Harper Peterson and Bill Saffo fight for Wilmington mayor
With two seasoned politicians in the running, Wilmington’s next mayor will not be new to the needs of the city and its people.
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, 61, faces Harper Peterson – a former mayor himself – in a race to keep his post as head of Wilmington City Council. Both candidates are Democrats, although the city council is a non-partisan governing body.
Peterson, 72, most recently served in the North Carolina State Senate from 2019-2020, representing District 9, an area that covers much of New Hanover County. He narrowly lost his re-election to Michael Lee in 2020, receiving 49.49% of the vote against 50.51% for Lee.
Prior to that, Peterson served on Wilmington City Council from 1995 to 1999. He served as Mayor of Wilmington from 2001 to 2003.
Associated coverage:Harper Peterson runs for Wilmington mayor, challenges Bill Saffo
In 2003, Peterson lost his re-election to Spence Broadhurst. He lost another campaign for mayor of Wilmington to Broadhurst in 2005. When Broadhurst resigned as mayor to take a post in Greensboro in 2006, Saffo, then a council member, was appointed to take his place. as mayor.
In 2007, Saffo won the mayoral office election over Peterson, and he has been elected in every mayoral election since. Saffo is currently serving his sixth term as mayor and has said he hopes he can get a seventh term.
Saffo faced his most competitive race of 2019 when challenger Devon Scott came close to four percentage points for the victory.
Following:Devon Scott’s sex offense trial to officially take place this year
This narrow race shaped the approach Saffo took in this campaign, he said. Scott was more effective at getting his message across on various platforms, including social media. It’s something Saffo embraced this time around.
“The megaphone has become different,” he said. “And you have to at least change with him or your message won’t be heard.”
Peterson was motivated, in part, to run for this election because Saffo did not have a challenger. Saffo ran unopposed in the 2013 and 2015 elections.
“I think a start at this level needs an opponent,” said Peterson. “The issues are so important and the debate is important to the public.”
Peterson also wants to use his post to address issues of importance to residents of Wilmington.
“There is unease in the audience when I talk to people,” he said. “From simple worry and frustration to outright anger at the direction our community is heading.”
Peterson said he often hears complaints about traffic jams and out of control development. Peterson’s campaign focuses on growth and development, sea level rise, and racial and economic justice.
Saffo, a longtime Wilmington resident, is basing his campaign on his reputation as a “consensus builder” and the city’s accomplishments during his nearly 15-year tenure as mayor.
“I’ve demonstrated time and time again that number 1 I can get things done and number 2 I’m a consensus builder, and I can work with people,” Saffo said. “I think that was one of my characteristics.”
He says the completion of Riverfront Park and Live Oak Bank Pavilion and Gary Shell Cross City Trail are the two projects he’s most proud to complete.
But Peterson said he would like to see a change in the “status quo” of city government. He wants to give more weight to the public’s contribution to the proposed development projects, more action on the implementation of the master plan of the city’s greenway and the creation of a municipal service focused on sustainability and l environment, among other objectives.
He also wants to address the social and economic disparities that have created a “two-city tale” within Wilmington.
Saffo wants to continue pushing forward initiatives led by the city council, including investments in affordable housing and the implementation of the city’s new revised land use code.
“I would say the status quo has to change if things don’t get done,” Saffo said. “Things have been done.”
“Harper and I have both been in the public service for a long time,” he added. “He was a state senator. He was a former mayor. He was a member of the board. I wouldn’t say he’s new blood.
While the mayor leads the city council, helping to advance and adopt policies, the position depends on cooperation with the other six council members.
“The priorities of the city council are not determined by the mayor of the city,” said Saffo. “They are determined by the seven collective people who sit on the city council.”
“At the end of the day, (the mayor) is just one of seven members of a governing body,” Peterson added.
This year, the mayor of Wilmington is expected to receive a stipend of $ 19,035.
New Hanover County voters have three options to vote in this year’s municipal election. Residents can vote before polling day by sending a mail ballot or voting during the one-stop-shop or early voting period, which begins October 14 and ends October 30.
Voters can also vote on polling day, which is November 2.
Journalist Emma Dill can be reached at 910-343-2096 or [email protected]