Who Will Save Us?

Our institutions aren’t what they used to be. The political system has changed, too—and not for the better. Solving our problems will require new leaders who can win new commitments from vested partners.

Also by John Sweeney: “After the Riots: 50 Years Later, Have We Learned Anything?

Politicians aren’t going to save us.

Then again, neither will big business.

One of the harshest lessons of the 50 years since the Wilmington riots is that the institutions that used to guide the city and the state—the leaders we turned to or trusted to keep our best interests at heart—have either left town, faded away or gone bonkers.

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Look at the elections. If we are willing to concede that our national political system has gone crazy, why shouldn’t we say the same thing about local politics?

If you tend to be forgiving about the way we do things in the First State, remember this: Eight people sought the Democratic Party’s nomination for mayor in 2016. All they had to do was hear the dog-whistle “call” of the people, collect a few signatures and pay a fee. Seven of them essentially were running to keep the incumbent, Dennis Williams, from being re-elected. Yet none of them dropped out or threw their support to a more winnable candidate. It was as if each of the candidates had bought a ticket in a lottery believing Lady Luck was on his or her side.

Considering how the system works, it wasn’t a bad strategy. The eventual winner, Mike Purzycki, won with 2,968 votes, or 23.59 percent of the total. Wilmington, of course, is solidly Democratic. That makes the primary the real battle. The general election does not matter. Therefore, Mike Purzycki became mayor of a city of 71,000 by winning 2,968 votes. That was 234 votes more than his closest rival had.

This is not to knock the new mayor or any of the candidates. However, it does raise a question about our political system.

Related: “From the Editor: The Struggle *Is* Real

People in office do matter. Back in 1968, the agony of the post-riot occupation was in the hands of the then-governor, Charles Terry. If a different person had been governor, it is possible that the National Guard would have been withdrawn much earlier and that blot on Delaware history would disappear. Certainly, today’s political leaders are more sensitive to all of their constituents, and their intelligence-gathering systems are more professional. The selection of candidates, however, is more problematic today. Terry was chief justice of the state Supreme Court and a fixture in Kent County politics when he was given the nomination. In other words, the party establishment bestowed the job to him. He won a close race against his Republican challenger. Ironically, he got a big boost from the primarily black voting districts in Wilmington.

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That is not necessary anymore. Party establishments have no pull. The primary is all.

This year’s primaries for state Senate and attorney general promise more of what we got in 2016. Get used to it. Primary free-for-alls are here to stay. They are another gift from the troublesome year of 1968. The Chicago street riots at the Democratic Convention led to a series of reforms in both parties that eventually stripped power from the political bosses. Reformers banished the kingmakers from the smoke-filled rooms and opened the doors to the people—and the political action committees, the one-issue zealots and, of course, the self-nominated candidates.

At the national level, this has given us the Tea Party, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. These changes may be good or bad, according to your point of view. However, the new system has also intensified polarization and gridlock.

Democrats have controlled Wilmington since 1973. The Republican Party is practically nonexistent in the city and disappearing in the state. That means all of the political debates—such as they are—are Democratic debates. The primary is more important than the general election.

Once, political professionals like the late Leo Marshall ruled Wilmington politics. Now we have eight candidates for mayor.

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Other than personality, how much difference was there between 2016’s eight candidates for mayor? Farmers have a word for this sort of thing: monoculture. If you keep growing beans over and over in the same patch of dirt, pretty soon the beans fail and the dirt is exhausted. The same is true of the political system. A little variety can be healthy. Forty-five straight years of a Democratic monoculture in Wilmington has produced—what?

No one asks today’s candidates to run for office. They don’t have to earn any points working their way up through the system. They don’t have to be leaders of a sizable faction of voters. They just have to nominate themselves.

That makes legislators the equivalent of owner-operators of their own franchise. The concept of “rank-and-file” legislators has vanished from the political landscape. The legislators no longer owe allegiance to their party leaders. They listen to their own consciences—and their special-interest contributors.

