WILKES-BARRE — The city’s 2015 mayoral election might seem like a lifetime away in the world of municipal politics, but Bruce Simpson thinks now is the right time to announce a challenge to Mayor Tom Leighton, citing perceived escalating violence across the city.
“Sherman Hills is a festering problem that has been there a long time,” Simpson said of the Wilkes-Barre housing complex. Most recently, two girls were shot there Saturday afternoon when they were apparently caught in the middle of a confrontation between adults.
“It’s getting worse because of the lack of action by this administration,” said Simpson, a former police officer and magistrate.
In an email, city spokeswoman Liza Prokop said Leighton and city officials met with Sherman Hills management on Tuesday to recommend measures that will improve the security conditions of the complex. “While the details of the meeting cannot be disclosed, the city’s recommendations were standard and effective strategies to improve safety and security for Sherman Hills residents,” Prokop added.
What Leighton might think about Simpson’s early political challenge — or even his own electoral future — was not clear on Tuesday. Asked whether Leighton would like to respond to Simpson’s candidacy and remarks, Prokop said the mayor would not be available for an interview later that day.
Simpson discussed his political plans with The Times Leader in a Tuesday afternoon interview at Madison and East North streets, near the spot where a King’s College student reportedly was beaten and robbed of his mobile phone by a group of young men early Friday.
Simpson unsuccessfully ran for Luzerne County Council in 2011 and served briefly on the county’s new ethics commission. He resigned from the post in April 2012 following a procedural dispute with fellow commission member and county Controller Walter Griffith during development of an ethics code.
If problems at Sherman Hills and other rental properties weren’t bad enough, Simpson said, he fears that attacks on students and others downtown will damage the city’s reputation among potential collegians and their families, putting one of Wilkes-Barre’s growth industries at risk.
If elected mayor, Simpson said he would play an active role in overseeing the police department, adding that he would expect his chief to be present at major crime scenes, as he likely would be himself.
Simpson has many friends and sources in the local law-enforcement community with whom he regularly discusses the state of policing in the city, he said, but declined to name names. Among their revelations, he said, is that the administration under-reports certain categories of violent crime.
By law, departments throughout the state must submit data to the state police for compilation in the Uniform Crime Reporting System; those statistics are then provided to the FBI for a national perspective on crime. Simpson alleges the city has downplayed the true extent of violence by classifying some shootings as assaults.
While tackling illegal drug activity and violence are Simpson’s main goals, he also believes that the nation is gradually moving toward legalization of marijuana; he feels police spend too much time pursuing possession charges for relatively small amounts. As for marijuana dealers, he would direct officers to pursue them as ardently as dealers and users of all other illicit substances.
As for the Sherman Hills community, Simpson suggested putting gates around the property and requiring passes for visitors, who would not be permitted to stay overnight.
In addition to promoting his law-and-order platform, Simpson said he wanted to get an early start in the campaign for two other reasons. First, he knows it will take work to raise campaign funds on a par with those a three-term incumbent such as Leighton likely can draw upon. He did say, however, that he would forego the $80,000, if elected, and put that money toward policing, as his federal pension allows him to support himself.
Second, Simpson wants voters to know from the start that he is openly gay, hearing the message from him and not the rumor mill.
“I’m 60 years old and I don’t give a damn anymore what people think,” said Simpson. “I am going to be a mayor for all the people — not a gay mayor, but a mayor who is gay.”