Candidates for Harrisburg’s mayor share competing plans for economy, policing

  • Alanna Elder

(Harrisburg) — Four of the past five Harrisburg mayors have been Democrats, and members of that party have just two weeks to choose between five candidates for mayor. 

Republican Timothy Rowbottom is running unopposed for his party’s nomination.

Here’s a look at the candidates’ approaches to two of the most prominent issues in the primary: economic development and public safety.

Economic Development

Providing economic opportunities for business owners and workers is a critical topic in the race to lead a city with a 26.2% poverty rate. The 2019 Census estimate, which is more than twice that of the state, is equal to the rate counted in the last Census in 2010.

Otto Banks

A former city council member and federal Housing and Urban development official, Banks leads school choice organization REACH. He is quick to criticize incumbent Mayor Eric Papenfuse for not doing more to ensure historically disadvantaged businesses get contracts and city residents get jobs.

“There are mechanisms out there that should be used, that should be promoted, that are not,” he said.

Banks, who is campaigning on his experience with economic development policy at the federal level, proposes offering tax credits to businesses who hire locally, partnering with local unions to train residents ahead of a big project, and revamping the city’s inactive revolving loan program to give more people access to capital. One of his main points is a call for the local government to pressure or incentivize developers to hire Black and Latino contractors.

In a debate hosted by ABC27, Banks said he would give the city’s Office of Equity and Affirmative Action the authority to enforce minority contracting and hiring goals using fines or legal action, as well as the power to investigate discrimination within city departments. He said the office would manage disadvantaged business programs that are under the Bureau of Economic Development.

Banks, who other candidates have criticized for having a mixed history of political affiliation, changed from a Democrat to Republican in the early 2000s and was appointed to HUD by former president George Bush’s administration. He said he felt disillusioned with the Democratic party at the time but switched back recently because he disagreed with former President Trump’s policies and rhetoric.

Kevyn Knox

Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center General Manager Kevyn Knox initially responded to an interview request but did not end up participating. In the ABC27 debate, however, he said he would support raising the minimum wage. But he pointed out, state law blocks municipalities except Philadelphia from requiring employers to pay higher wages.

“We can give incentives to businesses, tax incentives, to raise the minimum wage to 12, 15, 16, whatever makes a living wage for the people,” he said during the ABC27 debate.

Knox, who is running as a political outsider who says he would back progressive policies, also repeated the importance of attracting and supporting “black-owned businesses, LGBTQ-owned businesses, women-owned businesses, [and] immigrant-owned businesses.”

Eric Papenfuse

The incumbent mayor, whose website describes his campaign as a “bridge to a sustainable political future,” is asking voters to allow him to serve one more four-year term to continue economic recovery and other projects that began during his previous two.

Papenfuse did not respond to an interview request, but in the debate, he defended his administration’s minority contracting record, saying the Bureau of Economic Development conducts outreach to promote equity. He criticized Banks’ proposal to recreate the city’s revolving loan program by saying it invited corruption under the administration of late former mayor Stephen Reed.

Papenfuse cheered progress the city has made in securing the ability to continue to charge extra taxes, as well as the building boom. He plugged a proposal to use some of the $48 million expected to flow to Harrisburg from the American Rescue Plan Act for a universal basic income program.

Later, in a virtual town hall organized by an organization called Survive and Tell, which represents victims of domestic violence involving police officers, he said the move would “lift thousands of families out of poverty” and could be “a form of reparations.”

Papenfuse has also said he supports a higher minimum wage and criticized mayoral candidate Dave Schankweiler for not taking the same stance, pointing to the former publisher’s affiliation with the Republican party.

Dave Schankweiler

Like Banks, Central Penn Business Journal founder Dave Schankweiler is proposing ideas to create more opportunities for residents through job training and attention to local businesses. He frequently begins responses by describing what he learned by surveying residents across the city and meeting weekly with community leaders.

“We talk a lot about small business. We don’t support our small business area very well here,” he said.

Schankweiler said he would open a new Office of Minority Entrepreneurship and Small Business Growth to provide education, mentorship, and funding to help businesses get past “the five-year mark,” which he said is a key threshold. He plans to develop a new contractor database to ensure access to projects, which he said would ensure more money generated by those projects stays in the city.

The co-founder of Harrisburg University said he would also work to attract firms in four fields – “technology, healthcare, senior living, and advanced manufacturing” – and create training programs to help people access those jobs.

