Gov. Carney launches unprecedented Wilmington mayoral campaign

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Gov. John Carney has been a resident of Wilmington for nearly 40 years, and now aims to become its next mayor. | SPOTLIGHT DELAWARE PHOTO BY JEA STREET JR.
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by Jacob Owens

This story was produced by Spotlight Delaware, a community-powered, collaborative, nonprofit newsroom covering the First State. Learn more at spotlightdelaware.org 

Gov. John Carney has filed to run in the September Democratic primary, but instead of seeking federal office like some of his predecessors, he’s running to be mayor of his hometown, Wilmington.

With Mayor Michael Purzycki declining to run for re-election after two terms, citing a desire to spend more time with family as he approached age 78, Carney will face a field that currently includes only former state and city Treasurer Velda Jones-Potter.

The decision by the governor, 67, was expected after he said last fall that he was interested in the role and has since quietly raised more than $100,000 in campaign funding, according to records.

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While the move is unprecedented by a sitting governor in modern history, Carney said that after more than 30 years serving in public office he believes it will actually be his biggest challenge yet. In thinking about the future, he was energized by the progress made in Wilmington in recent years to address crime, redevelop affordable housing, jumpstart economic development, and solve longstanding issues in educational opportunity.

“People say, ‘Oh, that’s a step down, isn’t it?’ It’s kind of more of a step up to me, because the challenges are tougher,” he said.

On Monday afternoon, Carney sat down with Spotlight Delaware to share his outlook on city finances, policing, politics and even what he wants to see done with the now statue-less Rodney Square.

Governor John Carney Mayor Wilmington Delaware 2024 election
Gov. John Carney talks with Spotlight Delaware Editor In Chief Jacob Owens in downtown Wilmington on Monday after filing in the mayoral election. | SPOTLIGHT DELAWARE PHOTO BY JEA STREET JR.

Shedding Purzycki’s shadow

After eight years of Purzycki at the helm of Delaware’s largest city, Carney said that there are many accomplishments to be proud of but that voters should not consider his campaign as an extension of Purzycki’s administration.

“We are different and take different approaches,” Carney said, particularly noting his emphasis on education issues on which the current mayor has been quieter. “It’s a critical time. I think the city’s on a good positive path, but there are lots of big issues.”

While Purzycki brought an emphasis on economic revitalization of the Market Street corridor, spurred in tandem by significant investments by hometown developer Buccini/Pollin Group, and the redevelopment of affordable housing, along with partners like REACH Riverside and Tomorden Foundation, Carney has a passion for education – his parents were teachers in local city schools.

He championed the Wilmington Learning Collaborative as a way to address the educational disparities in the city that have lingered since schools were desegregated decades ago. While the mayor does not have a formal role on the WLC, Carney said that he would continue to advocate for its necessity in addressing city educational needs.

With some teachers angered by early surveys by the WLC that were critical of the results of local schools, Carney heard their concerns and advised them to stay a part of the process.

“We have to have high expectations,” he said, noting that he’d like to see greater balance given to the concerns of educators though.

“We’ve got to find ways to adjust to this new reality.” – GOV. JOHN CARNEY ON THE IMPACT OF REMOTE WORKING ON WILMINGTON

City finances, economic future

Wilmington is entering a third act of sorts following the heydays of DuPont and first downtown revitalization after the Great Recession, but now is taking a post-COVID shift toward growing residences rather than offices.

The proliferation of remote working, especially among the city’s longtime banking and legal industries, has led employers to vacate offices, thereby decreasing city wage taxes and putting property assessments at risk of appeals – the latter of which he expects to be a major issue for Wilmington’s next mayor.

“We’ve got to find ways to adjust to this new reality,” Carney said, noting that the city’s revenue sources are not as elastic as the state’s, meaning they don’t necessarily rise with overall economic growth. “So we’re gonna have to be creative.”

Having recently returned from a trip to Ireland, the governor said he was impressed with the growth of the biopharmaceutical industry there, something he thought Wilmington, with roots in Incyte and AstraZeneca, could embrace.

“You can’t always swing for the fences, you have to get smaller employers and smaller employees too,” he said.

As a former state finance secretary, Carney has always advocated for conservative budgeting. In his first year as governor, he patched a $400 million deficit by working with legislators.

In Wilmington, the city has raised property taxes or water and sewer rates in each of the last three years to fill declining revenues after the pandemic. With revenues likely to decline in the future as remote work grows, Carney advised that careful financial planning with an eye on efficiency will be needed for the next mayor.

Thawing a council

The next mayor will likely look to reset a relationship with a 13-member city council that has often been at odds with the Purzycki administration on issues ranging from a proposed blight ordinance to the fight over towing enforcement, and most recently the “residency requirement” that city employees must live in city limits for the first five years of their service.

Carney, who has lived in Wilmington’s Triangle Neighborhood for nearly 40 years, said that he has met with most council members already and plans to meet with them all to better understand their priorities.

“It’s a combination of winning their support by being a strong leader and helping them with the things that are important, particularly to their district,” he said.

It will likely help that Carney already agrees with some of the council’s recent positions.

He said the current residency requirement of five years “seems reasonable” and would support its preservation, particularly for public safety roles.

Carney also favors restarting conversations around the future of Rodney Square when the time is right, but said that he’s in favor of renaming it Joe Biden Square, after the state’s first president.

“I think it would be a good solution, but we ought to have a dialogue that’s done when things are settled down a little bit instead of heated as they were when it was taken down,” he said.

Governor John Carney Mayor Wilmington Delaware 2024 election
Gov. John Carney helped the city fund the Gang Violence Intervention (GVI) program in 2019, which has helped to reform some gang members. | PHOTO COURTESY OF GOVERNOR’S OFFICE

A safe Wilmington

Earlier this year, the Wilmington Police Department reported a five-year low in murders in the city as shootings have decreased.

Attorney General Kathy Jennings credited a 2021 law that required secured cash bail for all serious felonies as one reason for how she’s been able to lower crime rates that once plagued Wilmington.

The governor added that a concerted state-city effort to root out gangs in Wilmington under the initiative known as Gang Violence Intervention, or GVI, has helped to break loose gang members and prevent further bloodshed.

If elected, Carney said that he wants to expand those social services to reach younger kids before they become initiated into a gang.

“Crime is a big issue for many neighborhoods, because people have to live kind of like prisoners, particularly the elderly folks. So it’s a really high priority for us. And I think we have a good approach. I think we really need to work on how you get that next level out, and I think it’s through the middle schools and the high schools because that’s where the kids are.”

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