The rhythms of American democracy are a sure and steady thing. Every two years, we choose a new Congress and a new state legislature: every four, we choose a president and a governor. In times like these where we worry about the future of our democracy, these rhythms are a reassuring reminder of how deep our democratic roots run. For each of these elections since 2004, I’ve gone to the same corner in my Connecticut town – Enfield – and I’ve photographed the election signs there. The only year I skipped was 2018, where for whatever reason there were no signs at all. I’m happy to report that this year the signs are up in abundance.
I love yard signs. I don’t think they necessarily tell us anything about who is going to win an election, but they’re a part of that deep-rooted tradition of democracy and I’ve been fascinated by them since I was a kid. It’s especially fascinating to see how they change and evolve over the years.
It’s also interesting to see how the corner itself has changed–and how it hasn’t. It was a busy, car-filled, pedestrian-hostile intersection on the periphery of a major commercial area in 2004, and it still is today. The package store is still there, though new medical buildings have risen behind and east of it. Enfield changes, and it stays the same.
In 2004 we were worried about Iraq. In 2008 and 2012 we were worried about the economy. In 2020 it was the pandemic. Now? Inflation, abortion, and democracy itself. What will be the issues in 2024, or 2032? We will find out together.
Let’s go through the years, from 2004 to the present.
The big signs are for Bill Kiner, a Democrat who was running for state senate, and his opponent, Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield. Jim Sullivan has a big sign, he was a Democrat who ran against Rep. Rob Simmons that year. It was, though we didn’t know it then, the last year a Republican would win an election in the 2nd congressional district. Note the Chris Dodd sign: this was his last election as well. In a very real sense, this was the last hurrah of Connecticut as it was in the 1990s and early 2000s: Dodd and Lieberman as immovable senators, three of the five congressional seats securely held by Republicans, and a Republican in the governor’s office.
This was the election when everything changed. Simmons, Kiner, and Kissel have big signs; there is a large Joe Courtney sign on the right, too. Kiner lost to Kissel again, but Landslide Joe Courtney eked out the narrowest of wins against Simmons on the same night that Nancy Johnson was defeated by a young state senator named Chris Murphy. The war in Iraq brought down the GOP congress, and Nancy Pelosi became Speaker for the first time.
Note the Ned Lamont signs here and there. He burst onto the Connecticut political scene when he campaigned for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate against Joe Lieberman and won. There are no Lieberman signs; he would go on to win the general election as an independent, but his career would never recover. Lamont, on the other hand, stuck around.
I am so sorry. So, so sorry. This is a picture I took with my potato of a Blackberry, which was the first smartphone I ever owned. The biggest signs, which are the only legible ones, are for the state senate race between Sen. John Kissel and Democrat George Colli. Kissel won the election, while Colli went on to a career in media.
Obama won the presidency, and Jim Himes kicked the last GOP congressman out of Connecticut. It was a momentous night for Democrats. Well, most Democrats.
Terror in the Pines! That sounds amazing, not going to lie. Check out that pirate!
As for election signs, the biggest one is for GOP attorney general candidate Martha Dean. This is the first appearance of a face on a sign, that became a lot more common later. There are a few small red-and-blue Foley/Boughton signs for GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley and his running mate, Danbury mayor Mark Boughton. Foley, a wealthy businessman, lost a narrow election to Dan Malloy, then ran again and lost again in 2014. Sound familiar?
I have no idea what Foley is doing now. Boughton is the commissioner of the Department of Revenue Services, following a long tenure as mayor of Danbury.
Here’s a boring year for signs. There is a red Chris Murphy for Senate sign, as well as a barely-visible “Linda” sign for Linda McMahon. I think the vodka tasting being advertised here is far more interesting than Linda McMahon’s second unsuccessful try at buying a senate seat. The biggest sign is for Joe Courtney, who was cruising to another easy election win. The Kissel signs are here as well.
The most prominent sign again is for Joe Courtney. There are David Kiner signs, he would win another term as state representative for the 59th district. There is no sign of the gubernatorial race, where Dan Malloy would defeat Tom Foley again. John Kissel, whose signs are visible, would defeat his opponent, John Foxx, with almost 70% of the vote. The sign with the face on it is for Republican Tom Kienzler, who lost to David Alexander in the 58th.
2016 was a year of dramatic change. Two constants, John Kissel and Joe Courtney, would go on to win their respective races, but almost everything else was different. Republican Carol Hall, who has a large sign next to Courtney’s, would win an open seat race for the 59th district. Republican Greg Stokes would defeat Rep. David Alexander, who was charged with DUI twice during his short time in the legislature. So Enfield, which had had two Democratic representatives in the House for as long as I’d lived there, suddenly had two Republicans. Stokes would not serve past 2018; Hall is running for a fourth term this year.
Note the Trump sign, just to the left of the Courtney sign. I had never seen a presidential sign on the corner before. A sign of change.
There were no signs on the corner in 2018! It’s too bad, this was the election where Ned Lamont defeated Bob Stefanowski, Democrats recaptured Congress, and Greg Stokes was defeated by Tom Arnone in the 58th. I wish there was a record of it.
As we approach the present, we see things we recognize. The Carol Hall sign has a black-blue-black line on it, to stand for her support for the police and for everything else that went with it. There is a Biden sign but no Trump sign, perhaps another sign of change. Kissel has his usual sign, as does Joe Courtney. Retired pediatrician Jerry Calnan ran against Carol Hall that year, and lost. The sign on the right is for Justin Anderson of East Haddam, a Republican who ran against Courtney.
Still kind of a sparse bunch of signs. I was starting to worry the corner was running out of steam.
Not to fear! Plenty of signs this year, many of them with faces on them. Sorry for the gloom, it was an overcast, humid, drizzly November day.
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So let’s go through this bounty! Center stage is for Democrats Tom Arnone, running for re-election in the 58th district, Cynthia Mangini, who is running against John Kissel, and Matt Despard, who is running against Carol Hall in the 59th. Despard and Mangini, who are both members of the Enfield town council, are running campaigns that have a national flavor. Despard has been bashing Rep. Hall for a bill she introduced to force anyone getting an abortion to view an ultrasound, first, while Mangini has been talking a lot about defending the rights of women, LGBTQ people, and disabled people.
You can also see Hall’s red signs, as well as yellow signs for Bob Hendrickson, a Republican running against Arnone.
For the first time, the corner is in the 58th district. For every other picture, I was taking the picture from a corner in the 58th district into the 59th. After the 2021 round of redistricting, though, the border of the 59th has moved a few hundred feet to the east.
You’re probably wondering where the Kissel sign is. It’s there! Look on the extreme right side of the picture, it’s behind a Mangini sign and a sign for probate judge candidate Carolyn McCaffrey. Thank goodness, I was starting to worry.
No Courtney sign this year, and no signs for the gubernatorial candidates. But there is a sign for senate candidate Leora Levy, who is trailing Richard Blumenthal in the polls.
So there we are. It’s been 18 years since I took that first picture. I wonder what it will look like 18 years from now? Election 2040 seems an impossibly long way off, but it will be here before we know it. Will we look back from that year and think about how simple, how easy, and how predictable things were back in 2022?