Responding to Papenfuse’s criticism of his previous political affiliation, Schankweiler said in an interview he is one of many former Republicans who left the party because of their opposition to its direction under former president Donald Trump. He added, being a Democratic candidate in the majority-blue city is pragmatic.

Wanda Williams

City Council President Wanda Williams is highlighting her lifetime in Harrisburg and long career as a Democrat – she has the local party committee’s endorsement – as well as statewide and national connections she has developed over years of working in municipal government.

The council leader promised to do more for minority, women, and LGBTQ business owners: “For the first time in history, I’ll make sure we have a level playing field,” she said in the debate.

Later, Williams said in an interview her administration would work to “require fairness” in contracting, using lessons from other municipalities that have implemented such mandates.

She too said she supports a revival of the city’s revolving loan program for businesses that need capital to survive and grow.

Williams said she aims to use the American Rescue Plan money to coordinate with nonprofits to support anti-poverty programs that provide shelter, housing, and job training. She said she is also looking to direct federal money toward infrastructure improvements, including street repaving and upgrades to the city’s sewage system. The updates are a main campaign priority, alongside affordable housing, in her agenda.

Williams is pitching a “revitalization” of the thriving, community-oriented neighborhoods she remembers from her childhood by helping people with home repairs, for example, and “holding residents accountable” for the appearance of their yards.

Timothy Rowbottom

Timothy Rowbottom is the sole Republican candidate in the race. He recently came under fire from people who read homophobic and anti-transgender posts he made to his campaign Facebook page, and PennLive reported he faces unrelated charges of simple assault, child endangerment, and strangulation connected with a May 2020 incident that allegedly occured in his home. His next court date is scheduled for early June.

In an interview, Rowbottom repeated claims in the posts that said LGBTQ advocacy corrupts and endangers youth. At least some of those posts remained on the Facebook page as of publication.

The Republican candidate admitted to hitting his daughter last year but denied the strangulation charge, which prosecutors added later. Rowbottom said he believes it was retaliation for his 2019 lawsuit in federal court against the city. The case involves a conflict with the city over zoning regulations that affect a property he owns.

He is running, he said, to bring attention to what he describes as corruption in the local court system and to combat the approval of new breweries and dispensaries, which he said contribute to addictions, in the city.

Like other candidates, though, he is interested in job training programs. He has advocated for preparing people for high-tech careers in fields like music production and graphic design out of the former William Penn High School building.

“The way the whole system is set up is, ‘Hey, we’re going to go get you a minimum-wage paying job,’” he said. “That’s not a plan. That’s a plan to fail.”

Out of frustration with Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration’s COVID-19 restrictions, Rowbottom said he is opening a chapter of the right-wing group Free PA in the Allison Hill neighborhood, where he lives.

Policing & Safety

Most of the candidates say they’d take a multi-layered approach to addressing a recent spike in homicides and a community-policing approach to protecting residents from racial bias.

In 2020, the city reported 22 homicides, which PennLive noted was the highest rate in 30 years.

Harrisburg also faced pressure to respond to calls for more law enforcement accountability, after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor brought more widespread attention to police brutality and racial injustice.

Otto Banks

For Banks, preventing crime means providing economic opportunities to all city residents.

“There are a lot of people given circumstances and actually forced into that way of life,” he said.

In addition to training, loan, and business proposals described above, he is promoting a new “Film, Arts, Culture, and Tourism” office that he says will expand the range of available jobs.

He said he would also increase patrols in neighborhoods that are seeing more violence, and increase oversight of officers by their superiors.

Banks’ approach to law enforcement policy would be to work with the police union to add de-escalation and mental health training and accountability measures to the department.

“Although you have politicians and elected officials discussing what needs to be done, you have to understand, there is a union contract that’s in place,” he said.

Banks said he would work to ensure people could feel safe to come forward with complaints against officers without feeling humiliated or intimidated and encourage law enforcement to build relationships with residents. Banks said he would make data on police stops accessible as part of an effort to make the city government more transparent online.

For a better police-community relationship overall, though, he has reiterated that the city needs to work harder to recruit more Black and Latino officers and firefighters. The city can be doing more to attract and train candidates for those jobs, he said.

Kevyn Knox

Knox said in the debate that he supports mandatory cultural competency trainings, social workers as first responders where applicable, and a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination by officers.

“There have been too many instances where they escalated because of the color of their skin, or because you’re an immigrant or because you are the LGBTQ community,” he said. “And we need to put an end to that.”

