Interview By Jadrian Klinger
The Run for Mayor of Harrisburg
As the temperature outside cools, political campaigns are heating up. Last year, we voted for President, but this year is all about local politics. The race for Mayor of Harrisburg is in full swing as the countdown to Election Day (November 5) enters its final full month. The highest office in the city is up for grabs, and candidates Eric Papenfuse and Dan Miller are competing for votes.
Harrisburg Magazine sat down with Miller and Papenfuse to help our readers get to know them a little better and to learn their visions for the future of Harrisburg. we present the candidates for Mayor of Harrisburg.
Miller, 57, grew up a mile or two outside of the Harrisburg city limits and lived there most of his life. He went to Central Dauphin High School and then HACC and Elizabethtown College. After working in downtown Harrisburg at a large CPA firm, Miller returned to school to earn his MBA from Penn State.
“From there, I had a couple jobs around the country, and then came back to Harrisburg and decided that I really wanted to focus on being a CPA in a small firm and actually have my own business someday, which ended up happening. I’ve been working in downtown Harrisburg 23 years.”
Elected to the office of Harrisburg City Controller, Miller also served as a member of the Harrisburg City Council from 2006 to 2010.
What compelled Miller to venture into politics?
“I’m a gay activist,” he says. “That’s my roots and, for many years, the thing that I’ve been working for. One of the questions in the back of our minds was if we could elect an openly gay city council member or elected official. We were at a very low point in our elected politics. We had just re-elected George [W.] Bush for the second time, and Rick Santorum was a Senator in Pennsylvania. For a lot of people, that was completely awful and demoralizing. I was one of those people. At lunch one day, my friend said I should run for [city] council. And that started it.”
Papenfuse, 42, was born in Baltimore and attended Yale University, earning Bachelor and Master of Arts degrees. About 15 years ago, he moved to Harrisburg because his wife landed a teaching job at Messiah College. Papenfuse also secured an education position, where he taught Latin at Central Dauphin East and Linglestown Junior High Schools.
“Then I opened a bookstore out of our home as sort of a mail-order book business that began to really grow. Soon we had a small building up the street and then another building where we were warehousing books. We were shipping books all over the country, and it continued to grow and grow. We’ve employed, over the past 10 years in the business, 250 people. We’ve got a multi-million-dollar business in terms of sales on a yearly basis.”
Papenfuse was appointed by Mayor Linda Thompson to the Harrisburg Authority in 2007. In 2009, he unsuccessfully ran for Harrisburg City Council, and then for Dauphin County Commissioner in 2011.
What compelled Papenfuse to venture into politics?
“One of the things that we noticed right away in Harrisburg, when we moved here, was a lack of civic engagement,” Papenfuse says. “We came from a community that was very engaged. When we came to Harrisburg, we were surprised. There weren’t those sort of third spaces in the community where people would come together to discuss the issues of the day. You had a mayor who had been elected repeatedly for many, many years. There wasn’t a sort of engaged public debate over what the best choices were, and we began to see what we thought were some very poor choices. This got us actively motivated politically in about 2004 or 2005.”
To learn more about Eric Papenfuse, visit papenfuseformayor.com.
What can voters expect if you’re elected?
Miller: People ask where my political career is going – it’s going nowhere. I never saw myself running for mayor. I never saw myself running for controller. I never knew how long I’d stay for city council. I ran for [Harrisburg] Controller because it needed to be done. One of the requirements for running for controller is that you must be an accountant. So, that’s why I did it, and I think we’ve done a tremendous and important job there. I want to do the same thing for mayor, but that’s it. That’s the end of my political career. I’m not a politician. I don’t have any political ambitions. I’m just a resident that wants to see good government because you see so much incompetence and so many bad things. I’ve travelled around the world. When you go down to Harrisburg’s river, especially more uptown where it’s natural flowing, I can’t think of a city that has that. It’s beautiful. It’s a tremendous asset, and Harrisburg not only has that, but it’s also the state capital. We have this wonderful economy in this area, but unfortunately in the small area of the city, it’s not the same. It could be. We could have the most dynamic, wonderful small city in the country – one that’s progressive and doing good, positive things. But we don’t. That’s what I’d like to see us moving toward. It’s just bad management and bad government.