Legislators are thus free to back their constituents’ favored programs, then to back away from paying for them. That makes lawmaking even tougher. One former state House leader said the legislators are so independent that leadership cannot even control its own caucus.

Theo Gregory, former president of Wilmington’s City Council, says he has seen many changes in the way council works. Gregory served on City Council for 32 years, four as president. When he started, the new council member worked with the leadership. Members didn’t go their own way and then complained afterwards. “Today, there’s no respect for leadership,” he says. “It’s like herding cats.”

“Politics like this is endemic to local government,” author Aaron Renn explains. Renn is a student of municipal government. He is the author of “The Urban State of Mind: Reflections on the City” and a frequent contributor to Governing Magazine and City Journal. He has visited cities across the country and has written extensively about the struggles of once-thriving regions.

“Until 40 years ago, cities were run by semi-machines. Now local government is one-party rule. Many people have never known great local governance. But hoping for great competitive politics isn’t the answer. That won’t happen.”

On the other hand, Renn says, it can’t be all that bad. “Every state thinks it has the country’s worst legislature, every city thinks it has the worst council.”

The bottom line is that the political system—as it exists—won’t save us.

In politics, there is little thinking beyond the next election cycle. In business, once a source of civic leadership, there is little thinking beyond the next quarter.

It wasn’t always that way.

One thing that did exist in 1968 Wilmington was the power of the DuPont Company. A number of observers of the riot’s aftermath have said that DuPont’s recommitment to downtown Wilmington kept the city from going the way of Chester, Pa., and Camden, N.J., the two troubled cities further up the Delaware River.

The one thing a 1968 Wilmingtonian would not have a guessed, however, was that someday there would be no DuPont presence in the city. Being the nation’s “corporate capital” had its benefits. Longtime Wilmington residents look back fondly on the days of working for “the duPonts,” or when getting Irv Shapiro of DuPont and Al Giacco of Hercules in the same room meant a guaranteed solution to whatever civic problem ailed the city.

No more.

Nostalgia may cloud the actual facts, but the businesses in town did come to the city’s aid often. There were always DuPont or Hercules or Wilmington Trust employees on boards, on loan to nonprofits or in leadership positions in charities and civic organizations. After DuPont came Charles Cawley and the generous bankers at MBNA. But the corporate world has changed since those days. DuPont is now DowDuPont Inc., and headquartered outside the city. MBNA doesn’t exist anymore. And, according to the heads of several nonprofits, the whole corporate world has changed. Now, says one nonprofit leader, when you go to one of the big banks for help on a project, you are told, “Corporate only gives us so much.”

The key word in that sentence is “corporate,” and it means someplace other than Wilmington.

Aaron Renn thinks that makes a crucial difference. “Many post-industrial places once had strong local leadership that was committed to city. Grand Rapids, Mich., for example, is doing very well now because of the Amway Corporation. The Van Andel and DeVos families started Amway and have pumped a log of money into the city.”

Rick DeVos started an arts festival called ArtPrize, which is flourishing and engages the public by letting them pick the winner. It is a large tourist attraction.

“Having local leaders who remain committed to your city and who invest back into the city, I think, is always positive.” 

“The loss of local banks is huge, in my view,” Renn says. “Local banks were once confined to their hometowns. Local bankers, along with local utilities, were the movers and shakers. All their money was local. If the local economy didn’t grow, they didn’t grow.”

For the companies that don’t have local roots, the local action is merely part of a bigger, far-off game that could be played anywhere.

“You can’t ride DuPont for 500 years,” Renn says. “GE is breaking up. There is no more iconic American company than GE. The lesson is that you have to be constantly creating new businesses and growing them over time.”

Remember, even the fabled Financial Center Development Act from the early 1980s came about not just because of leadership from Gov. Pete du Pont and his administration, but also from united civic leaders, business executives committed to Delaware, and a disciplined corps of Democrats and Republicans in the state House and Senate.

Where would we find leaders like that today?

That’s a good question. They are probably out there somewhere.

“The fact of the matter is, there is tremendous inertia in cities and states,” Renn says. “We just have to find new ways to mobilize leadership.”

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