On social media, Knox’s campaign account has also advocated for moving funding from local law enforcement to other departments, but the posts do not specify how much money would be diverted or to where.

Eric Papenfuse

In Survive & Tell’s town hall, Papenfuse said overall crime has gone down and a response to the increase in homicides “requires collective solutions,” including community initiatives and gun reform advocacy.

Earlier in his tenure, the mayor directed police to begin enforcing gun ordinances in the city, which led to a lawsuit against the restrictions. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have faced cases like Harrisburg’s, which is before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Papenfuse also lauded a new police substation and an effort to improve street lighting with organizations in the Allison Hill area.

He responded to Banks’ point that the force should better reflect the city’s population by saying that finding qualified police and retaining them is difficult.

During the debate, Papenfuse said representation was one of the reasons he proposed new, entry-level civilian positions for the police department. Seven community service aides, whose jobs were approved by the city council in the 2021 budget, are expected to do a combination of office work and community outreach, according to the mayor’s original proposal.

“We don’t have to go through civil service rules; they don’t have to have any particular qualifications, the same things that police officers might have to have, and that’s going to diversify the force as a whole,” he said.

The mayor and city council also created jobs for social workers to work as co-responders with law enforcement as well as a new captain position for the community policing division of the department.

Dave Schankweiler

Schankweiler has made homicide statistics a common refrain of his campaign, in which he describes reducing violence as a top priority.

“So many of us love this city, know this city; we know the people of this city that are our neighbors, and we don’t want that to be our headline,” he said.

Schankweiler pledges to spend his first days as mayor gathering community and government leaders in what he calls a “Citywide Action Summit on Violence Prevention” to design solutions.

Some of the interventions he has in mind now include hiring more police, creating youth programs, and improving quality of life across the city by addressing blight and poor street lighting.

Schankweiler has proposed a “Unified Neighborhood Council” of people from each area of the city to continue efforts identified in the summit.

For Schankweiler, community policing has merit – but he has disagreed with Papenfuse that it describes what city law enforcement does now. He is advocating for more practices like scheduling officers to walk around the neighborhood to talk with residents. And echoing critics of the civilian positions during the 2021 budget discussions, he said their roles needed to be further defined.

He said a common thread in his own conversations with residents is a desire for more law enforcement presence, so filling officer vacancies in the department would be another of his goals.

Wanda Williams

City Council President Williams has praised the city’s efforts to recover illegal guns. She said she wants to continue that work and have law enforcement work with the school district to teach young people about the risks and consequences of carrying guns.

She also agreed with the mayor’s defense of recent steps to improve policing.

“We have done everything that we possibly could do at this time,” she said in the debate.

The city aims to provide mental health training through Dauphin County to help officers respond appropriately to mental health issues.

City council also voted last November to create a police advisory committee with subpoena powers. Williams was the sole vote against the measure, expressing concern at the time that the check on law enforcement could undermine public safety.

But Williams recently said in an interview that the city council was “very responsible” in creating the board, which she said will be filled after the department finishes hiring community service aids. Still, she said her goal is to improve relationships between residents and law enforcement rather than give citizens oversight.

Williams said she is also talking with the police commissioner about creating a small group to hear complaints received by the community service aids, in addition to the board, to give them indirect access to the commissioner when he is busy.

“Sometimes you forget that it’s the smallest of things that happen and you don’t look at it as being serious, but it is,” she said.

Timothy Rowbottom

While he did not outline plans for police reform, Rowbottom said he agrees there is a “double standard” in how people are treated in the criminal justice system. He said city institutions including schools and courts need to do a better job of showing respect to all residents. That, he said, could make it easier to fill positions in the police force, for example.

Rowbottom said the city should ensure people leaving incarceration are given opportunities instead of more limitations.

“They get out, they take their drivers’ licenses; they put them in these halfway houses that are worse than their own homes,” he said.

Among his complaints around local courts is frustration with how public defenders have handled his cases in the past. He said they seemed too friendly with prosecutors and were underprepared.

Upcoming debate

Local groups have been organizing virtual and in-person forums with the candidates to help voters absorb their takes on these issues and others they may be watching, such as affordable housing, public works, and education. One that’s still to come is a May 12 online mayoral debate organized by the neighborhood group Friends of Midtown.

The primary is May 18 and voters can find a list of polling places as well as mail-in voting information on the county website.

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