What a difference three weeks make
GREENWICH — Peter Tesei has been a political phenomenon since 1987, the year of his first election to the Representative Town Meeting. He was just 18 then, and his youthful success caught the attention of the Greenwich Republican establishment, which quickly anointed him as the party’s bright young star, destined for political greatness.
Tesei did not disappoint his party elders. He went on to serve 12 years on the powerful Board of Estimate and Taxation, including several years as its chair. He then slid smoothly into the first selectman’s seat in Town Hall, where, as he approaches his 50th birthday, he is the longest serving first selectman in Greenwich history. And in late October, he said he would run in 2019 for his seventh, two-year term.
“I like what I do and enjoy it very much,” Tesei said in response to a question about his future political plans posed after his annual State of the Town speech October 29. “My answer today, if you’re asking me, is yes.” After the speech, Tesei confirmed, to a reporter, his intention to run again.
But now, less than three weeks later, Tesei is no longer sure he will seek re-election, saying he did not mean his previous comments to be an official announcement. “I’m going to make a more formal and definitive decision probably after the first of the year,” he told this newspaper earlier this week.
What has happened in the three weeks since the confident first selectman gave his optimistic speech about the town’s future? A speech in which Tesei said the state of the town was “strong and unified,” which he attributed to the civic engagement of Greenwich residents.
Well, the obvious answer is the mid-term election, in which the local Republican party suffered historic losses, ceding to the Democrats two of the three contested seats in the towns’ delegation to the state Legislature. Where Tesei had seen a “strong and united” Greenwich prior to the election, he now sees a town where, he says, “politics has become increasingly more negative and, frankly, not the same political environment from when I initially got involved.”
Of course, the first selectman is right: Greenwich politics have changed. But I don’t think he’s right that they are “more negative.” I think the change is that voters are getting more involved, especially in local and state races. As a Republican in Greenwich, Tesei had only to count the votes on the Republican Town Committee to know where he stood; win its endorsement, and the election was in the bag. That has changed. Republicans are no longer the largest bloc of voters in Greenwich; that power now rests with unaffiliated voters.
Tesei sees the face of the town’s new political reality at every Board of Selectmen’s meeting when he looks up at Democratic Selectman Sandy Litvack. The backcountry Democrat had never run for public office, yet in 2017 he ended Tesei’s string of landslide victories, holding the Republican to just 54 percent of the vote. Now, 54 percent is a healthy margin in most political contests, but it was a disaster for a candidate used to garnering the support of 70 percent or more of voters.
But Litvack’s relative success was not the result of negativity overwhelming local politics; he ran a pretty conventional Democratic campaign. Litvack was lifted by an electorate re-engaging with local and state politics after the shock of Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. That re-engagement continues to grow and has organized itself into a savvy, grass roots political organization, something neither the Republican nor Democratic town committee can claim to be.
Re-engagement is not a protest movement at this point. Voters of all ages, and from both parties and the independents, are paying attention to candidates’ records and positions on a variety of issues. That spells trouble for the status quo, and in Greenwich that means trouble for the GOP.
Bob Horton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.