New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)
What happened to Stamford, Hamden mayors
Many elected officials lost their reelections last week in local primaries. I am often struck when elected officials, particularly mayors, lose favor with their local party committee as well as party voters. Party committee endorsements matter because they offer direction for partyaffiliated voters on primary day. So, when a mayor loses the party endorsement and party voter support, it’s a political double whammy.
Since census data confirmed Stamford as Connecticut’s second-largest city, it has been through significant political changes. Democrat David Martin has been mayor since 2013, but Caroline Simmons, a state representative since 2015, successfully won the local Democratic Party endorsement and primary last week. She received 63 percent of voters’ support. But turnout was just 21 percent of eligible registered voters. Few voters show up for primary elections, especially for local races.
Like Stamford, Hamden’s Democratic Party primary had a contentious race, and Mayor Curt Balzano Leng lost last week, as well. Former Councilwoman Lauren Garrett not only gained her party’s endorsement, but she also won the primary election by a 2-1 margin and fended off petitioning candidate Peter Cyr. But Garrett is also facing some big challenges because Hamden is the most indebted town per capita in the state and has one of the highest tax rates in the New Haven area. (She also has to beat out Republican candidate Ron Gambardella and independent candidate Albert
Lotto in November’s general election.)
Similarly, Simmons still has to face Bobby Valentine, an unaffiliated candidate, in November’s general election. The Republicans’ candidate dropped out and threw his support to Valentine. Valentine, the former Major League Baseball manager and local restaurateur, is popular around Stamford, but as for government experience, he served as Stamford’s public safety director for a year. Simmons, Martin and Valentine have traded barbs, so Stamford’s mayoral race will gain some tri-state area media attention.
Simmons and Garrett successfully challenged male mayors who have been municipal hall insiders. Mayor Leng has been mayor for three terms, but he was also a councilman for several terms. Mayor Martin has been in office since 2013 and was a local representative for 26 years. He immediately announced his support for Simmons and went against Valentine, suggesting that “governing the second-largest city in Connecticut is not a game.” Meanwhile in Hamden, still smarting from the loss, Leng sounded lukewarm toward Garrett for November’s election.
Mayors who lose party endorsements and primaries do have some options, although those are hardly pragmatic and often unpopular. West Haven’s former mayor, Ed O’Brien, lost his Democratic Party support but tried running as an unaffiliated candidate in the general election two years ago. He lost, but tried again for this coming general election on a minor party line against Mayor Nancy Rossi. O’Brien could not qualify, though, because of a paperwork problem. New Haven’s former mayor, Toni Harp, lost the Democratic Party primary two years ago. She then ran in the general election and lost to current Mayor Justin Elicker.
Forging alliances between a current mayor and a party-supported candidate can be difficult, but it helps a political party win a general election and maintain unity. Simmons and Martin have already started the process, while Garrett and Leng have some coalition-building to do. Most importantly, trying to run as a mayoral candidate without a political party apparatus is extremely hard. Party committees come with donors, volunteers, resources and networks. Former mayors Harp and O’Brien tried running races on their own, and it didn’t work. It all makes for mayoral elections to be a dramatic process and should remind voters that local politics matter.