In Bridgeport, Democrats outnumber Republicans 10 to 1. How the city has changed the past 20 years, even the past 10 years. In the old days if an incumbent Democratic mayor emerged from a hard-fought primary the Republican candidate for mayor was there to pounce. The registration numbers and mood of the city allowed it.
From 1971 to 1991, 10 of those years were occupied by Republican mayors, Nick Panuzio, Lenny Paoletta and Mary Moran. Bridgeport had one of the largest Republican registrations in the state. It wasn’t like Hartford and New Haven that couldn’t elect a Republican local pooper scooper. Bridgeport was different. Well, now the state’s largest city is like Hartford and New Haven.
When Democrat Joe Ganim defeated Moran in 1991 the GOP registration was around 12,000. The latest count is now about 4400. The Democratic registration is now more than 43,000. When the GOP registration was strong the Dems outnumbered them at the most 3 to 1. The large bloc of GOP-leaning unaffiliated voters leveled the playing field, as well as independent-minded Dems. The city has roughly 20,000 unaffiliated voters but are they just Democrat-leaning transients? The city has changed. Demise of GOP leadership, party co-opting, party-building failures, no farm system has brought us here.
When I was a young reporter covering the city it was still an old-time European ethnic community with African Americans and Latinos fighting for inclusion politically and governmentally. Change came politically in the Democratic party in 1980 when a kindly funeral home director from the East End decided to take on the party establishment. Margaret Morton challenged incumbent State Senator Salvatore DePiano and took him out in a city primary by a handful of votes. She became the first African American woman elected to the State Senate. Some of those kids involved in that primary were pumping out votes for Mary-Jane Foster on Tuesday. History doesn’t always repeat itself.
A young activist from the South End named Bill Finch was among the anti-establishment voices back then, never bashful about speaking his mind: police issues, labor issues, business issues. He loved to talk policy. Still does. Anyone who studies agriculture is never short on ideas.
For young reporters at the Post-Telegram, predecessor to the Connecticut Post, there was always social irritant Cesar Batalla to rail against the establishment on behalf of the Latino community and other outcasts. Batalla knew how to turn a phrase. One of the young Latina leaders coming out of this era, Alma Maya, is now the city’s Town Clerk.
A young man from Cuba, Rick Torres, was a Democrat way back when. Democratic Town Chair Mario Testa was never among his favorites. Rick is now the Republican candidate for mayor. He was also the GOP standard bearer in 2003 when he waged a competitive battle against incumbent Democratic Mayor John Fabrizi. The issues were different. Corruption was a city flashpoint.
Torres has a way of adding flourish to a debate, even if he is outnumbered 10 to 1. The key to winning over independent-minded voters is to transcend party politics. In a primary you must remind folks you are a Democrat. In a general election if the numbers work against the candidate you must avoid party labels and allow issues and ideas to move the moment. Then there’s Jeff Kohut, Mr. Policy Wonk, running in November as a petitioning candidate. Kohut is human idea factory.
Finch is the prohibitive favorite to win in November. But one thing we’ll have in this general election is three candidates not short on ideas.