Like my colleague Susan Bigelow, I’ve always been a fan of Connecticut’s municipal elections and would not want to see them shunted off into the even years and effectively merged with races for the higher-profile state and federal office-seekers.
There are exceptions — Greenwich comes to mind — but what I’ve always enjoyed about municipal campaigns is that, while they can be fiercely waged, they are often less partisan than their state and federal counterparts. After all, as a wise person once said, “There is no Democratic or Republican way to fill a pothole,” or subdivide a lot, for that matter.
There are differences in philosophy on issues such as land use and education spending, for example, but they are often more a result of personal experience than party affiliation. Nevertheless, the state of Connecticut insists that almost all local elections be partisan rather than nonpartisan. The National League of Cities provides a handy explainer on the two, along with the advantages and disadvantages of both systems.
In Massachusetts, it depends on the municipal charter, but the vast majority of local elections, from the city council in Boston to the regional school board, are nonpartisan. Anyone who can gather enough signatures on a petition can run for the office — although the candidate’s party affiliation, if any, is often included on the ballot as a marker.
The same case can be made for making Connecticut’s municipal elections nonpartisan. Having the two major parties as gatekeepers only benefits the party machinery and its leaders. I understand that unaffiliated office-seekers in Connecticut can also petition their way onto the ballot. But that’s always been viewed as an oddity in a state of such partisanship that until 1986, there was a straight-ticket lever on voting machines which, with one flick of the finger, allowed lazy voters to cast entire election ballots strictly along party lines.
Nonpartisan elections make especially good sense in a state like Connecticut, where almost all the major cities are so dominated by Democrats that the primary is the de facto general election.
Notwithstanding the dearth of partisanship (in the strictest sense of the word as it applies to politics), this off-year election cycle has been lively. The misuse of lawn signs especially caught my eye.
For 20 years or more, I’ve noticed that it’s rare anywhere in New England and neighboring New York to see lawn signs that dare mention the party of the candidate. You might see a tiny kicker at the bottom disclosing that the sign was paid for by the Republican or Democratic town committee, but it seems that hardly anyone wants to risk alienating a good chunk of the electorate by disclosing which party the candidate belongs to. Instead, candidates offer either policy slogans or they tell you not to vote for the other guy.
There was a peculiar headline in Saturday’s Courant that caught my eye: “In some Connecticut towns, lawn signs are the latest weapon as campaigns turn nasty.” Funny. I never thought of lawn signs as “the latest weapon,” but rather as a time-honored means of improving one’s name recognition.
In the aforementioned Greenwich, a Democratic police captain on the town force was placed on indefinite leave for taking leave of his senses and purchasing lawn signs that read “Make Greenwich Great Again” and clumsily attempting to link a Republican candidate for first selectman to President Donald Trump.
In Farmington, someone placed lawn signs linking Democratic candidates for town offices to sexually transmitted diseases. In Avon, even as the Republican Town Committee denied any involvement, someone placed signs around town announcing that “Democrats Suck.” Charming …
In a bizarre variation of this kind of political mischief, someone in Plymouth has put up signs urging passersby to “vote for anybody but Merchant.” It was a reference to Mayor David Merchant, who is running unopposed for a fourth term. The half-witted tactic is to encourage a write-in campaign to “send him a message,” as the sign proclaims at the bottom. Evidently no one was willing to send the mayor a message by actually running against him.
In advance of the September primary for mayor in Hamden, thieves evidently made off with signs supporting the campaign of Mayor Curt Leng. Forgive me, but I always get a little cynical when I hear of such tales. I’m sure there are plenty of cretins who actually steal lawn signs, but when I was a reporter in Dutchess County, N.Y., I once witnessed a candidate for town council grabbing her own signs in a naked attempt to generate sympathy and publicity. Unaware that I had witnessed her chicanery, she later called me up in tears to pitch a story on someone who was stealing her signs.
In the end, it’s much ado about almost nothing. I’d say lawn signs do little to sway opinion in the modern era. Indeed, a 2015 study found that lawn signs, on average, increase a candidate’s voter share by 1.7%. That could make a difference in a close local race but signs aren’t exactly cheap and their effectiveness pales in comparison to inexpensive social media and email campaigns.
For maximum effectiveness, the office-seekers should knock on doors and hand out rubber-jar openers emblazoned with their names. Or the 2022 candidate for governor could offer to everyone who answers the door an emery board that says, “File Your Vote For Bob Stefanowski.”
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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