are running the city can really bring it back and make it something terrific.

The Creative District is aiming to bring cultural entrepreneurs into town. You’ve had experience at the riverfront. How do you see the Creative District having an impact? How big a deal is it?

I think it’s potentially a very big deal, or potentially a lot of noise and nothing much else. If we can support the Creative District, it can be a very big help to redevelopment of that part of the city. If we ignore it, if we just do one or two houses at a time, it will collapse of its own weight. What’s been missing with every little redevelopment in the city has been a coordinated plan to buttress the efforts of the people who have been working hard on it.

You have to concentrate resources. We’re going to identify a very small number of parts of the city that we believe are receptive to concentrated effort by virtually all of our agencies, that can help create some progress, and focus our efforts in those areas. Licensing and Inspections, Parks and Recreation, Public Works—if those resources are concentrated in specific areas, and we take advantage of the land bank that’s being established, we can have an impact.

You have community-based planning initiatives under way—West Side Grows Together, Eastside Rising, Blueprint Communities and others—but there is no strong coordination at the top. Do you need that coordination?

If you don’t have coordination at the top you’re going to wind up achieving very little. If we try to do everything, we’ll get nothing done. Too often we spread out our assets in a way that nothing really meaningful gets achieved.

The Riverfront had four different development areas on the original plan. There were four places we could have gone. We concentrated on one area, to the chagrin of those on the Brandywine, on the Seventh Street peninsula. You’ve got to take an area and work hard and bring your assets together.

Will all these community plans underway go forward, or will they be cut back?

They can all go forward, but everybody has to manage expectations.

There’s a police chief in Charleston, S.C., a former military guy, who says it’s just like the military. You have to take one hill, and hold it, and then you go on to the next one. If you try to take every hill, you’ll get beaten every time. We’re going to take one hill at a time, and right now we’ve got too many hills.
We have to take one or two neighborhoods where we have the best chance of succeeding. I haven’t made up my mind which ones. There are pluses and minuses in a lot of these neighborhoods.

But if you look at what which ones have it most together now … doesn’t that put others who need more help farther behind?

The question is not who needs it more, the question is who is closer to success. We have to go to areas that will be most receptive to our work. Do they have community organizations, nonprofits and private developers working together? Is it a community that wants to support the police? There are a lot of factors. I have no emotional preference for one neighborhood over another.

A racial divide impacts the city. You’re the first white mayor since Dan Frawley left office in 1993. This is a majority black city. How will you address this issue?

I’ll do it head on. I think I understand race in America as well as most people. I have remarkable sympathies with people who have to deal with the wrong side of racial issues all the time. When people get to know me, I think (they’ll see) I can be trusted.

I got a letter from a 17-year-old Howard High student who was worried that I would gentrify her neighborhood. She is genuinely concerned. I’m impressed. I wrote back to her. I want to meet with her and her parents.

Race is a deeply felt division in our society. I don’t expect to walk in the door and change that anytime soon. Over time, you’ve got to prove to people by your actions how you feel about things.
Wilmington cannot be immune to those very powerful national currents about race. If something happens in Missouri, it reverberates throughout the entire country. Wilmington is subject to that. We have to keep the frustration level low enough—by providing jobs and opportunities, by respecting communities, by building community centers and paying attention to people—so when something national happens people aren’t inclined to take it out on local government and on their own neighborhoods.

You’ve worked with Hope Commission, helping ex-offenders when they are released from prison. You’re familiar with the problems of recidivism and structural unemployment. Does that give you more credibility on the East Side?

It does with some people. With some people I don’t think it means much at all.

In a city like this, I think race can be dealt with at a very personal level. You can get out every day to where people live. You can pay attention to people’s concerns in their neighborhoods. You can get licensing and inspections and police out to neighborhoods where people are having problems. You can show up at their homes and talk to them. In a city this small, in a year you can touch a whole lot of people.

You know University of Delaware professor Yasser Payne pretty well. He drew much attention with “The People’s Report,” studying structural unemployment in Southbridge and on the East Side. How will you address this issue?

At the local level we can be so much more effective at incentivizing people to provide jobs (than at the state and national levels). I intend to have an executive to do high-level job creation for people who are generally unemployable. I think you have to be very aggressive about it.

Private employers always have a reason not to hire people with poor employment records but now people are beginning to understand that the only way to restore our city’s health is to get people working. Every restaurant is a potential service job provider. The hospitality business needs to hire. We can talk to our large employers and ask them for their support, to either provide jobs or to fund jobs. We have to go to the state as well, and say you have to help provide some energy around the job situation. I look at this as a very important function of our government. I think Yasser Payne will be very happy with it.

As for the business community, DuPont is largely gone and we don’t know where Chemours will be in a couple of years. You have a lot of things in transition. What are you expecting?

We want to be competing for our young entrepreneurs. We want to build that infrastructure.

I have not given up on large employers. If we build an attractive enough environment, we can attract strong employers. We have lost large employers to the county. People made the easy decision to move to the county. I think we can get them back in time.

We are much more business friendly in many ways than Pennsylvania. If you create an environment that people are drawn to, we can get businesses to come here.

You mentioned the change in labeling from Chemical Capital to Murder Town. The last two years the city has taken a tremendous PR hit. What are your thoughts on changing that story line?

I think there are two sides of it. One, you have to improve the fundamentals, and then you tell your story. The people who say it’s the News Journal’s fault, I think they’ve got it wrong. The newspaper has a responsibility to tell the truth. If someone is getting shot, that’s a story.

People are very afraid to come to the city. All you need is an occasional incident to occur and it reawakens every bad story that people have heard about.

I believe leadership is very infectious. If people believe the people in charge can really manage the city and that there’s a bright future, they will be positive. If people see that there’s a problem solver in charge, with energy, I think there will be optimism about what we can do.

A divided school system has harmed the city. Although the mayor has no control over education, can you offer suggestions and solutions?

Except for the governor, I don’t think anybody has a bigger platform to effect change on any issue that impacts the city than the mayor. You have to advocate.

Part of the dissolution of our city has been because of busing; they have taken all of our kids and scattered them to a dozen high schools all around the county. They’ve lost the stability and the identity that a community school brings. It’s a devastating problem. I hope that we can bring a high school back to within the city.

But we do have the Charter School of Wilmington.

Please.

You’ve got several charters in the Community Education building.

They’re not public high schools.

So charters are not public schools?

For my purposes, no. To me, a public high school is when all the kids in the area can go to the same school. The Charter School of Wilmington has its purpose, and that’s fine. But we’ve got kids getting on the bus at 6 in the morning. Instead of getting an additional hour of sleep, they’re getting up an hour early to take a bus to the suburbs. That’s just wrong.

For the Purzycki administration, what are the yardsticks you will use to determine whether your administration is successful?

One of those measures has to be the incidence of violent crime, not necessarily the number of fatal shootings, but the number of incidents. We’ve got to reduce the violence. We have to build communities so violence is not normalized.

If you start to look at your community, and you reduce blight, you reduce the poverty rate. It would have a tremendous effect to start getting people off the poverty rolls, to build good housing stock.
Objective measures are difficult. I’m not afraid of being accountable, but it’s sometimes difficult to quantify things that are qualitative in nature.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.