Susan Bigelow head shot
SUSAN BIGELOW

Connecticut voters go to the polls in most of the state’s 169 towns next Tuesday to vote for candidates in municipal elections. With so many races happening at once, it’s not easy to figure out which ones to follow; this will hopefully serve as a starting point.

2021 is going to be a somewhat different town election year thanks to the ongoing pandemic, which has allowed all voters to request absentee ballots. Absentee balloting and local races have a bad name in Connecticut thanks to questions surrounding the primary win of Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim in 2019, but there were no substantiated reports of fraud in the state during the 2020 election. 

Municipal elections historically have very low turnout, so if even a fraction of the new voters who voted absentee in 2020 do the same in 2021, a lot could change. In-person and absentee turnout numbers will be something to keep an eye on this year.

The pandemic may also have played a role in the decision of many town leaders to not seek reelection. The top job in 23 towns is open, in some cases, for the first time in decades. Open seats can often change which party controls the town’s leadership, which makes them all well worth watching.

The highest-profile open seat race this year is in Danbury, where longtime Republican Mayor Mark Boughton left for a job in the Lamont administration. Republican Dean Esposito is facing Democrat Roberto Alves to determine who will lead Danbury into its next chapter. 

In Darien, Democrat Tara Ochman, Republican Monica McNally, and independent Christian Noe are running for the seat vacated by longtime Republican First Selectwoman Jayme Stevenson. East Hartford Mayor Marcia LeClerc is stepping down and Democrat Michael Walsh and Republican Matt Harper are running to succeed her. In Cromwell, Aigne Goldsby (D) faces Allan D. Spotts (R) in an open race for mayor. 

Other towns with open seats: Bethlehem, Chaplin, East Granby, East Haddam, East Lyme, Goshen, Granby, Killingworth, North Stonington, Plymouth, Portland, Roxbury, Salem, Simsbury, Somers, Stafford, Westbrook, and Westport. 

Several other municipal leaders lost primaries, including Stamford Mayor David Martin and Hamden Mayor Curt Leng. Stamford’s race may be especially interesting, as State Rep. Caroline Simmons, D-Stamford, who defeated Martin, is facing longtime Stamford resident and baseball star Bobby Valentine. 

There are a few races where incumbents may face strong challenges. It can be difficult to know how voters in each town are going to swing until election night, especially as the amount of local news covering these races diminishes, but there are some places that could be interesting. 

In heavily Democratic New Britain, Republican Mayor Erin Stewart is facing what could be a strong challenge from Democratic State Rep. Bobby Sanchez. In Redding, First Selectwoman Julia Pemberton, a Democrat, is facing a former state representative, Republican John Shaban. Litchfield, a traditionally Republican town, elected its first Democratic leader in generations in 2019; First Selectwoman Denise Raap will face Republican Daniel Martineau. In Derby, Republican Mayor Richard Dziekan won a very close race in 2019 and will face Democrat Joseph DiMartino. And in Brooklyn, Democratic First Selectman Richard Ives won election by only 28 votes in 2019; he will face the man he defeated, Austen Tanner, again this year.

Sadly, for too many towns, the election is already decided. The race for mayor or first selectman in 48 towns is not being contested at all. That’s over 1 out of every 4 communities. It’s a recipe for stagnation and political alienation; local political groups need to do a better job getting new people involved in town government.

A lingering question is whether national politics and our culture wars are having a noticeable effect on local elections. The Guilford Board of Education race has been dominated by the issue of critical race theory, which was the subject of outrage and debate on right-wing news channels and websites this summer. And controversial Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, a favorite of the extreme right, held a rally and fundraiser in Plainfield less than two weeks before the election.

There is some overlap between the party a town supports in presidential years and the party of the town’s top office, but there are still plenty of towns where this isn’t the case. It will be worth watching to see if this changes at all on Tuesday, and if all politics really are still local.

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

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.

Susan Bigelow

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.