Some say political 'nastiness' discouraging local candidates
By RUSSELL BLAIR
Jul. 17, 2017
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — After 22 years Preston First Selectman Robert Congdon doesn't want the job anymore. But nobody, Republican or Democrat, has stepped up to succeed him.
"If there's a viable candidate, I'd love to retire," he said.
As Republicans and Democrats hold local caucuses to select candidates for the November municipal elections, some cities and towns report a surge of interest in response to the election of Donald Trump as president. But others say the nasty nature of national politics, and Connecticut's budget woes, are turning people off.
When he was re-elected two years ago, Congdon told supporters it would be his last run for office. But with no clear successor, he's now planning to stay on another two years.
Congdon, 68, attributed the lack of interested candidates in part due to a "toxic" political environment nationally and a general hostility toward politicians at all levels.
"The old term, all politics is local, I think there is a toxic environment at the national level, there's a dysfunctional level in Hartford, and the average person, their only avenue to vent is at the local level," he said. "So the idea that all politicians are crooked, all politicians are on the take is more and more prevalent."
What happened in Preston, with neither party putting forth a candidate, is "probably the worst thing we could have happen in our democratic process," said Tony Sheridan, the president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut and the former first selectman of Waterford.
"The nastiness of some of the political campaigns in recent years, that's certainly a factor," said Sheridan.
Audrey Blondin, a Democrat from Litchfield who spent a decade on the board of selectmen there and is a member of the Democratic State Central Committee said fewer people "want to stick their necks out and get involved in this."
Even on the local level, Blondin said, candidates can open themselves up to political attacks on social media. "There's no privacy," she said. "Facebook, Twitter ... it's too much. Who wants that?"
"It hurts," said Jonathan Wharton, chairman of the New Haven Republican Party and a professor of political science at Southern Connecticut State University. "It's amazing how stinging people can be whether it's on Twitter or a comment box."
Wharton said social media attacks, often conducted anonymously, may be part of the reason that more young people aren't stepping up to run for local office. He's heard those concerns when looking to recruit candidates.
"Is that something that they're ready to withstand?" Wharton said. "It's difficult to judge."
The lack of local candidates is hardly a new or uniquely Connecticut problem. Municipal elections typically draw less interest and lower voter turnout, even though the issues may more directly affect voters. When suburban Chicago held municipal elections in April, at least 150 races didn't have enough candidates.
Blondin was a Bernie Sanders delegate at the Democratic National Convention and held campaign events at her Torrington law office that drew 40 to 50 people. But few of those people have stuck around and gotten involved locally, she said.
"I am at my wits' end," said Blondin. "I think people are passionate about a particular person or a particular issue, but politics ... it's a 24-hour job, seven days a week, 365 days a year."
A report from Rice University's Center for Local Elections in American Politics found half of mayoral candidates in six U.S. states ran unopposed, a percentage that is increasing. In small towns, 79 percent of mayoral races were uncontested.
Some of the reasons for the lack of candidates aren't new: the time commitment or a lower salary than a comparable job in the private sector.
But compounding the issue in Connecticut, observers say, is the uncertainty surrounding the state budget, with many municipalities facing the prospect of millions of dollars in lost state aid.
Nicholas Mullane decided not to seek re-election this year after spending more than three decades on the North Stonington Board of Selectmen, nearly the whole time as first selectman.
Mullane said his town of about 5,300 is anticipating a $1.6 million cut in state aid, and it's likely the next set of town leaders will face the ire of local voters if property taxes go up or services are cut to compensate for the loss in funding.
"The job is thankless," said Mullane. "Small-town people are getting worn out."
Susan Bransfield, the first selectwoman of Portland since 2003 and president of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, agreed that the state's budget situation could deter potential candidates for office.
"If I were brand new and hadn't been on the board of selectmen and hadn't been involved it would be a very challenging atmosphere to enter," she said. "I think in terms of experience that always helps, but as a brand new person ... coming in such a situation would be extremely challenging."
In other communities new candidates have emerged, some in response to Trump. John Gallivan, chairman of the Wethersfield Democratic Town Committee, said Democrats faced the challenge of replacing their top two vote-getters, Mayor Paul Montinieri and Deputy Mayor Steve Barry.
"We've had some good luck getting new candidates who've never been involved before instead of just recycling previous candidates," Gallivan said.
In Enfield, Liz Davis, who heads up the Democratic Town Committee, said applications to run for office are stilling coming in. The party held one round of interviews and has a second scheduled for this week.
"I think in Enfield a lot of people are tired of the negative and the hateful dirty politics," she said. "That lit a fire and a passion with some of the residents to get up and run and try to make a difference."
But the lack of participation in other parts of the state is troubling to many.
Sheridan, the chamber of commerce president, got involved in local politics when there was talk of closing down the school his children attended in the Quaker Hill section of Waterford. He fought the decision, along with his neighbors, and the school remained open and has since been renovated and expanded.
When Sheridan heard rumblings that towns in the area were struggling to find qualified people to run for office, he revived a chamber program to groom potential municipal candidates. But only a few people attended.
"It's very worrisome," Sheridan said. "It's really important for people to feel that they have a say in their government. When they become disenfranchised, that's really troublesome."
Congdon, the Preston first selectman, said he's disappointed nobody has come forward to succeed him. The other two members of the board of selectmen hold engineering jobs at Electric Boat so he understands why they'd be reluctant to leave their careers for a position that pays less and has less job security.
Being a first selectman is a "rewarding job if you do it for the right reasons," said Congdon. "You're trying to improve the quality of life for everyone in your town."
Information from: Hartford Courant, http://www.courant.com