Not all politics is local in this municipal cycle
Connecticut voters go to the polls today in all but four of the state’s 169 cities and towns, electing new mayors and first selectmen in dozens of places with open seats, while party strategists try to glean signs of trouble or opportunity for 2022.
Talking points from the 2020 presidential campaign about extremism, misinformation, race and crime have echoed in many local races this cycle, testing the degree to which municipal campaigns are shaped by national messaging.
“Unfortunately, the adage that ‘all politics is local’ may be changing,” said Ben Proto, the new Republican state chairman.
Donald J. Trump is an influence in many local races: some Democrats are testing whether the former president still can rally the Democratic base; and some Republicans are running on Trump’s messaging about critical race theory and defunding the police.
In Fairfield County, the fastest-growing corner of the state, where the politics have trended Democratic, there are open races for mayor in Stamford and Danbury and first selectman in Darien and Westport. All those offices except the mayor of Stamford are held by Republicans.
Republican hopes for a Democratic loss in Stamford turn on the campaign of retired baseball star Bobby Valentine, who refused the party’s nomination to run as an unaffiliated candidate.
The Democrat is state Rep. Caroline Simmons, who unseated Mayor David Martin in a Democratic primary and is running with the endorsement of her party’s biggest names, including Barack Obama and Gov. Ned Lamont.
Democrats in Danbury see opportunity in the absence of Republican Mark Boughton from the mayoral ballot for the first time two decades. The Republican, Dean Esposito, was Boughton’s chief of staff; The Democrat is a first-term councilman, Roberto Alves.
Democrats have lumped Esposito with Trump, while Republicans have suggested that cross-endorsement of Alves by the Working Families Party suggests he is open to defunding police, which Alves denies.
In Darien and Westport, two popular Republican incumbents are stepping away after long runs as chief elected officials: Jayme Stevenson in Darien after 10 years, and Jim Marpe in Westport after six.
Democrat Tara Ochman, Republican Monica M. McNally, and a petitioning candidate, Christian Noe, are testing whether Darien still favors the GOP in local elections after giving President Joe Biden 60% of the vote last year.
In Westport, state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, and Jennifer Tooker, a selectman and retired insurance executive, are fighting to succeed Marpe, largely by sticking to local concerns, including traffic and infrastructure.
“We should be proud of it always, but especially against this backdrop of hyper-partisanship, critical race theory, forced school regionalization — a whole bunch of fear mongering and myth-stirring that isn’t ultimately productive or all that helpful to voters in making a decision,” said Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport.
Trump was a factor in surprising places in the 2017 municipal elections.
In the wealthy Stamford suburb of New Canaan, Republican Kevin J. Moynihan, a Trump delegate in 2016, won the first selectman’s race by only 33 votes in a nearly 50-50 election. But he won with 60% of the vote in 2019 and is unopposed this year.
Simmons and Steinberg are two of five lawmakers seeking municipal office. Rep. Bobby Sanchez, D-New Britain, is challenging Republican Mayor Erin Stewart, and Rep. Irene Haines, R-East Haddam, is running for the open first selectman seat against Democrat Scott W. Jezek.
Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, is unopposed for re-election as first selectman.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, said the municipal elections this year will provide a limited and imperfect test of what to expect next year. Duff said Democrats will be watching to see where messages of “extremism” are resonating.
“We have to watch for where extremism is making inroads,” Duff said.
House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, said Democrats risk turning off voters by keeping the focus on Trump.
“I think generally the electorate is going to get tired of that,” Candelora said. “I don’t think it works at the local level.”
Candelora acknowledged, however, that Republicans running on critical race theory also risk turning off elements of their own party, as has happened in school board races in Guilford, New Canaan and a few other places.
Four communities still have May elections for local office: Andover, Bethany, Union and Woodbridge.
In at least 43 communities this year, the mayor or first selectman is unopposed. One of them is in Sprague, where Republican Cheryl Ann Blanchard unseated Democrat Cathy Osten last year. Osten remains a state senator.
In the small town of Killingworth, there is an open race for first selectman, a seat now held by a retiring Democrat. But the Democrats could not find a candidate, so Republican Nancy Gorski is opposed only by a minor-party candidate.
Proto, the GOP state chair, said whatever else happens Tuesday, he is confident of flipping one Democratic seat in Killingworth.