Wilmington mayoral, city council candidates discuss variety of topics at Power Breakfast

Former mayor Harper Peterson is opposing incumbent, Bill Saffo, in November
Published: Sep. 14, 2021 at 4:36 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Candidates for mayor and city council in Wilmington gathered in one place to discuss their plans for the city if you vote for them in November.

Among those involved with the Greater Wilmington Business Journal’s Power Breakfast were some of the heavy hitters in local politics. From the candidates running for Wilmington City Council to the top contenders for Wilmington’s mayoral position, all 10 took the stage to discuss everything from affordable housing to the recently passed overhaul of the land development code.

Audience members texted in questions of their own, including one about the mayoral candidates’ plans to address the recent gang violence. Mayor Bill Saffo says the key is to go after the person at the top of the pyramid.

“These gang members are smart,” said Saffo. “They try to circumvent the process and they try to get younger and younger kids to do the bad stuff because they know they’re going to be tried under juvenile court. We have to go after the guys -- the high-level gang leaders that are doing this.”

Former mayor Harper Peterson is opposing Saffo in November. He says the solution starts with the children.

“That’s our responsibility, our children,” said Peterson. “The long-term solution is going to take a generation, but we need to come up with a strategy and implement it where every child -- white, black, Hispanic -- regardless of economic standing is nurtured and loved.”

The candidates went on to share some of their main platform stances as they head into election season.

Saffo says he’s focused on supporting small businesses in the area, but creating jobs is what Wilmington should focus on. Saffo thinks Wilmington is headed down the right path, citing the city’s success with bringing PPD downtown and the film industry’s interest in the area. Peterson wants to focus on bringing more skilled workers to Wilmington, like truck drivers and contractors.

One issue both candidates spoke strongly about was the city’s lack of affordable housing.

“If we don’t get busy now with solutions -- not a $15 million, $1,600 living unit facility, but we need to attack 10,000 units now,” said Peterson. “We can do it. We have the tools. We just need the will and the concerted effort.”

“The city has had an affordable housing program since the 1990s and we have supported affordable housing for years,” pointed out Saffo. “For the first time, we have the county as a partner that has come on board with us because we know that the vast majority of vacant land that’s left is in unincorporated areas and we have to partner together.”

Saffo also noted that affordable housing isn’t only an issue for Wilmington. He says the city should partner with other areas like Leland and Brunswick County to help connect residents to affordable housing options if that plan makes sense in the bigger picture of helping Wilmington.

Peterson says he’s afraid that if the city doesn’t do something soon, middle-income residents that fill crucial positions throughout the city will leave the area.

Surprisingly, an issue that didn’t make it on stage was the city’s response to COVID-19 and the effort to slow its spread.

Most candidates were not wearing masks on stage because the mandate does not require a mask when addressing a crowd. Of the 10 that took the stage, Angie Ulmer was the only one to wear a mask. However, many people in the audience were unmasked, too, even when they weren’t eating.

New Hanover County’s mask mandate has been criticized for not being enforceable by police or sheriff’s deputies. That’s left enforcement mostly up to business owners.

After the debate, Saffo and Peterson spoke with WECT about their take on the mandate. Both agree it’s necessary, but it’s up to everyone to hold each other accountable. When it came to a vaccine mandate for city employees, however, the candidates’ stances differed.

“I do [support mandatory vaccinations for city employees,]” said Peterson. “We have enough history and data, now, to know how devastating this virus is and anything we do... Obviously, there are exceptions and we need to be sensitive to those exceptions, but we need to set an example.”

“I think you have to make that determination for yourself, whether you want to be vaccinated or not,” said Saffo. “A lot of people don’t believe in vaccinations... The majority of the city employees have been vaccinated, but there are people who have decided they don’t want to be vaccinated for one reason or another. That’s a decision they have to make.”

Saffo went on to say that he bases his opinions on information put out by a variety of healthcare leaders from local doctors to the county health department to Dr. Mandy Cohen. When those leaders make a recommendation concerning public health, he supports what they have to say. Similarly, Peterson cited the CDC’s recommendations for his opinions.

The discussions from the Power Breakfast can be seen below:

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