Wilmington's next mayor may need only about 4,000 votes to win

Jeanne Kuang
Delaware News Journal

If the same number of voters turn out in Wilmington's Democratic primary this month as did four years ago, the next mayor of the city with 71,000 residents could be chosen with just 4,001 votes.

That's less than 6% of residents.

The Sept. 15 primary determines who wins the seat. In a Democratic-dominated city like Wilmington, for decades there have rarely been competitive Republican challengers.

This year, there isn't any Republican challenger at all.

But because of historically low turnout in primaries, only a small slice of voters is needed to become mayor, an influential position determining the direction of Delaware's largest city for its residents and others who work or own businesses there.

Mayoral primary candidate and Wilmington City Treasurer Velda Jones-Potter, left, current Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzicki, center, and mayoral primary candidate and former Wilmington City Councilman Justen Wright.

Fewer than a third of the city's registered Democrats tend to vote in the mayoral primary.

Any of the three candidates — City Treasurer Velda Jones-Potter, former City Councilman Justen Wright and Mayor Mike Purzycki — would need more votes than Purzycki got in the crowded 2016 primary to win.

There are nearly 39,000 registered Democrats in the city this year, up more than 3,000 from four years ago.

Without widespread door-knocking, rallies or the numerous debates held in 2016, political observers said it's harder to predict which candidate is in the lead and harder to tell if the same numbers game of previous primaries applies.

REMOTE VOTING: Delaware officials assure mail-in voting is secure, send mail ballot 'as early as you can'

As of Thursday, the Department of Elections had received 7,487 requests for absentee or mail-in ballots, which are allowed for everyone this year because of the pandemic, from Wilmington voters.

City residents have returned 3,406 ballots so far, though it's unknown if all voted in the mayoral primary.

Delaware Online/The News Journal detailed the phenomenon, in which commentators said Wilmington's mayor could get elected without a "mandate" from a majority of the city or even a majority of votes cast, prior to the last primary. 

MINORITY RULES: Wilmington mayor, without a mandate

110612-WIL ELEX local New Castle County Gordon Bullock Sheldon- Wilmington Mayor-Elect Dennis Williams stands with his wife, Shayne, as he thanks supporters at Timothy's on the Riverfront in Wilmington, Election Night, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012.
The News Journal/William Bretzger

A candidate hasn't become mayor with a majority of votes cast since 2008 when then-Mayor Jim Baker beat his challenger Robert Bovell Jr. and won a third term with nearly 7,000 votes, about 65%. The following election, facing four opponents, Dennis Williams won the primary with 38% of votes, about 4,200. 

Four years ago, Purzycki ran against Williams and six other candidates, winning the Democratic primary with 2,968 votes — not even a quarter of ballots cast. He beat the runner-up, Eugene Young, by 234 votes. 

HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE: Purzycki finds strength in neighborhood voters

It leads to elections in which candidates can rely on their bases of support to carry them, without having to appeal to the entire city.

Wilmington mayoral primary winners by district: map

Purzycki got half his votes in his own election district, which includes affluent areas such as the Highlands. Third-place finisher Kevin Kelley dominated his home base in the third election district of southwest Wilmington but didn't come close in any other district.

Young said his 2016 campaign, in which he said knocked on 50,000 doors, "understood that dynamic." He won three of the city's six districts.

"We chose to specifically create a mass citywide campaign," he said. "There are individuals that have had strongholds throughout the city in certain selected areas, and I think they play to those strengths during the race. That'll be interesting as to how it translates into this race."

Eugene Young speaks with a young person an outside of  Harlan Elementary School on Sept. 12, 2016.

Williams backer and political observer Ed Osborne denied that campaigns try to get only a minimum number of votes.

"You fight as hard as you can," he said. "No one says I'll be happy with a small percentage of the vote. Everybody thinks they want 51% of the vote to know that they won."

In this election, he said, "it's all about voter turnout."

"A lot of votes are simply received by knocking on doors and shaking one's hand," he said. "COVID is a game-changer."

Cassandra Marshall, chair of the Democratic Party City Committee, believes turnout will be higher because of mail-in voting. 

She said campaigning has simply become "less visible," with more phone-banking and text ads. The committee has hosted virtual town halls with city candidates, some in partnership with The News Journal, that are recorded, allowing far more people to view them.

She said the margin of victory for mayor in 2016 was an "anomaly" in which many candidates "looked at a bigger and bigger field" and saw that it would be easier to win with a plurality. She sees the race as much more competitive this year. 

Contact Jeanne Kuang at jkuang@delawareonline.com or (302) 324-2476. Follow her on Twitter at @JeanneKuang.