2021 Election: Former state Senator Harper Peterson seeks re-election as Wilmington mayor

Harper Peterson is running for Wilmington mayor in 2021 against long-time incumbent Bill Saffo. (Port City Daily/Courtesy of Peterson)

WILMINGTON –– Twenty years after he was first elected to the position, Harper Peterson is seeking out his old role as Wilmington mayor. Peterson first served as a councilman in the late ’90s, then as mayor in 2001 and 2002. He lost re-election in 2003, 2005 and 2007.

Most recently, Peterson served as state senator for District 9 from 2018 to 2020.

Port City Daily has sent a questionnaire to every candidate running in municipal elections, which are nonpartisan, and has dropped its paywall on the profiles to help voters make informed decisions ahead of the 2021 election year. (Though, your support of local, independent journalism is appreciated through a monthly subscription. Also, consider signing up for Port City Daily’s free newsletter, Wilmington Wire, to get the headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.)


As a reminder, the early voting period begins Oct. 14, with the registration deadline on Oct. 8. Voters may partake in same-day registration throughout the two-week early voting period, which ends Oct. 30 (check if your registration is active at your current address).

Election Day is Nov. 2.

Peterson’s stances on local issues are discussed below. Port City Daily has included all responses in full, and only edited responses for grammatical and spelling errors.

READ MORE: Catch up on all political coverage

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

OPPONENT: Bill Saffo, city’s longest-serving mayor, eyes an eighth term

Harper Peterson — Democrat

  • Education: Graduate of UNC Chapel Hill
  • Job title: Business Owner
  • Experience: Former City Councilmember, Mayor, State Senator
  • Family: Married, five children, two grandchildren

Port City Daily (PCD): What is your top priority, if elected a seat on council? How will you address it?
Harper Peterson (HP): My top priority is protecting what we have and building what we need. To that end we must do three things: Stop pouring gasoline on the growth fire, meet the basic needs and extend real economic opportunity to those our city has left behind, and address the climate crisis head-on.

I believe growth should pay its own way. Accelerated development has outpaced our ability to protect our water and land resources, neighborhoods, and sense of place. I will focus my efforts on rewarding responsible growth, and building resilience and sustainability into our physical environment and infrastructure.

Wilmington is a tale of two cities, and it’s only gotten worse in the last 15 years. On the marquis out front, we are a city of riches, with our beaches and riverfront thriving. But inside the house, we are a city with food deserts, unattainable housing, second-rate public transportation, and neighborhood parks that are ignored. It’s time to invest in our underserved communities.

On climate, we must restore our tree canopy, move to renewables and electric vehicles, (including providing the necessary charging infrastructure) as soon as feasible, and quickly improve our stormwater infrastructure to prevent street flooding and erosion.

PCD: What do you believe is the solution to the affordable housing crisis? Are you supportive of a housing bond? Why or why not?
HP: We’ve talked too long, fettered away opportunity after opportunity and now face spiraling housing costs and diminishing land. It’s time for concerted public/private action utilizing every tool at our disposal.

I do support the housing bond, but I think it should be much larger if we are to make a difference. We are told that there is a deficit of 10,700 affordable living units. If we don’t effectively address this crisis, working-class folks will be forced out of our city and we will be dealing with the repercussions of worker shortages and increased traffic.

My emphasis will be on the following: 1. A robust land trust leveraging public and private funds to effectively take land costs out of the equation; 2. Maximum utilization of state tax credits for affordable developments; 3. Incentives for new market-value housing projects to include 10-20% affordable units; and 4. Establish a living wage so that hard-working folks can afford adequate housing without sacrificing family time and basic needs, or working two-to-three jobs.

PCD: What about other infrastructure in our city: What needs the most attention in your opinion and how would you address it?
HP: In survey after survey, Wilmingtonians have told us they want a more bikable and walkable city, and yet we have done almost nothing. The City/County Comprehensive Greenway Plan, proposing hundreds of miles of bike paths, walking trails, and blue ways, was adopted in 2013, and yet we have only the cross city trail and university loop to show for it. I will support a connectivity master plan, with funding and a tight timeline, so that folks can easily get to the places they work, shop and play, safely and without a car.

Routine street flooding is now a reality and will only get worse. Our infrastructure can’t keep up with the volumes. We must both protect and invest in stormwater infrastructure — natural wet ponds, wetlands, greenways, stream restoration, and hard drainage systems, above and below ground channels and outflows — to protect our safety and our economy.

We must invest in a modern and environmentally sound public transportation system — a fully funded WAVE Transit with decent covered bus stops and more regular service will not only reduce traffic by getting cars off our streets, it will promote economic prosperity for our local businesses and the upwardly mobile.

Having spent $35 million (originally budgeted for $20 million) on one project alone, the “regional” Riverfront Park and Live Oak Pavilion, we must be honest about focusing on neighborhood parks city wide, old and new. ALL OF OUR KIDS deserve to be able to walk or bike to a green space that has decent equipment and facilities, lighting and routine maintenance, a place they can feel and be safe. Furthermore, a growing population of citizens are enjoying a new fitness pastime, Pickle Ball. We should support these healthy recreational pursuits. As our city grows, so should healthy and active open spaces keep pace.

PCD: What kind of environmental protections would you like to see the city focus on and how?
HP: I will create a Department of the Environment and Sustainability, staffed by environmental specialists whose primary focus will be to monitor our air, soil, and water for pollution, recommend best practices to reduce our carbon footprint and transition to renewables. We also need to build out the city charging network to facilitate public adoption of electric vehicles. As mentioned above, we need a master plan to connect our greenways and paths to make our city more walkable and bikeable.

