WILKES-BARRE — Councilman Tony George dropped the gauntlet Thursday night, announcing he will run for mayor next year to try to unseat Tom Leighton, who is considering running for a fourth four-year term.
Both are Democrats and it’s been obvious for some time now that the mayor and the former city police chief don’t like each other, which could make for an interesting primary in 2015.
But there are other factors to consider — one of them being the emergence of other candidates. One in particular, Councilman George Brown, recently dodged a direct question when asked if he intends to run for the mayor’s office.
“I haven’t decided what I will run for next year,” Brown said. “I don’t know if I will run for council or not, or some other office. But if I do decide to run for mayor, it won’t matter who else is in the race.”
And that’s just the Democratic side.
Frank Sorick, president of the Wilkes-Barre City Taxpayers Association and a past Republican mayoral candidate, said the GOP is certain to have a candidate in next year’s general election.
But Sorick is also in favor of George running for the office.
“I’m very encouraged by Tony George’s decision to run for mayor,” Sorick said. “I like him. He’s a great guy and I wish him well.”
Sorick said he hopes Brown doesn’t enter the race to challenge George.
“Tony George is the only council member in recent years to consistently side with the taxpayers,” Sorick said. “He has challenged the mayor and he has insisted on getting answers from the administration. He’s been right there in the trenches with us.”
Retired police chief
George, 62, is a former city police chief and he said he wants to improve the city’s neighborhoods.
“I will be a mayor for the entire city, not just the downtown and where I live,” George said. “I don’t like the way our neighborhoods are going. They have been neglected for 10 years. The mayor throws them a bone every once in a while, but he doesn’t seem to be very concerned about what’s going on.”
George said he is especially concerned about the situation at Solomon’s Creek near the border of Hanover Township. He said after the severe flooding in 2011, there has been nothing done to prevent future occurrences.
“This should be a top priority,” George said. “It’s been lingering too long. It’s a matter of public protection that needs to be fixed now.”
George said Leighton has improved the downtown, “but the rest of the city needs attention. But what’s being done? Nothing.”
George said he will also address public safety. He said when he was police chief he had 75 officers. Now there are 90 on the city force.
But where are the bike patrols, the mounted patrols and the concentration on hot spots in the city?” George asked.
Leighton, 54, said George is unaware of many of the improvements made throughout the city and as far as gaming grants, Leighton pointed to the Gateway Facade Improvement Program that is in its second phase with about a half million dollars invested.
“That’s a perfect example of Mr. George not knowing what’s going on in our neighborhoods,” Leighton said.
In previous election years the mayor said he announced his candidacy in February and he said now is too early to say anything.
“But if the deadline for filing nominating petitions had to be in today, I would have filed Wednesday,” Leighton said. “You can read between the lines on that.”
“We have done a lot of work in the neighborhoods, whether it be getting rid of blight or paving streets,” Leighton said. “Just drive through and look around.”
Leighton said if he runs he will run on his record.
“I’m proud of my record,” he said. “The downtown improvements have significantly increased revenue for the city by bringing more jobs and people downtown.”
Brown, 63, said he has not decided what office, if any, he will seek. He said no matter who is in the mayor’s race, if he feels it’s in his and the city’s best interests to run for the high office, he will.
“It won’t matter who is in the race if I feel it’s best for me to run for mayor,” Brown said. “But I’m still evaluating and I don’t know when I will decide if I will run for City Council again, or the mayor’s office or something else.”
Professor Thomas Baldino of Wilkes University said any mayor seeking more than a second term is somewhat vulnerable. He said there are instances of voters rejecting an incumbent after two terms in order to bring a fresh face with new ideas and different energy to the job.
“Ultimately, Mayor Leighton will need to convince the voters that his record of the last 12 years advanced the city and that continuing his policies for four more years will also prove successful,” Baldino said.
He said he tends to give incumbents seeking reelection an advantage because incumbents have established name recognition with voters and have a track record.
“In this race, potential opponents such as Mr. George and Mr. Brown also have established name recognition, and as both have served on council, they have legacies of voting for ordinances and taking stands on public policies on which they can base a campaign,” Baldino said. “These factors make both men more formidable opponents than a ‘standard’ challenger.”
Baldino said Leighton’s record will be a matter of interpretation. He said the mayor will do his utmost to convince voters that what his administration has done over 12 years has dramatically improved the city and the well-being of its residents.
“His opponents will argue otherwise,” Baldino said.
“After 12 years, he certainly has a record to run on, but that record is also sufficient to give his opponents many reasons to criticize him. This is what election campaigns are about. I’m sure that the mayor will argue things like the city’s business occupancy rate is up, etc. But are the improvements in the city’s financial condition due to the improvement of the nation’s economy, or to the actions of the mayor alone? This is for the voters to decide,” he said.