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JONATHAN L. WHARTON

During last year’s municipal elections, the Courant’s Daniela Altimari wrote a likely overlooked article about why Connecticut’s majority-minority cities (Bridgeport, Hartford, and New Haven) elected White male mayors in 2019.  It’s a point that many of my students and Twitter followers have asked, as I research and write about urban politics.

So why are there no Black or Latino mayors in Connecticut’s largest minority cities?

The best way to answer this question is to examine what happened last year with minority mayoral candidates. New Haven Mayor Toni Harp tried getting re-elected but she did not win September’s primary election and failed as a third-party candidate in November’s general election. In Bridgeport, another Black female mayoral candidate, Marilyn Moore, narrowly lost in the primary election against Mayor Joe Ganim. Meanwhile in Hartford, several Black and Latino candidates challenged Mayor Luke Bronin.

What do all three cities have in common? They are majority-minority cities with dominant local Democratic Party committees that have been led by Italian-American chairmen supporting White male mayoral candidates.

Historically, Connecticut’s cities have been tied to a political machine where parties (traditionally Democrat) have nominated and elected Irish and Italian-American candidates. These political machines have remained the base of local politics for generations as party leaders have made political overtures, promises, and agreements with various local communities. Voter turnout from these urban communities was a necessity for the political machine and the Democratic Party to remain in power.

But during the 1970s and ‘80s, Black and Latino communities in Connecticut’s largest cities grew as many Irish and Italian Americans left for the suburbs. Yet the political machinery remained.

By the turn of the 21st century, voter turnout for local office decreased significantly in Connecticut’s cities — often less than 20% in general elections and just nearing 30% during the primary elections. Notably, New Haven has relied on voter turnout coming from labor union support since many of their members vote, donate, and volunteer for local campaigns. Many of these same unions also elect their own leaders into public office, as the majority of the city’s alders are union leaders.

But in the last 20 years, an increasing number of Connecticut’s urban voters have opted not to affiliate with a political party. This is important since Connecticut has closed (as opposed to open) primaries where a party affiliation is required for voters to participate in a primary election to support candidates before a general election.

Many observers recognize that party competition can be helpful, but one-party rule has remained the norm in these urban areas. In his seminal work, “Electoral Politics Is Not Enough” Peter Burns acknowledges this one- party monopoly in a number of Connecticut’s cities. He also reveals that various community organizations are tied to traditional approaches and rarely cater to minorities’ issues. Similarly, Louise Simmons raises these concerns in “Poverty, Inequality, Politics and Social Activism in Hartford,” and she concludes that Connecticut’s city halls effectively responding to minorities’ interests “remain highly uncertain.”

In other words, with demographic shifts in Bridgeport, Hartford, and New Haven in the last two generations, the local political machine relied less on voter turnout while their party leaders and chairs have remained White men. Many of these leaders then have a significant hand in deciding mayoral candidates and line up key Democratic supporters. Hence, last year local Democratic Party leaders supported Mayors Joe Ganim and Luke Bronin, and Justin Elicker – all White men.

Connecticut does have diverse cities, but minority representation – particularly in mayoral offices – remains limited and often unsustainable. Latino and Black mayors hardly remain in office for a couple of terms and there’s little continuity between them.

Burns and others acknowledge that coalition-building politics can be a helpful approach for urban communities (especially in minority wards) to support their own leaders for public office, and they could counter entrenched political machines. Blacks and Latinos, as well as Whites, could forge alliances in Connecitcut’s largest cities to address community issues and elect minority mayors. Hartford, for example, has elected two Black mayors and two Latino mayors. 

But effective and sustainable coalition-building remains a difficult feat, especially in Connecticut’s largest cities. After all, the majority of urban residents do not vote and they are largely becoming unaffiliated with a political party. This prevents viable minority candidates from running and winning mayoral office. At the same time, local party committees and their chairs continue running machine politics to choose their mayoral candidates before the primary election.

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.

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