Who will lead Wilmington City Council? Feuding factions square off in primary

Jeanne Kuang
Delaware News Journal

With a few months left this term and just weeks until the primary election, Ernest “Trippi” Congo wants his Wilmington City Council seat back.

He is vying for something bigger at the same time — the seat of City Council president, currently held by Hanifa Shabazz — in a power struggle that has been playing out across Wilmington government for years.

Some have described it as a tale of two cities, a division between supporters of Mayor Mike Purzycki, the former Riverfront developer, and those who say his administration hasn't paid enough attention to the city's majority-Black neighborhoods.

Purzycki has two challengers in that fight: former Councilman Justen Wright and City Treasurer Velda Jones-Potter.

The split is most visible among the 13 members of the City Council, where Shabazz aligns with Purzycki and Congo belongs to a camp positioned squarely against.

(from left) Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki and Wilmington Treasurer Velda Jones-Potter.

Congo has demanded a public hearing before the City Council to discuss his residency in the 2nd District and whether admissions that he had moved out of the district in July were grounds to remove him from his seat.

His admissions prompted Shabazz to issue him a letter revoking his seat, citing a city charter provision requiring council members to remain residents of the districts they represent or their seats will “immediately be forfeited and become vacant.” 

Official certification that the seat is vacant has been held up before the City Council, though Congo has been off the city payroll as a councilman since July 30. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Now, the council is preparing to hire a third-party investigator at an undetermined cost to present the facts for a hearing, which has not yet been scheduled. The hiring will be introduced for the council’s approval Thursday.

Controversy over Congo’s seat revocation, which his ally Councilman Sam Guy has claimed was unlawful, will drag on past the election and a hearing over the matter will likely be heated.

But this power struggle between two factions of the City Council has been the council’s main feature for 3½ years – the very dispute over which Congo is running to unseat Shabazz on Sept. 15. 

The battle

The City Council began its term in January 2017 with a drawn-out conflict over the legislative body’s opening prayer. The rest of the term has proceeded in a similar fashion.

While there is division on policy grounds, much of the conflict has come down to procedures, rules and internal council matters.

Shabazz's critics on the council objected to the fact that she appointed the committee that interviewed candidates for the vacant 1st District seat in late 2018, sparking months of drama over the balance of power on the legislative body. The process for filling vacancies was then revised to include all members.

BACKGROUNDAs Wilmington City Council fights, residents say real problems are being neglected

Her critics have pointed out turnover among the council staff members Shabazz hired and accused her of holding legislative items from the agenda. 

Most publicly, they have had vitriolic clashes with Shabazz during public meetings over her enforcement of time limits and speaking rules, which they say is arbitrary.

Shabazz's critics on Council objected to the fact that she appointed the committee that interviewed candidates for the vacant 1st District seat in late 2018

“People expect us to be entertainment,” Congo said in an August interview about his campaign. “We’re seen as dysfunctional internally and by the public.”

Congo said he wants to make the City Council more democratic by giving council members equal decision-making power over matters such as the hiring and firing of staff, the distribution of the council's discretionary grants and who sits on which committee. 

"I want to treat everybody on council fairly, to decide how we function," he said.

Though the president of the council has in the past had deciding power over internal matters, Congo said Shabazz should have conceded it when she heard complaints from newer council members who were unaware they had agreed to the council rules that gave Shabazz more authority.

“From the start, members were frustrated,” he said. 

Wilmington Councilman Trippi Congo speaks during a budget hearing Wednesday in the City Council Chambers.

The first female president of the City Council, Shabazz blamed sexism for the clashes in the council, saying some of her male colleagues did not take kindly to a woman’s position of authority. She blamed the dysfunction for hampering the city’s progress on gun violence prevention and providing services for youth and seniors.

“There are certain points and certain levels of authority that I do have the say, and other things require the majority vote of council,” she said. “I did not create that process; I’m just following the process.”

But she has also been caught up in some controversy, with some accusing her of circumventing critics or public input.

During the back-and-forth over the vacant 1st District seat, Shabazz abruptly canceled one scheduled meeting when several of her opponent council members, finishing another meeting next door, were late to show up.

BACKGROUNDAmid meeting chaos, Wilmington City Council dispute over vacant seat intensifies

Residents complained when she and other council members were seen attending the 76ers Fieldhouse opening instead. After they left, Congo led the opposition in holding their own meeting, which led Shabazz to accuse them of violating the state open meetings law for lacking public notice.

Wilmington city council president Hanifa Shabazz (left) poses with other politicians at the opening of the 76ers Fieldhouse.

Shabazz came under fire earlier in her term for her role – uncovered by Delaware Online/The News Journal –in approving council discretionary grants set aside by former Council President Theo Gregory to go toward his own nonprofit.

Gregory faces misdemeanor corruption charges in that matter. 

In response, Shabazz's colleagues passed transparency legislation requiring council approval for large grants. Last summer, she went around it by granting 16 nonprofits that serve city youth $4,900 each — falling below the $5,000 threshold that required approval. Her colleagues had voted down the $5,000 proposal.

