After 4 fractious years, Wilmington mayor and new council president pledge cooperation

Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki and Councilman Ernest

Left to right: Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki and Councilman Ernest "Trippi" Congo. (City of Wilmington)

Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki fended off two challengers in the Democraic primary this week, but the mayor lost an ally when a political foe defeated Hanifa Shabazz in her bid for another term as City Council president.

The council’s new leader will be Ernest “Trippi” Congo II, who was part of what Purzycki called “the resistance’’ on the 13-member council to his initiatives.

But in the wake of their victories Tuesday — neither faces opposition in the general election — Purzycki and Congo are pledging a cooperative relationship, especially in combating the city’s longstanding plague of gun violence.

“Well, there is a resistance, there was a resistance, and sometimes everybody starts retreating to their own corner and it just gets to be very combative and I regret that,’’ Purzycki told WHYY News. “It’s easy for me to say it’s their fault, but I think everybody’s got to take responsibility.“

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The mayor said he has no personal animosity toward Congo, who has been on the council for 12 years and runs his family’s funeral home.

“I know Trippi really well. I don’t think we’ve ever had any personal difficulty whatsoever,’’ Purzycki said. “He’s a guy who has been elected for a long time. Obviously, he’s got roots that go back much further than mine do in this city. He’s a guy who’s been elected for a long time. I think it’s a great opportunity, so I’m very optimistic about working together in the future.”

Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki addresses supporters
Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki addresses supporters Tuesday after winning re-election. (City of Wilmington)

Congo also sounded a conciliatory tone. The president-elect, who takes office in January, won’t have two of his council allies — Vash Turner and Sam Guy. Turner ran for city treasurer but lost, and Guy was defeated in his re-election bid.

“We were both elected by the people, so we’re going to have to work together,’’ Congo told WHYY. “His vision and my vision, they may be different, but there has to be compromise so the entire city wins.

”My focus is definitely on our neighborhoods and developing our people, and hopefully the administration is going to be on the same page. Nobody wins if we are constantly going at each other.

“It’s just been pretty well-known that [Purzycki’s] into developing the city and I think that’s extremely important. It provides a tax base that the city needs. But my vision and my passion is definitely for the people.”

Purzycki’s mayoral primary foes — nemesis and city treasurer Velda Jones-Potter and ex-Councilman Justen Wright — had echoed Congo’s views by using the same campaign slogan, “People over Property.’’

Councilwoman Zanthia Oliver said Congo must adapt to his elevated role and change his approach to legislating.

“With the new role, that will put him in a different arena,’’ Oliver said. “And he will see the difference being a councilperson as opposed to being president of City Council. He’s going to have to put on his big boy pants.”

Purzycki and Congo might disagree on how to allocate city resources, but both said it’s critical to curtail the resurgent gun violence. Shootings dropped sharply in 2018 under Purzycki’s new police chief, Robert Tracy, but they have skyrocketed this year.

To date, 134 people have been shot in Wilmington — 20 more than all of last year, with more than three months remaining. Six people were struck by gunfire, and three of them killed, in the three days before Tuesday’s primary election.

Purzycki said he’s going to work collaboratively with the Attorney General’s Office and the court system to keep people arrested for gun-related offenses off the streets. Gun seizures are up 80% over last year, he said, and often the person arrested has a prior violent felony record.

“We talk the talk about it, but when it comes time to put these guys behind bars for carrying deadly weapons, we tend not to do it,’’ Purzycki said.

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“The gun culture has got to be confronted, and I’m willing to do it. The fact that any 15-year-old can go out and find a 9-millimeter [handgun], it shocks the conscience, and we can’t put up with it anymore.”

Congo said it’s been personally “devastating” to bury the children of people he grew up with in Wilmington, or to see the same youngsters at the funeral home to mourn friends who have been killed.

“I can’t imagine just having to go to funeral after funeral after funeral as a child,’’ Congo said.

“There’s definitely a war going on with our children, and we have to acknowledge that and we have to find out the best ways to address it,” he said. “We need short-term solutions and long-term solutions so the next generation of children won’t have the same mentality. And they’ll be able to have better conflict resolution.”

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