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.