I will develop a Youth Conservation Corps responsible for planting and maintaining 10,000 trees in the next five years. These will be career-path jobs drawn from our own high schools to focus on the burgeoning field of climate change adaptation and sustainability. By partnering this group with nonprofits and other environmental and agricultural organizations, Wilmington can be a true leader in sustainability.

PCD: Do you think enough is being done to confront gang violence? What else should be done?
HP: While I fully support WPD Chief Donnie Williams’ strong leadership, his emphasis on staffing, training, technology, and interagency coordination in keeping our community safe, we cannot just arrest or spend our way out of gun violence. Lack of sustained investment in our children in underserved neighborhoods has led to and perpetuated this crisis.

Research shows that meeting peoples’ basic needs reduces community violence. Investing in our children — including affordable housing, access to quality healthcare, nutrition, and education, jobs with living wages — will lead our kids to find refuge not in gangs but in school, family and community. The solution to crime is a strong social safety net in childhood and a paycheck in adulthood.

We are blessed with adequate financial resources in our community, as well as dozens of nonprofits who are already hard at work. They can help lead the way forward. Research shows that for every dollar we spend in early childhood, the return on investment down the road is seven-fold. I will gladly spend a dollar now to save seven later. In fact, not doing so is both fiscally and ethically wrong. I look forward to trying to make Wilmington the best city in the country to be a kid.

PCD: Residents often raise concerns about clear-cutting and overdevelopment. What is your response when hearing this sentiment? How should the city respond to these complaints?
HP: Regarding clear-cutting, builders often remove trees for convenience and cost savings, complacent to the damage done to our fragile environment and overburdened stormwater systems. The answer to this is simple: Require a protective tree and green space plan for ALL residential and commercial developments, including projects under 1 acre. Planting replacement trees is the easy part. Follow-up care is the key. The caliber, species selection, and maintenance of the trees is where the city must assume a more assertive role. Partnering with community groups, particularly with my proposed Youth Conservation Corps, will help achieve our goal of reclaiming Wilmington as a true City of Trees.

Furthermore, those who violate our tree regulations should face steep penalties if they break the rules.

PCD: Is our city prepared for the influx of growth that’s being predicted over the next 20 years? What are the top priorities you think must be addressed to prepare for the population increase?
HP: Wilmington is a truly remarkable place and we should not be surprised so many want to relocate here. But with such rapid growth we have seen problems: congestion on our roads, constant construction, wear and tear on our infrastructure, loss of our tree canopy, and increased impervious surfaces with street flooding, spiraling housing costs, and a threat to our southern small town charm.

We can act now to turn things around. To address traffic, we must make our city more walkable and bikeable, and fully fund our public transit. Not everyone wants to take the bus, but those who do will ease congestion for the rest of us. We also have to remember that public transportation, just like roads, bridges and bike paths, is an investment, not a subsidy. It’s a boost to the economy.

Housing affordability is a crisis. We have kicked the can down the road for 15 years, and now face spiraling costs and diminishing land. It’s time for concerted public/private action utilizing every tool at our disposal. If we don’t effectively address this crisis, working-class folks will be forced out of our city, and we will be dealing with the repercussions of worker shortages and increased traffic.

PCD: How would you rate Wilmington’s job market? What can the city do to create more sustainable jobs?
HP: Paying people a living wage is the first order of business. There are too many folks who are working two or even three jobs just to make ends meet. There are some restrictions on what city council can do, but certainly as mayor, I will use the bully pulpit to encourage local businesses and organizations to put the financial well-being of their employees at the top of the agenda.

With increasing extreme weather events, we will see many opportunities for new industries as we make our businesses, residences, and community more resilient. I would like to see a concerted effort by the city to be a leader in this new “green economy.” We have a historic opportunity to invest in sustainability industries that will provide work opportunities people need, and help reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and transition to renewables. 

As stated above, I will establish the Cape Fear Youth Conservation Corp to take advantage of new sustainability industries and the jobs they create. Whether learning and executing proper tree planting and maintenance, park maintenance, developing skills in natural stormwater and landscaping best management practices, soil erosion, residential weatherization, environmental data collection … the list of opportunities and promising careers is limitless for our youth in partnership with the city and the private sector.

PCD: Would you approve an ordinance establishing a social district in downtown Wilmington? Why or why not? What provisions would you advocate for within the district?
HP: I am enthusiastic about this project and would give it my full support. Obviously, there is concern for those few who might take advantage of this privilege, but I believe a vast majority of business owners and adult patrons will self-police and make this a success. Ultimately, our Chief of Police, Donnie Williams, must weigh in and sign off for this to be successful.

PCD: What changes, if any, would you make to the city’s current spending strategy for its $26 million in American Rescue Plan funds? Is there an initiative you would like to see funded? If so, which expenditure would you cut in its place?
HP: The city has done a good job directing this federal relief towards businesses and organizations that have been most hurt during the pandemic. I would prefer to see more than $100,000 dedicated to fighting the addiction crisis, which has gotten much worse in the last 18 months. This is a genuine life-and-death matter. Our area has a 45% higher overdose rate than the rest of the state. We’ve seen the Quick Response Team at Coastal Horizons saving lives and reducing suffering in our community. While I am grateful for the $100,000, the need is much, much greater and directly proportionate to the possibility of saving lives.

Clean drinking water is a basic human right. GenX and numerous toxic chemicals are still pervasive in our drinking water, so I would like to see the city fund, in conjunction with Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, a program that provides household Reverse Osmosis (RO) filtration systems for low income families. No one should be exposed regardless of their economic standing. I would propose 5,000 basic under-counter RO systems be offered and installed at a cost of $1,000,000. I would move this funding from the Convention Center Outdoor Pavilion project appropriation.


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