Jon Bilous via shutterstock
New Haven City Hall and the Connecticut Financial Center. (Jon Bilous via shutterstock)
JONATHAN L. WHARTON

The spring brought much change politically for many, including for myself. Between a pandemic and protests, maybe the spirit was in the air for a new chapter in life. As much as I was engaged with the local and state Republican party and living in New Haven, I am no longer a party official nor an Elm City resident.

It is odd that, as a political observer and gadfly, I am not on the Republican Party’s state central committee. Although my term was short, I also served as chairman of the New Haven Republican Town Committee a couple of years ago.

In both positions, I attempted to work with local and state committees to recruit, support, and fundraise for various local and state candidates. In fact, it was a very worthwhile and awesome networking experience. While I teach and often write about state and local government, I actually had little campaign experience. Most importantly, I was able to connect with various party officials and I learned a great deal about the political party process.

Of course bringing change to an urban Republican Party committee was a difficult task. But some inroads were made and at least the committee is on good footing with more candidates, more local committee leaders, and more media attention. With so many statewide candidates in 2018, it was also a critical time and led to some research.

But admittedly, local party committees are often too fractured and remain in the past. I am not only referring to the New Haven Republican Town Committee, but party committees writ-large, even across the aisle. I was taken aback by how divisive and politically spiteful various longtime leaders can be toward one another as well as to potential leaders. From what I experienced at the state committee level it was not nearly as personal or territorial, but various political agendas can get in the way of addressing necessary reforms and even party chair re-elections. Thankfully, I was grateful to meet and caucus with like-minded centrists and libertarians especially from the shoreline-east region.

Unfortunately, I was unable to inspire or push for any reforms within the state party apparatus. This is the “Land of Steady Habits” after all. Any hopes of ending the party convention, opening primary elections, changing local party committee structures, or other approaches to bring about change, was fleeting. There should be no doubt that our state and local party system is overdue for reform especially since the majority of Nutmeggers are unaffiliated voters.

But I did not step down from the Republican Party state central committee because I am against the party or the system. In fact, I have always and will remain a believer in a political party system. It allows for coalition building and attempts to recruit and fundraise for potential candidates and ideas. I stepped down because I unfortunately moved out of the 10th state senate district that I represented on the committee, and I could no longer serve my full term. I also did not seek another term on New Haven’s City Plan Commission, as one 4-year term was enough for me, especially after countless meetings that lasted until midnight on controversial commercial corridor initiatives.

After nearly six years in New Haven, it was time for a change. I provided little change for the local and state party committees. But I also felt the political weight of being in a Connecticut city. New Haven has a party monopoly and it is beyond a textbook political machine model of strong-armed party boss system. Unions are potent rivals and the majority of alders are union leaders. And few residents vote or directly engage in the actual political party or city hall process. In a city like New Haven, 30% turnout in 2013 and last year’s mayoral election is considered a significant record.

I am a student of local politics and especially urban politics. I love New Haven and cherish various Connecticut cities. But a political party monopoly and a lethargic voter turnout are troubling concerns. So as a West Hartford native living in various tri-state area cities for nearly 30 years, I am once again a suburban resident in Branford where there’s a viable selection of candidates and parties.

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He is also a frequent guest on WNPR’s Wheelhouse radio show.

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