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Could Education Reform Return In 2013 Sleepy Election Cycle?

November 26th, 2012 · 14 Comments · Analysis and Comment, City Politics, Education

In November 1998, Mayor Joe Ganim asked voters to approve a four-year term for mayor. Voters said yes.

In November 2012, Mayor Bill Finch asked voters to approve mayoral appointment of school board members. Voters said no.

Similarities and differences exist in each effort.

Both mayors made direct appeals to voters, putting their prestige on the line.

The four-year term for mayor had been defeated by voters in decades prior through charter revision ballot questions. (Full disclosure: I managed the four-year term effort on Ganim’s behalf in 1998.) The argument for the four-year term centered on city stability from the two-year term that reset the campaign clock once the election was over. Two-year terms swim in politics. Four-year terms place emphasis on governing. That was part of the argument, anyway. Wall Street bond rating agencies as well like the stability of four years, a nod to city finances.

The four-year term meant much more to Ganim, of course. He was looking four years down the road at running for governor. If voters approved a four-year term it meant he’d be on the mayoral ballot just once more, in 1999, and set up perfectly for his gubernatorial run in 2002. A poll tested voter preference for a four-year term for both mayor and City Council. We were suspicious that the legislative body was dragging down the question. Sure enough, voters expressed support for a four-year term for mayor, not so for council members. The ballot question also proposed four-year terms for city clerk and town clerk. The council was not included.

The question would not have been brought to voters without Ganim’s popularity. In the summer of 1998, Ganim gifted taxpayers the sixth straight year of no tax increase. You’d have to go back to Socialist Jasper McLevy, who served from 1933-57, to find a mayor with that tax record. In addition, the ballpark at Harbor Yard opened that summer creating new sizzle for the city, often times with capacity crowds. Fish tix were hot items.

Ganim had a bit of a political problem that year as well. His brother Paul challenged Kevin Boyle, the Democratic Party endorsed candidate for Probate Judge, a position Boyle had aspired to for a long time. Paul Ganim squeaked out a primary win. Political egos were bruised in the process. Joe Ganim was not a local political suck up. He kissed ass only when absolutely required, or suited his interests. Boyle winning the primary would have required Joe to suck up a little. The political party apparatus, however, is far more relevant in primaries than higher-turnout general elections. Independent-minded voters didn’t give a rat’s ass about what the local district leader or council members thought. So the bet was Joe’s popularity would a carry the ballot question.

The 1998 election was a gubernatorial cycle, not as large a turnout as a presidential election but in those days the city turnout for governor was more than 50 percent, unlike the low to mid 30 percent of recent vintage. The voter persuasion campaign was as much a referendum on Ganim’s job performance as anything else. Organized opposition was minimal. The ballot question prevailed, Ganim won reelection in 1999 with 80 percent of the vote and kick-started the first four-year term in mayoral history. Of course, Joe’s plans for 2002 did not materialize. On Halloween of 2001, he was indicted on various federal charges and was forced from office in April of 2003.

Finch’s outreach for a mayoral-appointed school board had some similarities, a mayor making a direct appeal to voters, a well-financed campaign–in fact the yes and no vote organizations combined would spend close to $1 million, a record breaker for any municipal campaign effort. The yes campaign focused on school improvements under a state-appointed school board (that had been overturned by the Connecticut Supreme Court) and the optimistic vision of the future.

Some differences: Finch, although a mighty orator with an exceptional ability to rationalize just about anything, doesn’t have the citywide standing with the electorate Ganim enjoyed in 1998. In addition, organized opposition led by a coalition of political operatives, labor unions and education advocacy groups, created enough doubt with its voter-rights message for a 53 to 47 percent rejection of the question.

Finch’s political operation has pretty much had its way weighing into races, his peeps know how to identify voters and pull them out, but this was a different animal in a higher-turnout presidential cycle with voters less influenced by a political organization and the prestige of mayoral appeal. Finch’s campaign apparatus is far more potent in low-turnout elections.

