Democrats in Bristol were jubilant on the night of Nov. 6, 2001. On a ticket led by then-Mayor Frank Nicastro, the Democrats had won a clean sweep of the local races.
As he soared to a fifth term in office, Nicastro brought with him every Democrat on the ballot; Democrats would control the Board of Education and the Board of Assessment Appeals by two-to-one margins, and hold all six Council seats as well as the mayor’s chair and treasurer’s office. Coupled with the city’s legislative delegation, which was a Democratic state senator, two Democratic state representatives and a single lonely Republican, Bristol was unquestionably a Democratic stronghold, and in Bristol or Hartford, no Democrat saw any reason why that should change anytime soon.
Thirty minutes northeast, West Hartford Democrats were having a good night as well. A team of political neophytes had managed to win a major victory, carrying in newcomers Jonathan Harris, Scott Slifka, and Beth Bye, among others. By the night’s end, the Democrats controlled the Town Council and Board of Education, throwing out the Republican majority in town government.
Since 2001, however, Democrats in West Hartford and Bristol have seen vastly different fates. In West Hartford, no Democrat has lost a municipal race since 1999, and the last remnant of Republican power in town slipped away with Bye’s election as state representative in 2006. Harris and Slifka have both been candidates for statewide office, and insiders suggest each could run again, while Bye chairs the powerful Appropriations Committee in Hartford and rumors swirl that she may seek higher office in the near future. For state Democrats, West Hartford is a plentiful source of money, future candidates, and votes.
By contrast, Bristol has been a major Democratic disappointment. Democrats lost mayoral elections in 2005 and 2013, and at the moment, the Republicans hold the mayor’s and treasurer’s offices, majorities on the Council, Board of Education and Board of Assessment Appeals, and three of Bristol’s four legislative seats. Nicastro, now a state representative, is the last vestige of Democratic dominance in the city.
Why did the Democratic Party flourish in West Hartford while failing in Bristol? The difference can be explained in part by party unity, or lack thereof.
In West Hartford, the local party has been remarkably unified, led by even-handed party elders like Larry Price, Maureen Magnan, Rosemarie Tate, and the late Rae O’Toole. West Hartford also has benefited from the remarkable wisdom and guidance of Kevin Sullivan, the former State Senate President and Lieutenant Governor. And West Hartford has largely avoided contentious primaries, opting instead to be a “big tent” party, a place where liberals and progressives can comfortably coexist with more moderate Democrats.
West Hartford Democrats have even been willing to welcome former Republicans, folks who were driven out by that party’s relentless march toward clown town (ahem, Donald Trump). State Rep. Joe Verrengia, Town Councilor Leon Davidoff, and former Board of Education member Naogan Ma are all examples of former Republicans who’ve been elected as Democrats in West Hartford, and contributed mightily to the party in town.
Things couldn’t be more different in Bristol, where the local Democratic Party has been consumed with factional battles for years. Supporters of former Mayor Art Ward, Councilor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu, and former Registrar Mary Rydingsward have fought for power on the Democratic Town Committee, and in bitter primaries in 2006, 2007, 2010, 2012, and 2014. And the strife has taken its toll — former Democrats have left for friendlier pastures. Henri Martin, once a Democrat, now serves as a state senator, with an (R) after his name.
More important, however, is how the Democratic Party’s message has resonated with certain kinds of voters, while missing the mark with others. Today’s Democratic Party appeals to better-educated, more diverse voters — exactly the kind of electorate we see in West Hartford. Bristol, by contrast, is a whiter, more working class city, and the problems Democrats have in appealing to working class whites have been well documented. In Connecticut, Democratic struggles with working class white voters have led to losses in historically Democratic towns like New Britain, Meriden, and Danbury.
Some Democrats will argue, likely out of public view, that it doesn’t matter if the party wins the white working class. In a country that’s becoming more diverse and better-educated every day, why worry about appealing to a shrinking segment of the population? But that line of thinking is wrong. The Democratic Party becomes ever-more dependent on the moneyed elite for every working class American that switches over to the Republicans. If party leaders want to to build a durable Democratic majority in this country, they’re going to need to learn how to appeal to West Hartford and Bristol alike.
Luckily, they’ve got a great opportunity to try that the upcoming election, with Bristol Democrats running one of their strongest slates in years. Zoppo-Sassu, the mayoral candidate, would be the most qualified mayor Bristol’s had in decades, and the first woman ever to lead the city. Councilor Calvin Brown, running for his second term, could be a rising star in state politics, as long as he isn’t defeated in November. Winning in Bristol this year should be a top priority for the party. If Democrats can figure out a winning formula, it could be the key to winning not just in Bristol, but in similar communities around Connecticut, and across the country.
Kiernan Majerus-Collins, 20, is a student at Bates College and a Democratic Town Committee member from West Hartford. He can be reached on Facebook
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