Party takes stock after big reversal
By Dave Moran
WALLINGFORD — A day after a resounding Republican victory in the local election, Democrats were left to wonder what went so wrong.
In addition to voters knocking down by large margins all seven proposed amendments to the Town Charter, which Republicans had vocally opposed, the GOP also seized control of the Town Council and the Board of Education, while William W. Dickinson Jr., the unopposed Republican mayor, won election to a 14th consecutive term.
But Democrats Wednesday seemed divided on the ultimate cause of their defeat, with some placing the blame on low voter turnout or the lack of a headlining mayoral candidate, while others attributed the results to a sense of dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party on a national level or a local backlash against the attempted charter revision.
“I think a couple of things happened,” said Democratic Town Chairman Vincent Avallone. “Obviously, we didn’t have a mayoral candidate, which I think hurt us; and, second, charter revision. I don’t believe in what the Republicans did, but they were successful in turning (the revision attempt) into an attack on the mayor, and that energized the mayor’s base.”
The revision attempt had been a thorny issue throughout, and Republicans continually portrayed it as a veiled attempt to whittle away at Dickinson’s powers. Dickinson even made it a campaign issue, repeatedly voicing his opposition to the proposed amendments during speeches and in his campaign literature.
Low voter turnout and the absence of a candidate for mayor also appear to have figured prominently in the Democrats’ defeat. The only other time the Democrats did not field a challenger to Dickinson was in 2001, when the mayor’s sole opponent was Pasquale Melillo, who ran as an independent. That year, Republicans seized a 6-3 majority on both the council and the Board of Education, polling 56 percent of all votes cast.
Tuesday’s election will lead to a 6-3 Republican majority on the council and a 5-4 advantage on the school board when the new members are sworn in Jan. 4. Party breakdowns for this year’s election were not available Wednesday, but only 8,850 of the town’s 24,870 registered voters, 35.6 percent, turned out to cast ballots. Just over 41 percent of the electorate turned out for the 2001 election.
“I’d start at the top of the ticket and look down,” said John Sullivan, a local media personality and one of only three Democrats elected to the council Tuesday. “If we had a mayoral candidate, I think we would have gotten more voters out.”
A bumper crop of eight candidates for six spots on the council and seven for six available school board posts may also have adversely affected the election’s overall outcome, but many were split on the precise impact.
Because the charter states that no party can occupy more than six seats on the council or the school board, both parties have established an unwritten rule in recent years to run no more than six candidates for either panel. But the Democrats successfully broke with that rule in 2007, when Nick Economopoulos petitioned his way onto the ticket as a seventh candidate and helped the Democrats secure a 5-4 council majority.
This year, both parties nominated seven candidates for seats on the council and the Board of Education, while Geno Zandri, a former five term councilor and the Democratic candidate for mayor in 1999, petitioned his way onto the Democratic ticket after the party held its nominating caucus over the summer.
But Robert Gross, who was unsuccessful in his council bid as a Democrat this year, did not attribute his party’s loss to an overcrowded ballot.
“Definitely not,” Gross said. “The Republicans ran seven and they won six of them, they almost won seven if the rules would have allowed it, so I don’t think that was a factor.”
Economopoulos and Vincent Testa, the council’s vice chairman, were the only two incumbent Democrats to win. Economopoulos described his party’s poor showing as a “compound fracture.”
He attributed the results to an unfavorable perception of Democrats on the national level, but noted that not having a candidate for mayor and running too many strong candidates for council in the same year did not help the party with local voters.
“I already talked to them about that last night,” Economopoulos said. “I told them if they want to do anything in two years, we need to start planning now. We need to strengthen our Town Committee. It’s not like there was a weakness here or a weakness there; I think it was just a problem of our whole philosophy.”