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Two Democrats square off for mayor after historic write-in campaign

Two Democratic candidates went head-to-head for a second time after Wanda Williams won the primary and Mayor Eric Papenfuse launched a write-in campaign.
Credit: Harri Leigh/FOX43

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Two Democratic candidates went head-to-head for a second time in a battle for Harrisburg's mayor after Harrisburg City Council President Wanda Williams won the primary and incumbent Eric Papenfuse launched a write-in campaign.

Papenfuse lost the Democratic primary last May to Williams by just 46 votes. The race was close enough that he announced in September he would continue his candidacy and launched a write-in campaign, a first in Harrisburg mayoral elections.

The race remains a toss-up. Papenfuse has incumbent advantage, but Williams has the full backing of the Democratic Party, including Gov. Tom Wolf.

On Election Day, Papenfuse was optimistic voters would reelect him for a third term.

“We're feeling really good. We think we're going to make history today. We're going to win this write-in,” he said.

Williams declined to go on camera for an interview.

Volunteers for the Papenfuse campaign stood outside polling places to distribute pamphlets on how to spell Papenfuse’s name. In Pennsylvania, a candidate’s name must be spelled exactly as printed to be counted, according to state law.

Some voters disagreed with Papenfuse’s late decision to run despite losing the primary.

“[Williams] really won,” said Kerry Sawyers of Harrisburg. “This is unprecedented, for the first time a write-in vote, a Democrat versus a Democrat. It never happened in Harrisburg history. And it shouldn't.”

Some in the Democratic Party expressed concerns that Papenfuse could become a “spoiler” in the race by siphoning enough votes away from Williams to put Republican candidate Timothy Rowbottom in the lead.

But Harrisburg is a deeply blue city, with registered Democrats outnumbering registered Republicans by six to one. 

Even if both Democratic candidates split Democratic voters equally, their respective tallies would still outnumber the combined registered Republican and independent voters.

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