By Bridget Byrne, Shifra Dayak, Ilana Williams and Katharine Wilson
More than 1,000 College Park residents took to the polls this week for the city’s mayoral special election, marking a contentious election day roughly two months after ex-College Park Mayor Patrick Wojahn stepped down and was arrested on child pornography charges.
City council members Fazlul Kabir, Kate Kennedy and Denise Mitchell, as well as political newcomer Bryan Haddad vied for residents’ votes at polling sites, answering last-minute questions from voters on Tuesday and Saturday.
“We got really the cream of the crop in the selection,” said Sharon O’Malley, former president of the city’s Yarrow Civic Association.
According to John Payne, the chief of the city election board, 862 voters voted early at Davis Hall Tuesday and 629 voted Saturday at City Hall. Mail-in ballots have not been counted.
For Dale Veal, who has lived in College Park since 2019, Mitchell’s experience serving as Mayor Pro Tem since Wojahn’s arrest made her a standout candidate.
“[I’m looking for] someone who is going to have the citizen concern,” Veal said, “and can correlate with the college being here and the neighborhoods and make sure we can lay in the work together as one community.”
Nikesha Pancho, another city resident, also voted for Mitchell. She will listen to what students and residents need, Pancho said.
“To have two women on the ballot is amazing,” Pancho said. “I feel like right now, where we are in College Park, it’s important to put the right person in the right seat.”
Aside from Mitchell’s term as Mayor Pro Tem, the city has not had a woman mayor since 1993, when former Mayor Anna Latta Owens ended her six-year term.
Jude Simon Guyton voted Tuesday for Kennedy. Guyton said Kennedy will move the city forward through city-university partnerships and balancing growth with helping families with food and housing resources.
For Mae Anderson-Chinnes, Kennedy was also an appealing candidate because of her emphasis on affordable housing and small business initiatives. Anderson-Chinnes works with interns in Washington, D.C., and has heard about their needs for affordable housing, she said.
Other residents, like Feseha Kidane, emphasized the standard of living in the city as a key issue this election. Kidane said he voted for Kabir because of the candidate’s active role in creating city amenities like a farmer’s market.
“I’m looking for a person to keep the value of College Park where it is, meaning keep the crime down, take care of trash and issues, just keep the quality of living in the city to a standard,” Kidane said. “Anyone who’s actually hands-on is a person I want to vote for, not someone who’s just kind of a keyboard warrior.”
Nathaniel Pettine, who lives in the Hollywood neighborhood, also voted for Kabir. He said he appreciated the candidate’s involvement in the community — even before Kabir ran for mayor, he would come to residents’ homes to discuss what was important to them, Pettine said.
Walkability is important to him and safe streets were on Pettine’s mind at the polls.
“When we take our son on a walk, some of the roads are kind of anxiety inducing. My son likes to run so it’s always on my mind,” Pettine said.
University of Maryland students also turned out at the polls Saturday.
Some, like junior computer science major Joe Lewis, were focused on issues like more student input into city development to ensure that new apartment complexes don’t demolish too much retail space.
Lewis transferred his voter registration to College Park from voting in his hometown.
“We live here nine out of 12 months. I think what College Park does is really important to us,” Lewis said.
This university’s Student Government Association hosted a town hall with all the mayoral candidates last month.
Student organizations at this university have also aimed to increase low student voter turnout rates, and the College Park City Council discussed creating resources to help the city’s student population become more invested in local politics.
For Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk, who represents College Park in the Maryland House of Delegates, this election was about coming together and moving forward after the city’s tumultuous recent events.
“These elections are really the bread and butter of a community,” Peña-Melnyk said. “The decisions that are made by our mayor and council are really important.”