The five Democratic candidates for Harrisburg mayor squared off in their first debate Saturday night, and the battle for votes was charged and pointed.
Challengers Otto Banks and David Schankweiler spent the night on the attack against incumbent Mayor Eric Papenfuse, charging him with failing to fix the city’s most basic problems, and failing to serve all of the city’s residents equally.
Papenfuse, meanwhile, gave a ringing defense of his administration’s work, arguing city government is working better than it has in a generation under his leadership, and that his first eight years have left Harrisburg poised for a new era of growth that he is best-positioned to guide.
Sitting City Council President Wanda Williams touted her unique position in the race as the only candidate who is a lifelong resident of the city and a lifelong Democrat, and political newcomer Kevyn Knox tried to sell the voters that electing an outsider is the best way for voters to attack the city’s most intractable problems.
It made for a spirited give-and-take, as the five-way race enters a one-month sprint to election day.
Papenfuse, the incumbent first elected in 2013, is seeking a third term in City Hall and he has repeatedly said it would be his last.
He is being challenged for the Democratic Party’s nomination by Banks, a one-time city councilman who later served as an assistant secretary in President George W. Bush’s Department of Housing & Urban Development; Schankweiler, a retired media executive who was instrumental in starting Harrisburg University; Williams, the council president; and Knox, the general manager of the Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center.
One of the first sparring points in the debate sponsored by local ABC affiliate WHTM and the Harrisburg Regional Chamber of Commerce was crime.
Schankweiler said his first order of business if elected would be to convene a citywide summit on violence prevention that would generate sets of short- and long-term solutions to the violent crime. Banks, meanwhile, talked about putting an emphasis on building a police force that looks more likes the community it serves.
Papenfuse and Williams countered that they believe most of the right steps are being taken to create a safer city, even though Harrisburg’s violent crime rates are appreciably higher than most other areas of South Central Pennsylvania.
Papenfuse specifically argued that despite a spike in homicides last year, overall crime rates have gone down through most of his tenure in office. The department’s new community service officers, a revamped use of force policy and the deployment – with county help – of mental health co-responders will all help address the need to make the department work more fairly for all residents, he said.
Harrisburg’s response to the pandemic was another flashpoint.
Banks, Schankweiler and Knox, meanwhile, said the city failed to take the lead in setting up contact tracing, mass testing or vaccination sites.
“None of that was in place when the coronavirus hit the city of Harrisburg” Banks said. “This mayor, as well as this president of council, completely disappeared when the coronavirus had an impact on our community. When we needed them the most, they were not there.”
Schankweiler said residents tell him communication was lacking throughout the pandemic, saying: “We didn’t hear anything from anybody about what was going on and where.”
Papenfuse, meanwhile, said he believed city government had done better than most in the things it could control.
For example, he hailed his early decision to tap cash reserves to fund an early small business grant program that the mayor said helped some of the most vulnerable businesses in the city stay afloat before state and federal programs got started. His eviction moratoriums, he said, had kept people in their homes throughout the economic crisis.
Banks hit Papenfuse – and Williams, by extension – hard throughout the night for overseeing a city government that he…