Voters in a Connecticut polling place Credit: Tim Martin
JONATHAN L. WHARTON

Next Tuesday is primary election day and several New Haven area municipalities are facing some gruesome matches. In some towns there are more than two candidates vying for the same office within one political party. But local primaries draw few voters and too often these races become more about personalities than about public policy. 

Connecticut’s local political committees are prone to personal politics because so many leaders and candidates have been engaged with party committees for decades and they often carry grudges for just as long. As a former New Haven Republican chairman, I witnessed and also faced these challenges within my party committee and beyond. Factions within committees are commonplace and they lead to confrontational politics. 

Internal party battles remain an ongoing saga for this upcoming primary election. My CTNewsJunkie colleague, Susan Bigelow, covered several primaries to watch around Connecticut and included Hamden Democrats’ feud. Hamden has a primary election with three mayoral candidates just for the Democratic ticket. Local issues like school funding, police reform and tax increases have led to some party division. Lauren Garrett, who ran two years ago but lost, secured the Democratic Town Committee’s nomination this election cycle. But among the progressive faction, Peter Cyr and Brad Macdowall initially challenged her which divided both the progressives and the local party. Cyr is a young upstart while Macdowall has been a campaign operative and town council leader. Of the pair of progressives, only Cyr remains on the primary ballot and the current Democratic mayor, Curt Leng, also is running for reelection. Leng has been challenged before and remains determined to stay in Town Hall. If he were to lose the primary election, would he consider what West Haven’s former Mayor Ed O’Brien did and run as an independent candidate for November’s general election? It could be likely considering Leng’s tenacity. 

Speaking of West Haven, that community tends to have so many mayoral candidates running that it’s not unusual for candidates to run multiple times or run without a political party if they lose a primary election. O’Brien sought reelection two years ago, lost the Democratic primary and ran as an unaffiliated candidate in the general election. Now he’s trying to do the same thing under the Action and Accountability Party line in November’s mayoral election against the Democratic Town Committee’s endorsed Mayor, Nancy Rossi. Rossi is popular among many residents because of her waterfront development efforts but O’Brien is determined to return to City Hall to finish the economic development projects he started. As epic as a battle the former and current mayor have against one another, there’s also O’Brien’s former aide, John Lewis, seeking a Democratic Party primary win, too. For West Haven Republicans, Steven Mullins tried running as a mayoral candidate for the fourth time, but Barry Lee Cohen secured the party’s nomination. Mullins considered running in the upcoming primary and then chose not to do so last month. The two were challenging each other’s political experience and it often led to personal attacks.   

West Haven and Hamden are not the only New Haven area party committees with ongoing internal battles. Nearby East Haven has continued feuds, too. Longtime former Mayor Joe Maturo still has an invisible hand over East Haven’s politics. Even though he did not run for a record ninth term two years ago, he and few of his faction have not come out to support the Republican Town Committee’s endorsed candidate, Sal Maltese. Maltese ran for mayor in 2017 and narrowly lost against Maturo following a recount lawsuit. Maturo is a known but controversial force while Maltese has run for mayor as a Republican, Democrat and Independent. 

Politics are prone to conflict, but they can get personal. Local party committees embody so much of this reality. While Connecticut is a closed primary state, which requires voters to declare their party affiliation to participate in primary elections, many local party committees remain divisive. 

In order to grow a local party and attract candidates, political leaders and candidates need to be united and emphasize future goals over rivalries. Longtime and ongoing battles among candidates divide political committees, supporters, resources and voters. Connecticut’s primaries are a necessity for democracy to flourish, but voter turnout remains anemic in local elections. Having political and personal feuds hardly helps local government, party committees and voters. No matter which side of the political aisle, there must be a shared vision to advance policies over personal politics. 

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D., is the associate dean of the School of Graduate and Professional Studies and teaches political science at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

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.