Mayoral operatives took their shot at persuading voters to give him the power to appoint in a presidential cycle, and perhaps more than anything else were betrayed by the election calendar. Elections, whether by candidate or ballot question are about matchups and right place, right time.

Next year is a sleepy election cycle with City Council and Board of Education seats up for grabs. Don’t know if Finch operatives are considering bringing back the ballot question or perhaps a different twist on education reform, but they’d have a better shot at passage in the low turnout 2013 cycle.

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14 Comments so far ↓

  • Up On Bridgeport

    Ganim had also hid behind delaying the reval for several years and needed the cover of the four-year term.

    • Joel Gonzalez

      True, Up On Bridgeport! But with the reval, the City of Bridgeport would have ended up with more money in the rainy day fund. When I left in 2001, there was $51 million. The reval wasn’t really necessary and I was in favor of conducting the reval only if all the extra revenue was going to be used to cover the rising cost of the pension. The reval would have raised the property value and raised more tax revenue. I was sure the economy would start to sink around 2005 and the pension issue was going to be a major impediment to future economic progress and growth. It all went down hill a lot sooner when Fabrizi took over as mayor and Andres Ayala as Council President. It didn’t get any better with Bill Finch increasing the debt by over $110 million, increasing taxes, flat funding the BOE …

  • John Marshall Lee

    In January 2012 a specially selected interim Superintendent, known for his efforts at bringing comprehensive and rapid reform along with initially balanced school budgets to large poor urban school districts came to work in Bridgeport.

    In January 2012 a special Mayoral-selected group of Bridgeport citizens began a review of the City of Bridgeport Charter, keeping in mind the Mayor had special interest in a Mayo-appointed school Board of Education so he could be accountable for school performance and results. The Council approved the Charter Review product and placed all 70 changes on the voter’s plate under one question.

    (Supporters of YES kept banging about need for education reform. Perhaps that train had left the station already, with the rapid execution by the interim Superintendent of numerous reform elements. Meanwhile two questions disturbed a larger number of voters who responded, NO: can I trust Mayor Finch or later mayors to be accountable and why should I give up my vote for BOE representation anyway?)

    It has taken less than six months for the new Superintendent and team to focus on a five-year plan of reform with multiple moving parts along with balanced budget in 2011-12 and in succeeding years … as long as all parties became ACCOUNTABLE for delivering the money.

    The City external auditor is in its finishing ‘in-house’ phase of CAFR completion, and the public should see the results of its efforts in less than 6 weeks. What risks does the City face? Any noticeable trends in liabilities? Grand list directions? And what will next year’s operating and capital budgets look like when they exit from the Annex and land on the City Council desk? Revaluation as of October 1, 2013? Mil rate meaning?

    City Council elections in November, 2013? Would a newly appointed Charter Commission take a look at what is neglected by administrations in recent years, unlike the 2012 vintage? A review of what the external auditors have said about internal controls recently? By the absence of any discernible check and balance mechanism between executive and legislative branch in Bridgeport?

    Same amount of time available in 2013 as this past year in terms of getting any work effort, worthy of the name, before the voters, right? And how will the City Council, operating without any City staffing (tossed overboard last year for raising questions on stipend reporting, it seems) and with no external support, though they have budgets for such, accomplish its significant work for voters and taxpayers? Time will tell.

  • Joel Gonzalez

    “He kissed ass only …” “Independent-minded voters didn’t give a rat’s ass …”

    Lennie, you are not in Redding. Here in OIB we must watch our language as children–or adults who act like children–read the blog. This leaves me to wonder: Where have most of the Independent-minded voters gone?

    “Next year is a sleepy election cycle with City Council and Board of Education seats up for grabs. Don’t know if Finch operatives are considering bringing back the ballot question or perhaps a different twist on education reform, but they’d have a better shot at passage in the low-turnout 2013 cycle.”

