Yesterday, Connecticut Democrats held municipal primaries for Mayor or First Selectman in seven communities across the state. The primaries were held in Connecticut’s three largest cities--Bridgeport, New Haven, and Hartford--but we also saw primaries in key mid-sized cities, including Hamden, Middletown, Oxford, and West Haven.
With two of the three major cities seeing a likely return of their sitting Mayors, these secure second terms will, we hope, be a time for increased leadership and outspoken advocacy on behalf of Bridgeport and Hartford students.
In Bridgeport, Mayor Joe Ganim is in his second stint as the City’s head, after having knocked off former Mayor Bill Finch. This election, Mayor Ganim’s ability to hold back tax increases, his partnership with the legislative delegation to fight for Bridgeport at the State Capitol, and his relentless pursuit of smart retail politics in key communities across the city gave him a leg up. However, he has had to overcome some general statewide Democratic unease, given his legal history. As the last man standing against then-candidate Ned Lamont in the 2018 gubernatorial primary, there was also a threat that Ganim might have further jeopardized his standing by consistently campaigning outside of Bridgeport.
So when State Senator Marilyn Moore, a progressive leader at the State Capitol, decided to launch a challenge, she found support in labor unions, other progressive organizations, and the Working Families Party coalition. Her senate district is one in which Ganim has underperformed in recent elections. However, her fundraising did not ultimately match up to the war-chest that Ganim had amassed since taking office. When the election was called last night, Senator Moore wasn’t able to run up the vote count on the machines. Ganim’s win has been credited to the Bridgeport Democrats’ absentee ballot operation, a strategy only made possible through significant funding and ongoing practice each election cycle.
Despite Ganim’s primary win, Moore said she believed she had the option to run in November as a Working Families Party candidate. However, the Secretary of State has ruled that Moore is not eligible for the ballot. We expect this drama might play out in the courts as she seeks to continue her campaign.
New Haven saw a rematch between Mayor Toni Harp and Justin Elicker--after their 2013 race, when John DiStefano’s retirement left an open mayoral seat. Before winning that race, Mayor Harp had formerly represented New Haven in the State Senate since 1993--including time spent as Chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee, through which she delivered significant resources to her city. She has always had the strong support of the unions in New Haven--including Unite Here (which controls the Board of Alders and is recognized as important to securing electoral victory, both in New Haven and statewide). However, Harp has lacked in support from New Haven political leaders, whether from party leadership or the legislators with whom she previously served. Their noticeable silence has enabled Elicker, as challenger, to amass a larger coalition of support than he did in 2013.
Elicker ran a tough campaign, seizing upon reports over the summer of an FBI investigation into City Hall and Harp’s top political aides. He has played on voters’ desire for change after Harp’s term filled headlines with stories of difficulties and scandals. Since running for office in 2013, Elicker has maintained a strong following in key wards in New Haven, building a reputation as a progressive leader in a city that prides itself on progressive politics, with Yale at its heart.
The overwhelming results in favor of Elicker last night demonstrate very clearly that the fundamentals of the race were stacked against the incumbent. A win by significant margins appears to validate Elicker’s theory that this was a change-election. While Harp could still compete this fall on the Working Families Party line, the indications from within her campaign are that she will focus on the remainder of her term and the upcoming transition.
In Hartford, Mayor Luke Bronin easily fended off challenges from former Mayor Eddie Perez and State Representative Brandon McGee. Representative McGee has been a strong advocate for education reform but was not able to build the campaign necessary to oust a sitting mayor, even in his own district. Just as Mayor Bronin did in 2016 when he soundly defeated then-Mayor Pedro Segarra, he has again raised the bar for fundraising in a Hartford Primary.
This election cycle, Bronin needed to build a large enough coalition among the different racial blocs to win a plurality across all neighborhoods. The South End was thought to be a strong hold for former Mayor Perez and the North End was Representative McGee’s home court. But Bronin won in all but one of the South End districts, defeating McGee in his own legislative district and walking away with a 10:1 drubbing in the West End of Hartford. With that coalition intact, Bronin was able to declare victory with over 50% in a three-way primary.
In other notable primaries, Hamden’s Mayor Leng overcame a challenge by Lauren Garrett, who had been promoted by leading progressive activists in the region.
In Middletown, 27-year-old Ben Florsheim earned the Democratic nomination, holding off three other opponents, including the DTC endorsed Mary Bartolotta. A former aide to US Senator Chris Murphy, Florsheim will next face former Mayor Seb Giuliano in what will be a hotly contested general election.
In Oxford, Betti Hellman challenged the sitting First Selectman and is currently leading by three votes in their Democratic primary in the heart of “The Valley” that has recently been an enigma for Democrats to win in statewide elections.
In West Haven, a city that is built on primaries, former Mayor Ed O’Brien (who lost a bitter primary in 2017) was again rebuffed by sitting Mayor Nancy Rossi.
These elections are important if only because the mayors of larger communities play an important role in influencing their legislators when it comes to key policy issues, such as education funding, degree of regionalization, housing, and economic growth. Beyond their roles in policy debates, these mayors will also be working closely with Governor Lamont, who has shown an interest in yielding to their concerns about municipal governance. Moreover, cities with intra-party divides between “establishment” candidates and “challengers” may be harbingers of how the broader Democratic party will look in Connecticut.
Following this week, we will start to prepare for the November elections to unfold. These will be more consequential and educational with regards to the 2020 legislative races. They will give us insight into both the makeup of the electorate and whether it remains hostile territory for candidates with an “R” next to their name who are down-ballot from President Trump.
Additionally, these local races are key building blocks for any legislative campaign. More robust and tested Democratic Town Committees that are enabled with Democratic Mayors and First Selectman are crucial for any candidate seeking to defeat a Republican incumbent in the legislature. Those races will be a testing ground for legislative candidates working hard for the municipal ticket, as they seek to curry favor with their local town committees.