Papenfuse: I haven’t been elected yet. The election is coming up on November 5. But they can expect to be engaged, relied upon to be part of the governing process. They can expect us to hire good, competent people. They can expect a government that is responsive to their needs. They can hopefully begin to expect the basic core functions of government to be addressed. They should expect to be safe. They should expect the streetlights to work. They should expect our city to be interested in working with others in the region in positive, constructive ways, not constantly battling it out over small issues. I think they can expect, for the first time, to really see this city take off economically. There’s a lot of pent-up demand in people that maybe wanted to invest. If you look at Harrisburg’s population, it has actually decreased over the past six years, whereas everywhere else it has increased. People have been on the sidelines ready to jump back in and invest in Harrisburg. You start getting on a roll with positive news stories and clear, decisive things that people can begin to see that it shows the city is moving in the right direction. I think they can expect a new renaissance for the City of Harrisburg.
What makes an effective mayor?
Papenfuse: I think it’s somebody who’s committed to engaging the public in conversation. Somebody who’s willing to listen to other people. Somebody who has a leadership style based on getting to best practices, not necessarily coming in with all of the answers or resisting people who are saying, “This is a better way,” but instead always being willing to learn and always trying to work in collaborative ways to build consensus. I think you would find that my leadership style is that way, and I’ve learned that through my business background. It was not confrontational. It’s not a know-it-all strategy, and that has been a part of the breakdown of the political discourse in Harrisburg. You’ve had a mayor that has never respected [Harrisburg] City Council as an equal partner representing the same people and the same constituency. That’s going to change immediately. You’ll see plans and initiatives that have community buy-in, even before they’re brought forward in a more public way. A less top-down approach to governing and more of a bottom-up approach, while surrounding oneself with strong, competent people with good ideas and not feeling that you can’t learn from others. These are important characteristics that our leaders have not exhibited historically.
Miller: I think you have to be knowledgeable. I think you have to be honest. And I think your overriding objective should be what’s best for the citizens of Harrisburg. You have to be a good manager. You have to be reasonable, rational and able to work with people. I think that what we’re lacking is that we need honesty and transparency and someone who is knowledgeable. And then you need someone who is concerned about the citizens of Harrisburg and not about their political career or them making money or getting ahead or their egotistical power.
What is your opinion of the “Harrisburg Strong Plan”?
Miller: This plan is doing several things: it’s dismantling city government and taking power away from the elected officials. City people won’t even be able to govern themselves. We’re losing the incinerator. We’re losing parking garages. We’re losing the sewer and water. I think they’re going to try to outsource the garbage collection. They’re taking everything away from us. They’re putting us into long-term contracts that we can’t get out of, which are going to cost a lot of money that we’re going to be forced to pay. That’s the big thing. I think this comprehensive plan is sustainable for three years. Well, that’s no solution at all. We need a long-term solution. In three years, are we going to be right back in the same situation as we are in now? Our assets are gone, our hands are tied and we really have no flexibility at all to solve our problems. On top of it, they’re creating these nonprofits that concern me tremendously. On one hand, yes it’s a great idea. We’re going to work together, and they’ll be helping us. But they’re unnecessary, and I think that they’re actually going to end up competing with city government. They’ll be funded by city government, but city government is going to have to get them to agree to do things with our own money. I can see a scenario where we’re creating these two organizations. They have two executive directors who really are accountable directors. A board of people who is not a majority of those appointed by the city and won’t be city residents, and their main task, I believe, will be trying to justify their existence. So there’s a lot of issues, I believe, in this plan.
