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Democrats make last push in primary to be mayor of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Harrisburg Mayor Linda Thompson speaks during a news conference in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania October 12, 2011. REUTERS/Daniel Shanken
Harrisburg Mayor Linda Thompson speaks during a news conference in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania October 12, 2011. REUTERS/Daniel Shanken

(Reuters) - The mayor of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's cash-strapped capital, faces off on Tuesday against two fellow Democrats in a primary election that will likely determine who leads a city that has become a poster child for financial mismanagement.

Democrats in the city of 50,000 must choose between Linda Thompson, a first-term mayor with low approval ratings, and challengers Eric Papenfuse, an independent bookstore owner, and Dan Miller, the city's comptroller.

The winner of Tuesday's primary will be the presumed victor in November's general election in the heavily Democratic city. There is no Republican primary, but at least one independent candidate is slated to run in the fall.

A questionable 2007 bond deal to finance upgrades to the city's trash incinerator put Harrisburg on the hook for what is now at least $340 million in debt, though some reports peg the figure at $370 million.

Harrisburg faces a cumulative deficit of at least $13 million. It is struggling to pay for basic services and has had to skip at least $9 million in debt service payments.

After trying unsuccessfully in 2011 to file for bankruptcy, the city is now under the financial control of state-appointed receiver William Lynch. Lynch is trying to sell or lease several city assets under a court-approved fiscal recovery plan.

It was under the former mayor of 28 years, Steve Reed, that the city inked the incinerator financing deal. The city's current mayor, Thompson, ousted Reed in the fall of 2009.

Reed was also at the helm when the city misstated some information on financial disclosures, leading the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to charge the city with fraud earlier this month.

Problems with late financial disclosures allegedly continued once Thompson took over. No individuals were named in the case and the city made no payment under its settlement with the SEC.

Thompson has a strong base in the city's majority African-American population. But former staffers have said her aggressive style and controversial statements created a toxic atmosphere inside her office.

The one poll taken so far, published May 13 by Susquehanna Polling and Research for the local ABC News station, had Thompson trailing by a wide margin, with just 13 percent of the vote. Miller and Papenfuse were tied at 30 percent each, but some 23 percent were undecided.

Fifty-seven percent of those polled strongly disapproved of Thompson's performance on the job. The poll has a margin of error of 5.6 percent.

Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.

(Reporting by Hilary Russ in New York; Editing by Dan Burns and Lisa Shumaker)

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