Local elections are here. You noticed, right? Of course you did.
Actually, you’d be entirely justified for forgetting all about who’s running for town clerk or the board of education. This has been a noisy, unpredictable, gut-wrenching, and utterly exhausting year. Think about it all: the drama factory at the White House, nuclear saber-rattling from North Korea, an unprecedented series of natural disasters, a total budget meltdown here in Connecticut, and on and on and on.
It feels like the whole world is coming apart at the seams. What’s more, our democracy seems shaky and dysfunctional, especially at the national level. So what does it matter who’s on the city council or select board?
I could tell you about the usual things a column like this would mention, like police, fire, and schools, or about garbage collection and senior services and libraries. Those things are vital, absolutely, and well worth preserving and enhancing. That’s part of what the town does, albeit usually with plenty of state money and regulation, and you deserve a voice in who sets the budget, what the priorities are, and how your children are educated.
I could also say that town government is the layer of government closest to you, and the one where you’re much more likely to be able to talk to the people who represent you. Participating in town politics and government is a lot easier than at any other level, and the most basic way to do that is to know who’s running and what they stand for before you go vote.
There’s also the fact that you’d be participating in a democratic ritual that predates our country’s independence by a century or more. The nature of voting has changed, as have the offices and the electorate, but local elections of one sort or another have been happening here since the 1600s. Connecticut and New England have an ancient democratic tradition that’s worth honoring.
And lastly, I could remind you that turnout in municipal elections is very, very low, so every vote matters. The vote that decides who your council representative will be could be yours!
All of this is true. On top of that, there are some very interesting races and referenda out there to participate in. Mayor Ed O’Brien of West Haven lost his primary to challenger Nancy Rossi, but he’s still running as a write-in candidate. In local elections, write-ins can sometimes win! Mayor Michael Jarjura did so in Waterbury in 2005.
Groton is facing a vote about whether to approve budgets by referendum. Don’t do it, Groton, it’s a terrible idea!
And in Lyme, the outgoing Republican first selectman of two decades, Ralph Eno, actually endorsed the Democrat running to succeed him, Steven Mattson. Other towns are embracing bipartisanship, too, like Essex, where Democratic First Selectman Norman Needleman stresses that everyone’s ideas are welcome in a video.
Maybe that’s the start of something.
But that’s not what I really want to talk about, and I doubt it’s what you want to hear.
Look, don’t go vote because of tradition or fire trucks or libraries — well, maybe libraries — but do it for yourself. Do it because you can, because it’s your right.
I won’t lie to you, it’s bad out there. We’ve entered one of these fearful and lonely times when democracy and the rule of the people seems to be in scattered, broken retreat. Elections worldwide are coughing up extremists, ultranationalists, and demagogues who appeal to the worst parts of our nature. Before that, elected governments seemed absolutely stuck in a partisan, ideological, and cultural quagmire that’s been decades in the making, where meaningful solutions to problems seemed politically impossible.
How do any of us hold the line? What can a single person do against this carnival of disaster?
Trying to grapple with big, global forces often feels like shouting into the wind. But in his astonishing retirement speech, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, told us never to accept the “new normal,” and to embrace and defend small-d democratic principles.
One way we all do that is by going to the polls on November 7th, to choose the people who will run your little corner of the universe.
It’s a cleansing thing, and a bulwark against cynicism. It’s practicing our national belief that representative democracy, while often flawed, is the best form of government humanity has ever invented.
Your single vote may just be a tiny little candle flickering in the awful, dark night, but it is a light. And it’s yours.
I’ll see you at the polls.
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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