    Really, Lennie? You think the very Council people who voted for FLAT FUNDING the BOE can put a twist to the fact not only did they vote for flat funding the BOE for four years straight, they also approved the language of the ballot question rejected by the voters? And to add insult to injury, they remained silent on the concerns raised by the opposition. I wish Bridgeport Democratic Party Chairman John Staftstrom were so stupid to try such a stunt.

    • LennieGrimaldi

      Either way Speedy, don’t you think it’s going to be an issue if decent council challengers emerge? Could make an interesting campaign: “They tried to strip your voting rights, now let’s strip them of their seats.”

      • Joel Gonzalez

        It could be an issue IF there are at least 16 council challengers working closely with the BOE challengers. A group of challengers supported by the organized opposition to the ballot question would be the biggest political threat ever presented to the Bridgeport machine. I don’t think we should even sit around and wait to see what the Machine is going to produce or not produce. I say let’s bring it to them, the way they brought it to us. 53 to 47 percent tells me we can take more votes from the 47 percent than they can from the 53 percent.

      • John Marshall Lee

        Lennie,
        The movie season is heating up once again with holiday blockbusters. Have you seen LINCOLN yet?

        It is humbling to see this portrayal of Lincoln through the early, busy months of late 1864 and early 1865 with Lincoln re-elected, the War still being pursued, where a lame duck Congress was in session, Senate had already passed legislation abolishing slavery that would become the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

        Daniel Day Lewis portrayal deals with his roles as husband, father, Commander in Chief, reader and lifetime learner, consummate politician, visionary, decision maker, exemplary storyteller and elected President (and leader) of the United States. By the way the Representatives portrayed allow us to understand legislative motivations in the 21st Century … whether on the national, state or municipal scene. Who wants what and why? Lots of approaches to corral the necessary votes!!!

        You can see it a second time and it loses no value. Look for it to rise in the Golden Globes and Academy Awards in a few months! Time will tell.

  • Up On Bridgeport

    Love It! JML at The Movies!

  • Grin Reaper

    Why would the City Council approve putting the question on the ballot next year? If the voters resent this question being shoved down their throats AGAIN then it is only the council they have available to take their anger out on. It could get ugly. Except for those bought and paid for (city jobs), the council would be crazy to approve the question again.

  • Phil Smith

    Putting the school board charter amendment on the ballot again would be stupid and an insult to the voters. Doing it in a municipal election year–when it could become the driving issue in the election–would be doubly stupid.

  • Mojo

    *** I’ll be running for city council (maybe) if endorsed by the district voters or someone like the W.F.P., time’s a-ticking and as of the new year it’s time to start raising the money and support towards city government transparency! *** BEWARE! ***

  • John Marshall Lee

    Phil Smith, it’s good to hear from you again. Unfortunately, this administration has lost its compass, moral and magnetic, and can no longer assess how its behavior is insulting to the people of the City.

    Mojo, hope you turn BEWARE into full TIME WILL TELL activity. It is possible most voters have no idea what a City Council representative is supposed to do, without conflict of interest to represent the voters of the District but also the broader interest of Bridgeport citizens tomorrow and into the future. Why not prepare a short essay on what a trustworthy Council person would do for the next two years after election? Start simple with guaranteeing to read the CAFR and share what worries you and what changes are a priority for the City. How about budget changes? With Police PR, education czars and former OPED “sleeping” beauties with little to show, as well as multiple ghost positions, review of necessary positions would seem in order. Fix the sound system in Council Chambers so public in attendance and those watching on TV can fully hear as they try to listen. How about putting more paperwork on the City web site? How about using CitiStat instead of corrupting a useful tool? I know you have a bunch more. Share the discussion. Let the current CC know it is past time for serious business. A few will get it. A few don’t really care and may never get it. Some will disappear.

    You and I know the Mayor needs the legislature to substantiate his work: pass the ordinances, budgets, borrowing authority and capital projects that are presented without serious question; ignore duties and roles of watchdog and monitoring; ignore the Mayor’s studied ignorance of his Charter duties as well as their own. No changes coming from that part of the world unless challenged, right? Maybe your warning to all should become BE AWARE rather than BEWARE. Time will tell.

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