Now that it’s all said and done and our Bridgeport-sized hangover is finally wearing off, what did we learn from this year’s municipal elections?
First, we learned what we learn every single year: that incumbents are by and large pretty safe, no matter where they might be. Sure, there’s high-profile exceptions, but for the most part the incumbent rolled right over whoever their challenger might be. For instance, William Dickinson won a 17th term as mayor of Wallingford, while Robert Chatfield was re-elected to a staggering 20th term as mayor of Prospect on Tuesday. Chatfield was first elected in 1977 — when I was about a month old.
A good rule for elections is that incumbents always have the advantage, except when there’s some kind of crisis. Even then, incumbents often do well. The big winner in almost every election is the status quo.
Second, we learned that nobody should underestimate Erin Stewart. Stewart, a Republican who was elected in 2013, was originally seen as a stand-in for her father, former New Britain Mayor Timothy Stewart. But the daughter soon established that she was quite different from the father, and earned the endorsement of several city unions during her re-election campaign.
Despite raising taxes and making some hard choices, Stewart and the Republican slate won a resounding victory — Republicans now control the Common Council for the first time since 1971. Stewart has said in the past that she wants to get more involved at the state level. Republicans should encourage her.
We also learned that for some people the need to serve the public dies hard. Rob Simmons, a former U.S. Congressman from the 2nd District, won his race for First Selectman in his hometown of Stonington. Simmons, now in his 70s, certainly could have retired following his loss to current U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney in 2006. But Simmons stayed on, becoming the state’s business advocate before running for U.S. Senate in 2010 — a race he lost in the primary to Linda McMahon.
Now Simmons will have a chance to turn around a town that has been reeling since the resignation of former First Selectman Ed Haberek following a sexting scandal. I’m not surprised Simmons won — he’s the kind of guy people in Eastern Connecticut really connect with and respect. I wish him all the best.
Shall we talk about Bridgeport, then? If we must.
The first thing we learned from Bridgeport is that the sound of monocles hitting the floor all over the state at the news that Joe Ganim was on the brink of a comeback didn’t matter a single bit in Bridgeport. Ganim won in a landslide.
In fact, we learned a lot of things from Ganim’s unprecedented win in the Park City. We learned that an exceptionally talented retail politician who really, deeply connects with voters, can overcome just about any failing in his past. We learned that the narrative of redemption struck a powerful chord with communities in which people are incarcerated far more than average. We learned that Mary Jane Foster was a lousy candidate who didn’t appeal to a wide swath of the city. We also learned that Mayor Bill Finch probably should have got his paperwork in on time if he’d wanted to run as an independent — although given the size of Ganim’s win, that may not have saved him.
But most importantly, we learned that local elections are just that: local. It didn’t matter that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy wouldn’t vote for Ganim if he lived in Bridgeport, or what a columnist sitting in a town on the Massachusetts border thought of him. It only mattered that people in Bridgeport liked him, trusted him, and wanted to give him another chance to lead their city — even if it seemed like letting the fox run the henhouse again to outsiders.
Outside opinions are rarely welcome in local races, though. Remember Joe Maturo? He was the mayor of East Haven who, following high-profile reports that police in his town systematically targeted Latinos, said that to help out the Latino community he “might have tacos” for dinner that night. It made the national news, and Maturo was roundly criticized in state and national media. But he is still mayor of East Haven. He won again Tuesday night. East Haven doesn’t care what outsiders think, and neither does Bridgeport.
So now Bridgeport voters get to live with their decision. The people spoke, and who knows? Maybe they made the right choice.
That’s democracy. What a gloriously beautiful mess.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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