Harper Peterson talks why he wants his old job back after 20 years

Former state senator and one-time mayor of Wilmington Harper Peterson is running for his mayoral spot back, 20 years later. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Harper Peterson)

WILMINGTON –– With one hour to go before the 2021 municipal filing period closed, Harper Peterson partook in a familiar handoff, turning over his paperwork to the New Hanover County Board of Elections. 

Only this time, Peterson is gunning for his old job –– 20 years after he was first elected mayor of Wilmington. 

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Peterson will face Wilmington’s longest-serving mayor, Bill Saffo, in November. The two Democrats are the only candidates who signed up for the gig this time around. 

“For me it’s not a popularity contest,” Peterson said Friday afternoon. “It’s more about a job application.” 

Peterson most recently served as state senator for District 9, taking the seat from Sen. Michael Lee in 2018 by only 231 votes, before Lee took it back in 2020 by just a one-point margin.

As for supporters who may have wanted Peterson to give the senate race another go, he said, “There are some exciting younger candidates stepping up considering that seat. And I’m in full support.”

The former senator started out as a city councilmember, serving from 1995 to 1999. In 2001, he was elected mayor. He lost his re-election bid to Spence Broadhurst in 2003 and 2005 and to Saffo in 2007. 

“I think there was a different mood in the city then,” Peterson said. “But I sense that there’s a groundswell of concern over the issues I’m running on: growth and development, addressing real climate change, and related issues.”

He said he didn’t initially plan on filing and spent weeks watching the candidate list, waiting for someone to step up. 

“This cycle I just felt at the very least there should be a challenge to the mayor,” he said. “People can condemn me or criticize me but I love this city, I love public service and a lot of people have encouraged me [to run].”

In November, Peterson will appear on the ballot alongside Saffo, who is seeking his eighth term in office. Peterson considers Saffo a friend, who is generally politically more moderate compared to the former senator’s deeper progressive leanings. 

“The most important thing is somebody needs to challenge the incumbent. I think that’s a healthy process that involves everybody,” Peterson said. “A vast majority may agree with the incumbent but those in the minority should have someone listening to them and voicing their concerns.”

“Why wait two years when the issues are so immediate?” he asked.

The issues

Wrangling growth is Peterson’s top goal. “It is in overdrive,” he said. “When you talk to people, it always comes up in conversation. And it’s just a sense we’re losing it. Some people think we have already. I’ve been here 50 years and it’s gotta be reversed.”

Since he was first sworn in as mayor, the city has added more than 30,000 people inside its borders, an estimated 37% increase. Even at the state level, slowing or correcting growth was the number one concern he heard from constituents as the area’s senator.

“I dont think it’s a NIMBYism type of response: ‘Close the gates, we’re here now, no more,’” he said. “It’s just: ‘We want to grow, we like growth, but don’t sink the ship while we’re doing it.’ It’s like a lifeboat. You just pack them in and then sooner or later it starts to leak.”

Back when he was serving on city council, Peterson said affordable housing was one of his biggest priorities. He said it’s crucial to get the new Land Development Code right and ensure the city’s proposed $50 million housing bond adequately addresses affordable housing needs: “How that’s designed is critical.”

He sees the city as divided between the have-nots and the have-plenties, having left behind the disenfranchised after failing to keep promises. Racial and economic equity is vital, Peterson’s platform asserts; he pledges to address food deserts and neighborhoods that have long been neglected with vigor.  

Reframing public transportation and encouraging green energy initiatives, including electric vehicles, presents job creation opportunities while reducing carbon emissions, he explained. “I think you need to have new, fresh ideas,” he said.

From his time working alongside Governor Roy Cooper, Peterson embodied a sense of urgency toward addressing climate change he sees slacking at the local level. Engaging in risk assessments for businesses, local governments, and infrastructure needs can help save public dollars –– just look at the Battleship N.C. and the flooding issues it’s facing, he pointed out. 

“There’s just a sense of: Let’s get busy now and avoid the calamity of not,” he said.

Read Peterson’s announcement on his mayoral run below: 


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