There’s been some hand-wringing in the OIB comments section about City Council challengers Bob Keeley and Anne Pappas Phillips conquered by that dastardly big bad Democratic machine that endorsed incumbent Jeanette Herron and Michael DeFilippo in the North End 133rd District. A state judge ordered a new election following a dubious absentee ballot that found its way into the September primary recount. The endorsed candidates prevailed in last week’s do-over. The challengers have asked the court to intervene again citing questionable absentee ballots. The endorsed candidates won on the machines. Keeley, who spent more than 20 years in the State House, was endorsed many times by that machine.
In 2008, Keeley received a primary challenge from Auden Grogins, a former city councilor and school board member. The party endorsement was a tie. Guess who broke the tie on behalf of Keeley? Democratic Town Chair Mario Testa.
Sometimes attacking the big bad establishment is a matter of convenience. The notion that party backing is an automatic victory lap is a fallacy. In fact, many party-endorsed candidates have taken a licking.
Let’s examine the City Council primary races. Bridgeport has 10 districts with two council members per. Nine of 10 districts had primaries. The two party-endorsed candidates lost in the 130th and 132nd districts. Three other districts, 135, 138, 139 experienced split decisions. Keeley, on September 12, was locked in a tie with party-endorsed Herron.
What did the successful challengers do that escaped those who lost to party-endorsed candidates?
A combination of factors go into this. Hard work, messaging, the standing of incumbency, coalition building, identifying voters and dragging them out in low-turnout primaries.
Let’s go back four years. In 2013 all endorsed candidates for City Council and school board were defeated in primaries. In 2014, Marilyn Moore knocked off party-endorsed incumbent Anthony Musto in a primary. In 2015, Joe Ganim defeated party-endorsed incumbent Bill Finch, an outlier of sorts with Finch becoming the first incumbent mayor in history to lose in a primary. In 2016, Moore and State Senator Ed Gomes were not endorsed. They defeated the endorsed candidates in primaries.
Various insurgent coalitions in recent years have done an outstanding job coming together to send messages to city power brokers: they’re not as powerful as conveniently conveyed. Why? Party discipline has waned, the public payroll, although still a factor in some ways, is not nearly the force decades ago when mayoral discretionary positions were substantially higher larding jobs for Democratic Town Committee members.
As for Keeley, who lost handily in three primary tries for mayor, he lost his State House seat 2008, lost again in a State House special election in 2011 to fill Chris Caruso’s seat, lost again in a State House special election in 2015 to fill Grogins’ seat. And now, unless rescued by the court, he has suffered another loss, this time for a City Council seat. A court hearing on Keeley’s election challenge will take place Friday morning.
It’s misplaced messaging for a career pol like Keeley to rant against the system he has been a part of for a long time.
So, is it the “machine” that beat Keeley, or the candidate’s strategy?