Last week was swearing-in and inaugural meeting time for local Naugatuck Valley officials, following last month’s elections. To further understand the Valley’s politics, I attended Seymour, Ansonia, and Derby’s ceremonies.
Some may overlook this part of western New Haven County, where the Naugatuck River snakes through nearly a dozen towns. As much as local media portray Connecticut as a “blue” state, it’s areas like “The Valley” that debunk this notion. During this hyper-partisanship era, when too many journalists and politicians frame politics through a red-blue lens, the Valley is a standout. Much of the reporting about last month’s elections stressed that local races would legitimize or buck Trump-era politics. In fact, many Republicans were elected or re-elected to local office particularly in the Valley.
Why? The Valley was once a manufacturing powerhouse before many corporations left some 30 or so years ago. While depopulation and environmental pollution remain longstanding post-industrial problems, many of these small towns maintained their provincial politics and regional spirit. By many town centers’ facades, the Valley is a place that’s stood still. It’s a region where many of its residents remain Reagan Democrats, and unaffiliated right leaning voters often elect a candidate and not always a political party.
Of course, I’m merely a political observer and not a Valley resident. But as an outsider who helped a Valley first selectman run a state-wide campaign last year, I regularly came to the campaign office in Ansonia (interestingly, the Republican regional headquarters was next door to the Democrat’s regional headquarters). I also attended various town hall meetings, events, and fundraisers in these towns.
The most striking moment of this pragmatic bipartisanship was when both Democrats and Republicans attended a Republican campaign event last year. Over drinks and cigars with a half dozen mayors and first selectmen, I had to ask why and how they get along, unlike the rancor we see in Washington and Hartford.
One commented that they were forced to get along because they rely on one another’s town governments since too often the state and federal governments overlook their towns. Another said that because so many of their towns experienced post-industrial problems, they had to support one another. They all agreed that too often they have to work together to get projects and programs off the ground. In other words, they cannot stand on partisan politics – similar to Washington and Hartford. They have to lead by addressing actual initiatives with various towns across partisan lines.
These themes appeared to come together at last week’s swearing-in ceremonies.
In Seymour, the first selectman publicly reminded everyone in board chambers that “we’re not just Democrats and Republicans or liberals and conservatives. We’re 16,000 people in Seymour.”
In Ansonia, Middlebury’s first selectman publicly offered that “Valley towns step up and take on the challenge” of addressing local concerns like economic development and brownfields. The town spirit was especially notable in the high school auditorium and afterwards as residents ate together at the reception.
But Derby’s swearing-in ceremony, with several Valley mayors on Derby High School’s auditorium stage, had their former Democrat mayor and current town clerk suddenly fill in at the last minute as master of ceremonies for a Republican mayor, alders, and local officials (can one imagine opposing party executive officials doing this in other cities, gubernatorial offices or the White House?). Even at the end of Derby’s ceremonies, the mayor publicly thanked the former mayor as they shook hands and the mayor proudly proclaimed, “this is how we do it!”
Observers, journalists, pundits as well as voters and public officials could learn from the Valley. It’s not utopia, as there was some negative campaigning during Ansonia’s mayoral election, for example. It ultimately spilled over to the city’s recent special meeting of the school board as the mayor sought to fill a vacancy with an unsuccessful Republican alder candidate rather than the defeated Democratic mayoral candidate. Police were even called by the school board’s lawyer during the meeting, and a final decision may have to come from court and/or the state Department of Education.
But, according to a newly elected board member and one of Ansonia’s registrars of voters, these moments are rare – especially over the last few years as officials have worked together.
Still, there is a Valley spirit that Nutmeggers could adopt. If working across town and party lines were ever possible to address problematic issues like those in the Valley, imagine what could be achieved in Connecticut? All politics may be local, but it should not be so political that policies cannot be addressed, especially in this era of hyper-partisanship.
Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is an associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He also serves on the New Haven City Plan Commission and Republican State Central Committee.
DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.
CORRECTION: We updated this op-ed to reflect the Ansonia’s mayor’s choice to fill the vacancy on the Board of Education was an unsuccessful Republican alder candidate, rather than a former alder.