Papenfuse: I support the Strong Plan, which is a major distinction between myself and Dan Miller. I recognize that it has shared pain and places a great deal of the burden of resolving it on city residents, but at the same time, I think it includes meaningful concessions from AGM and the county. I think that it provides a way forward, and it also balances the budget for three years and basically gives the fate of the city back to the next Mayor of Harrisburg – if that person is willing to take it and seize it. As a part of the Strong Plan, however, it deals with the structural deficit in the short term, and it deals with the long-term debt of the incinerator and whatnot. But it doesn’t deal with what we have to do, which is increase the tax base. Basically, we need to get more people spending money in Harrisburg, buying and investing in Harrisburg. And that’s going to come through economic policy, and I’ve got a different things that I’d like to see happen. We need a comprehensive economic plan, we need to support small businesses, we need to integrate ourselves with not only the Harrisburg Regional Chamber, but also the African-American Chamber. I have a lot of different perspective from my time as a small-business owner. We started from scratch in the City of Harrisburg, so I think I have a pretty good idea of some of the things that Harrisburg could do better to help small businesses succeed. I think we need a tax-abatement strategy, and we need incentives to invest in the city. I could go on a lot, but we need a strong focus on economic development, and one that goes neighborhood by neighborhood throughout the entire city and doesn’t just focus on one particular spot. That’s the financial side of things, and I think that’s one of my strengths. I’m proud to say that our campaign is supported by the business community, which really – for the first time – is saying that it wants to get involved in the political scene. It’s also supported by labor, and it’s supported by many people that fundamentally just want jobs. They want economic opportunity, and they look at Harrisburg and see the lack of jobs and lack of economic opportunity. It’s really the root cause of some of our other problems.
What do you say to the undecided voters in Harrisburg?
Papenfuse: I would welcome them to come out to one of our community engagement sessions that will be taking place all throughout this month. They can go to our website, papenfuseformayor.com, and get information on where those are going to be. They can come out and meet me. I will hopefully knock on their doors. But come by the campaign and ask questions and get to know me as an individual, so they can feel more decided. I’m going to be accessible and available and eager to make the case for why they should vote for me. We need voters who are going to do their [research] and are going to approach this thoughtfully.
Miller: I’d say it’s a really clear choice. I went to a woman’s door when I was canvassing in the spring. I knocked on her door and asked her if she was going to vote for me. She said, “Of course I’m going to vote for you. You’re smart, you understand finance and you’re honest.” I think that’s it. Those are the qualities that I would bring. I think most importantly it’s having someone with integrity and honesty running the city. I don’t think we’ve had that type of person, and I think it’s hard to get that person elected because people want to hear that it’s all sunshine and roses. If people don’t understand that Harrisburg isn’t all sunshine and roses right now, I don’t know when they’re ever going to understand it.
What does the future of Harrisburg look like to you?
Miller: It depends. Are we going to be hogtied by this plan or are we going to really try to get a fresh start? I think we’re at a very crucial point, and I’d like to see us get a fresh start and really get unshackled. If you look at the plan, there are not concessions to AGM and to Dauphin County. They’re going to get all of their money. They’re not going to get it right up front, but we’re going to be tied to that plan for a minimum of 40 years. And if they’re not paid off in that 40 years, the lease is extended. It’s not really a fresh start; it’s a re-arranging of the chairs on the deck. I think that’s the difference. I think what they’re going to get from me is someone that is fighting for the citizens of Harrisburg. We’re up on the “hill,” and you’ve got some 85-year-old woman who has lived in her house for 30 years and is on a fixed income. She’s who we need to fight for. Can she afford higher real-estate taxes? Can she afford higher sewer fees? No. And that’s the person that nobody is looking out for. You look at this plan, and see who is at the table. AGM was there. Dauphin County was there. The Receiver was there. People buying our assets were there. Who was advocating for Harrisburg residents? Nobody. When you have a situation like that, and you’re not at the table, who’s going to get the short end of the stick? We certainly got the short end of the stick on this – there’s no question.
Papenfuse: I think we are at a critical moment. I think that the worst is behind us, and that the plan offers us a way forward, which is not assured, but it’s at least a chance at success. So, the way I’ve seen the past decade of Harrisburg has been one of uncertainty, static, a lack of movement. I think you’re going to see Harrisburg begin to move forward in positive ways. It’s not assured. You still have an election. You still have a lot of these historically old tensions, but I think if we work together – that’s our motto, “Together We Can” – we can move the city forward.