This year’s race for Williamsport Mayor has been exciting to watch, at least for political junkies like me.
In November of 2018, Republican businessman Eric Beiter became the first candidate to announce, promising “A Fresh Start,” a not-so-subtle dig at the GOP incumbent. Beiter also pointed to his successful record in business as a major qualifier. Shortly after, long-time Republican City Councilman Don Noviello, a well-regarded political science faculty member at Penn College, threw his hat in the ring pledging to “develop more opportunities to bring the City further into the 21st Century.”
Democratic City Councilman Derek Slaughter, a popular match teacher and girls’ basketball coach, known as a thorn in the side of the Campana Administration, became the only Democrat seeking the City’s top job in February of 2019. Slaughter promised a city government that was “transparent, accountable, and efficient.”
In February of 2019, after a tumultuous tenure which included peaks (Kohl’s, Trade and Transit II, the Liberty Arena) and valleys (a PFA being filed and later withdrawn against him by his estranged wife, the late night removal of basketball hoops from Memorial Park, and a failed professional hockey team) three-term Mayor Gabe Campana announced that he would be seeking the GOP nod for Lycoming County Commissioner, rather than running for a fourth Mayoral term. This appeared to ensure that for the first time in over a decade, Williamsport would have a new mayor.
Prior to Campana’s 12-year run, the Williamsport electorate has not been particularly kind to their mayors.
In recent memory, three mayors were voted out after just one term and a fourth decided not to seek a second term. Democrat Mayor Jessie Bloom was defeated in 1991 by Republican Phil Preziosi. Mayor Preziosi decided to not to run in 1995 after Steve Cappelli announced he would be seeking the Republican nomination. While Cappelli went on to be re-elected unopposed in 1999, he left office in 2001 to assume the office of State Representative. Republican Mayor Mike Rafferty lost a close race in 2003 to fellow Republican Mary Wolf, who herself went on to be defeated by then Councilman Gabe Campana in a Republican Primary in 2007.
Gabe Campana was one of only a few mayors to hold office for more than one term, and one of only two to have been elected to three terms. The only other three-term mayor was Leo C. Williamson, whose own efforts for a fourth term fell just a bit short when he lost in 1951 to Clifford Harman.
With no challenger on the Democrat side, Councilman Slaughter focused on securing his base and raising money throughout the Primary. His landslide 2017 City Council election victory gave a perception that Slaughter may have the front-runner status.
On the Republican side, Councilman Noviello and Beiter participated in a quiet contest for the GOP nomination. The local Republican Committee decided not to endorse either man, preferring to allow an open Primary. City Republicans, used to bitter Primary contests, were surprised at the positive, issue-focused campaigns of Noviello and Beiter.
Compared to bitter fights in 2007 (Incumbent Mayor Mary Wolf vs. then Councilman Gabe Campana), 2011 (Mayor Gabe Campana vs. Councilwoman Gerry Fausnaught), and 2015 (Mayor Gabe Campana vs. Councilman Bill Hall), the 2019 GOP Primary race was pleasant and uneventful. On May 21, 2019, Beiter defeated Councilman Don Noviello, earning his party’s nod for mayor. Noviello supported Beiter in a speech shortly after the Primary and donated $1,000 to his campaign, an encouraging sign of unity.
By Labor Day, most political observers saw a tightening race between Beiter and Slaughter. Both men campaigned on positive themes and avoided direct criticism of each other. Penn College hosted a candidate’s forum which was more noted for the careful answers and non-controversial tone of the candidates than any “game changing” moments.
By running for Commissioner, incumbent Mayor Gabe Campana appeared to be giving up his mayoral seat. In the May Primary, Campana found himself defeated for Commissioner, after finishing fourth in a crowded field of nine candidates. Then in early October of this year, Campana pulled an “October surprise” by announcing that he would in fact be seeking a fourth term as mayor, as a “write-in” candidate. He claimed that he was running “at the urging of a group of grassroots supporters … These Williamsport taxpayers attended the recent forum between the two candidates for Mayor,” but were “disappointed with the lack of goal setting and the general answers given without specifics concerning pressing issues.”
The move was in fact a surprise, with Republicans mostly rallying behind their nominee Eric Beiter, many expressing concerns that the move by Campana would split the party, giving the Democratic party an edge.
Campana will not be the first “write-in” or third-party candidate for mayor to play a major role in the outcome of a mayoral election. Steve Lucasi won as a “write-in” in the 1980’s. Elliot Weiss ran as an Independent in 1995, losing to Steve Cappelli by coming in a respectful third place behind Democrat Jesse Bloom, who after four years out of office attempted a political comeback. In 2007, then Williamsport City Councilman Tom O’Connor nearly won a “write-in” campaign waged against then-Councilman Gabe Campana and Democratic nominee Bill McConell. In 1995 and 2007, the presence of a third candidate was thought to benefit Democrats, though that never turned out to be the case, with Republicans and Newberry Democrats coalescing behind the GOP nominees.
Mayor Campana attempted to shift momentum at last week’s Mayoral Forum, during which he attempted to land some shots on Slaughter. While loosely attacking both men as “nice guys without experience,” Mayor Campana saved his harshest attacks for Councilman Slaughter, accusing the councilman of not using his current position to advance many of the initiatives that he has advocated for during the campaign. He also attacked Slaughter for “not contributing a dime” toward his city health insurance, claiming that this “cost the citizens, get this, $25,000 per year.” Side note: It should be noted that these benefits are offered to ALL City Council members.
Both Slaughter and Beiter appeared unfazed by the Mayor’s attacks and both stuck to their basic campaign messages. Councilman Slaughter focused on the need for transparency, accountability, and efficiency in city government, while Beiter focused on his business background and ‘Contract with Williamsport,’ which outlines his specific agenda, if elected.
In my humble opinion, this Election has the possibility of going down to the wire. It could be very close. The three major factors which will determine the outcome of this Election will be turnout, party loyalty, and “the Campana factor.”
Let’s deal with the Campana factor first: I don’t think that the Mayor can win as a write-in. He has not spent enough money, nor does he have the volunteer apparatus to pull off such a feat. His role in the race may have been to “soften” Slaughter’s reputation by launching attacks on him or to pull GOP votes away from Beiter. Most likely, he simply entered this race due to a lack of other employment opportunities. His legacy will, unfortunately for him, be more defined by the way that he will leave office than his accomplishments while in office.
Now let’s look at turnout: While Democrats have a roughly 1,000 vote registration edge in the city, this number includes many younger voters who don’t generally vote in “off-year” elections and conservative Newberry Regan-Trump Democrats, who are not generally happy with the increasingly leftward direction of their national party. Republicans tend to show up in much higher numbers than Democrats in the city, giving them an 8%-12% advantage in most citywide elections. If we have a traditional voter turnout, I would say Republican Eric Beiter is likely to win. If there is a significant uptick in normal turnout, Democrat Derek Slaughter could emerge the victor.
Finally, a note on party loyalty: If folks don’t stay loyal to their national party affiliation, anything could happen regardless of turnout.
So basically, anything could happen next Tuesday November 5.
About the Author
Jason M. Fitzgerald of Williamsport is a former political consultant and political commentator. He graduated from Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania in 2005, where he earned a degree in Political Science with a Minor in Economics. Fitzgerald is currently President and a Partner with Penn Strategies.
The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed in this editorial do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of NorthcentralPa.com