The Board of Education challenge slate on Tuesday upset three endorsed candidates in a Democratic primary running up large wins across the city that will change the makeup of the school board. Unofficial returns show challengers Andre Baker, Howard Gardner and Dave Hennessey winning convincingly throughout the city in Black Rock, North End, West Side and East End over the endorsed slate Kathryn Bukovsky, Simon Castillo and Brandon Clark. Machine totals overwhelmed the political establishment’s mighty absentee ballot operation.
Recent city elections with low turnout generally meant advantage Democratic establishment. This citywide primary cuts against the grain of well-financed Democratic endorsed candidates, aided by party regulars, winning. The convincing win by challengers indicates an undercurrent of voter anger across the city.
The challenge slate stitched together support from disaffected Democrats opposed to Mayor Bill Finch, education advocates, unions Bridgeport Education Association and Connecticut Education Association, as well as the Connecticut Working Families Party that has three of its members on the school board and parents dissatisfied with school changes under Superintendent of Schools Paul Vallas whose future to lead the school district will be decided by the Connecticut Supreme Court. Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis ruled, in a lawsuit brought by Bridgeport resident retired Superior Court Judge Carmen Lopez, that Vallas did not have the proper credentials to lead a Connecticut school district. The city has appealed the decision.
Political operatives on both sides were not necessarily surprised by the low turnout, but certainly shocked by the blowouts the challenge slate achieved across the city.
Operatives supporting the endorsed candidates had expected a close race on the machines with its vaunted absentee ballot operation the difference. The machine totals overwhelmed the endorsed slate’s absentee ballot count.
“People are upset with how the city’s being run,” said former State Senator Ernie Newton who supported the challenge slate. “People sent a message that we want a democracy not a dictatorship. We need a change. Today proved that this isn’t just about board of education, that people are sick and tired about how they are being treated in the city. If I was Finch I would reach out to as many folks as possible and say listen, we’re all in this together, what can I do to be a better mayor for this city. And you don’t have to work for the city to offer your opinion. This was a broad-based coalition of people that said enough is enough. Incumbents got beat tonight. It was a great day today.”
Newton added an effort was made to build upon the coalition that defeated last year’s charter question calling for a mayoral-appointed school board.
In addition, six Democratic incumbents on the City Council also appear to be casualties: John Olson and Evette Brantley in the West Side 132nd District losing to Bob Halstead and Trish Swain; Warren Blunt and Richard Bonney in North End 135th District losing to Mary McBride-Lee and Richard Salter and Angel DePara and Carlos Silva in the East Side 136th District losing to Richard DeJesus and Alfredo Castillo. In the East Side 137th District the race between incumbent Lydia Martinez and Milta Feliciano against ex-councilwoman Maria Valle running with Aidee Nieves was too close to call.
Both sides, backed by independent expenditures from education advocacy groups, dumped a ton of mail and pumped thousands of phone calls to serial Democratic primary voters. Activists for the challenge slate argued that our candidates are independent-minded and unencumbered by the party apparatus. That message won the day.
What was on the line? Future control of the school system and the largest chunk of the municipal budget. The endorsed slate needed two of three seats Tuesday to nearly assure a school board coalition sensitive to reforms implemented by Superintendent of Schools Paul Vallas. A clean sweep by the challenge slate opposed to Vallas now nearly assures coalition control of the school board with like-minded interests of the Working Families Party. Democrats aligned with Finch and Vallas currently control a 5-4 vote on most contentious issues. Democrats on Tuesday could vote for up to three of the six candidates. The top three vote producers now move on to the November general election as prohibitive favorites.
This victory for the challenge slate will change the makeup of the school board. The three Democratic primary winners have stated public opposition to Vallas. Even if the Connecticut Supreme Court overrules the lower court, how long will he remain with clearly a new makeup opposed to his policies? Control of the school board, however, continues. The Working Families Party and Republican Party trying to regain viability will each field three candidates in November, joining the three Democrats for five open seats. The Working Families Party and Republicans will slug it out for the two seats reserved for state-mandated minority-party representation.
Democratic primary Board of Education unofficial results from select precincts:
Black Rock School: