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By: Tom Lehman

Seven of Wilmington’s mayoral candidates met for a debate Thursday night that focused primarily on public safety but saw candidates verbally attack each other over professional backgrounds and experience.

The debate was the first to feature significant back-and-forth skirmishes among the crowded field of challengers vying for the Democratic Party’s nomination for mayor. The event was hosted by The News Journal and WHYY.

Participants in the debate included City Councilwoman Maria Cabrera, Council President Theo Gregory, former Council President Norman Griffiths, former Councilman Kevin Kelley, Riverfront Development Corporation Executive Director Mike Purzycki, Delaware Center for Justice Advocacy Director Eugene Young, and State Sen. Robert Marshall (D-Wilmington South).

Incumbent Dennis Williams, who ran in 2012 on a platform geared toward public safety, but admittedly fell short on some campaign promises, declined to attend because of a family-related obligation and his belief that the number of candidates participating in debates prevents him from directly addressing critics.

The debate first ranged from various public safety topics, including how to convince more people to cooperate with law enforcement in criminal investigations.

Cabrera, who recalled an incident involving her son being fearful after speaking with the police after being robbed at gunpoint, said consistent community policing may be the key to fostering better cooperation between officers and residents.

“We have to keep same officers in the same neighborhoods. We can’t keep switching up the police and switching up the plan,” she said.

Gregory, who drew laughs at times from the crowd for referring his former status as a federal prosecutor, said police need better instruction on how to keep witnesses and victims from being targeted by retaliation from criminals.

“That comes from training and getting the police to have a culture of ensuring secrecy when people report things to them,” he said.

On the matter of creating a metropolitan police force that would consolidate Wilmington police with county or statewide officers, candidates who responded said they were generally opposed to the idea.

Griffiths said state and county police already have their own jurisdictions to handle, and their uncertain involvement could hamper community policing efforts when residents don’t know which officers will respond to their calls.

“We can do this ourselves. We have the agencies. We have the ability to deal with this problem but we need to step up to the plate,” he said.

Kelley said state and county police could offer assistance in dealing with gang activity in the region, but that community-based policing with officers would be more effective and improve relations with the public so law enforcement could help turn the tide against “bad guys who are winning the war” in Wilmington.

“Too often we don’t have accountability from the top all the way down. We need to lead by example, and when people lead by example, we’re going to change the culture of the city,” he said.

Most of the verbal sparring was saved for later in the debate on whether an outsider or political newcomer should be elected over an “established” figure in city and state government representing Wilmington.

Young, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), said his lack of experience in an elected position isn’t an obstacle to being able to handle issues like public safety and that the city has long discouraged candidates that aren’t part of the established political culture to hold such offices.

“Age does not dictate impact…for too long within our city we’ve played ‘Wait your turn,'” he said.

Comparing the race to a job interview, Purzycki, a former county councilman, said someone with little experience in city government won’t be the best choice for handling Wilmington’s ills.

“If someone interviewed for that job, I can’t even imagine someone with that kind of resume could get past the first round,” he said.

Young responded with sharp criticism of Purzycki.

“There are other neighborhoods than certain ones, and you know what I mean,” he said.

“You’re damn right and I’m lobbying to take care of the neighborhoods who need it,” Purzycki fired back.

Cabrera, a first-term councilwoman, suggested many of the other candidates on stage have been involved in the city’s affairs for too long with few good ideas.

“It’s time (voters) elect a woman and some common sense into the mayor’s office,” she said.

Wilmington’s primary for mayor is Sept. 13.