BACKGROUNDAfter Wilmington council rejected $5,000 grants, Shabazz gave out $4,900 instead

Shabazz last fall filed a police complaint against a city activist, Dion Wilson, who cursed at her when she barred him from speaking during the City Council's public comments. He was arrested at his home. 

The state's attorney general found that barring Wilson from speaking violated open meetings laws. Separately, prosecutors dropped Wilson's misdemeanor charges of harassment and disorderly conduct. 

MORE TO THE STORYArresting Wilmington man for speaking out went too far, First Amendment experts say

When asked about some of those decisions, Shabazz staunchly defended them, saying she called the police on Wilson for her safety. She accused Wilson of hurting women, a claim Delaware Online/The News Journal was not able to independently verify through court records last fall.

She said her distribution of the grants came after she received no input from her colleagues about where to put the money, while summer programs needed the funds.

“They could scratch, add, delete whatever they wanted,” she said. “They shot the whole thing down because they said it was my idea. ... Did I skirt the law? No, I used the law.”

'Council will act as the judge'

Shabazz is emphasizing her experience as council president, referencing the city budget that took a $13 million revenue hit this year due to the pandemic.

“Coming out of COVID, we don’t have the learning curve time,” she said. “We’re going to have major survival issues that need to be addressed.”

Wilmington City Council President Hanifa Shabazz listens during a budget hearing Wednesday in the City Council Chambers.

She accused her opponent of doing little with his time in office.

Of all the council members who have served this term in full, Congo has sponsored the second-fewest pieces of legislation, after at-large councilman Ciro Adams, a search through the council's website found.

MORE TO THE STORYHow often did your Wilmington City Council member attend meetings? See for yourself

A member of a prominent local family best known for running the Congo Funeral Homes, Congo first became a city councilman in 2008.

The family owns numerous properties around Wilmington and Congo – at some points in the last five years – owed thousands of dollars in unpaid property taxes on them, according to News Journal archives.

BACKGROUNDAs Wilmington focuses on debt collection, councilman avoids foreclosure

He appears never to have fundraised or received any donations, submitting in campaign finance reports that he’s personally financed all three of his City Council campaigns and his current campaign for council president. He has, in past elections, accumulated thousands of dollars in fines for failure to file required campaign finance forms.

Congo Funeral Home in Wilmington, Del.

In July, Congo was one of several Purzycki and Shabazz critics who changed their election filings after the deadline, making what appeared to be a coordinated play for higher offices in Wilmington. Before revealing his play for Shabazz’s seat, Congo had filed to run as an at-large councilman. 

MORE TO THE STORY: Mayor Mike Purzycki's rivals make surprise play for Wilmington city seats

The move prompted at-large Councilwoman Rysheema Dixon, who had been running for council president, to switch to running for reelection in her current seat. She said she didn't want the circumstances to become a distraction.

Congo said he did not ask Dixon to drop out of the race and denied that switching his office was planned in advance.

“Rysheema and I wanted the same things,” he said. “Most of Council wants the same things.”

For years, Congo has dodged rumors that he did not really live above the family funeral home at 23rd and Market streets, the address in the 2nd District that he lists as his home on election filings.

In the August interview conducted after his seat was revoked, he declined to further discuss where he lives.

It came to a head when he told a WDEL reporter in July that he had moved to the 8th District two weeks prior, and said he did not think it violated the city charter because he was now running for a citywide seat. 

BACKGROUNDWilmington councilman's seat revoked after he admits he moved out of his district

Last year, when then-7th District Councilman Bob Williams moved to Newark, his seat was declared vacant. 

After Shabazz revoked his 2nd District seat, Congo said he would simply move back. He denied that he had ever left his district prior to July, though the Highlands address where he said he moved has been listed under his name in campaign finance records since as early as 2015. 

Two weeks ago he told council members that he had moved back to the funeral home and wanted to continue serving as the 2nd District councilman for the rest of the year, but did not want a public hearing. He reversed course recently and asked for a hearing.

He has at least one ally in Guy, who pointed out in meetings that the city charter says the City Council “shall be the sole judge of the qualifications and election of its members,” and accused Shabazz of acting illegally when she revoked Congo’s seat.

Councilman Bud Freel, who represents the 8th District and is sponsoring the legislation to hire an investigator, said there’s “nothing in the charter that allows you to say, ‘Two weeks later I’m going to move back.’”

Freel said the hearing would likely not be scheduled until October, to give the investigator time to conduct interviews.

City Solicitor Bob Goff declined to give a definitive legal opinion on the situation.

Shabazz’s “letter simply observed that his conduct, in leaving his district, had by the clear language of the charter vacated and forfeited that position,” he said. “If he’s not a council member, it’s because he moved out of the district. But he’s challenged that, and Council will act as the judge on that.”

Jeanne Kuang covers Wilmington for The News Journal. Contact her at jkuang@delawareonline.com or (302) 324-2476.