Wednesday night’s City Council candidate forum hosted by Bridgeport Generation Now in the Bijou Theater featured a combination of the old, the young, the idealistic, the pragmatic, the misinformed and even the awkward that some argue was downright rude right out of the box. The ably moderated forum opened with each of the 20 or so council candidates, some incumbents, introducing themselves to a crowd of 150 and by extension a social media audience. James Holloway, the longest-tenured council member at 26 years of service discussed quality of life issues such as street paving and then said this, “I have to go campaign … because it’s a tight race, you guys have a good time tonight.” And he walked off the stage and out the door. Well, that’s a fine how do you do, albeit perhaps only a handful from his East End district present or watching on line. Still, why bother showing up?
Perhaps to Holloway’s way of thinking he was being respectful. Show up, pay your respects and bail. Folks do that at wakes, but a candidate forum? One of Holloway’s opponents Ernie Newton, who’s trying to regain his old seat in the 139th District, took notice, microphone in hand, declaring to the audience, “He doesn’t have the courtesy to stay and speak to the people … they don’t deserve to be elected.”
And that’s an argument that must always be made by a challenger, why the incumbent should be fired. On Tuesday, primary day, we’ll find out how many incumbent Democrats prevail and the impact of this new insurgency.
Moderators Natalie Pryce and John Torres did a nice job presenting questions, maintaining the pace and reminding the audience to be respectful. Bridgeport Generation Now is among the new organizations of young brain power involved in city politics where timing is key.
For the most part the past two decades City Council races have run largely under the radar, although the decisions made on the legislative body impact residents day-in and day-out. The forum covered some serious ground considering the size of the candidate pool on stage, such as helping children of color, the council needing its own legal counsel, budget issues, government checks and balances, city employees serving on the council, the police-involved fatal shooting of 15-year-old Jayson Negron under investigation by the State Police.
Two Republicans participated, Peter Perillo in the West Side 132nd District and John Rodriguez in the East End 139th, general election candidates. Some invited council candidates did not participate.
The forum was civil, with some passionate moments such as West Side challenger Kyle Langan, a charter school teacher, declaring the “Root cause of inequity is racism … We don’t need (more) police in our buildings. We need therapists and adults.”
On the subject of the City Council needing its own legal counsel to allow independent guidance from the executive branch, Langan’s partner Marcus Brown had a suggestion for funding it: slash in half the $9,000 annual stipend available to each member. Several council incumbents on the stage agreed they need their own legal counsel, although no meaningful effort has been made to make that happen on the budget-approving body. The co-chairs of the Budget and Appropriations Committee Scott Burns and Denese Taylor-Moye participated in the forum. The City Attorney’s Office has about 12 six-figure lawyers on staff, in addition to what it pays out for outside counsel. None of the candidates on stage said hey, they have 12. We’ll reduce you by one and budget the other for us.
City employees serving on the council? The majority of candidates agreed it’s a conflict of interest–as noted in the City Charter–for city employee councilors to approve their own wages and benefits. While a number of city employees had dotted the legislative body for years the practice has been reduced to two, as voter interest pounced on the issue. Holloway, a city employee, did not stick around to address that question. The other, East Side incumbent Milta Feliciano defended her independent voice.
The question of updating the City Charter was asked. The council has the authority to create a charter revision panel that makes recommendations voted on by the people. Most of the responses clung to enforcing the existing charter with a look at modernization. But no one floated an idea that would create more checks and balances in government: minority party representation featured in many communities, but not Bridgeport.
Of course, it’s not in the Democratic-controlled interest to do that, right? But if you’re preaching independent checks and balances what better way than to institutionalize minority-party representations where Republicans, the Working Families Party and even petitioning non-Democrats can have a say? It forces the executive branch to not take the body for granted.
Overall, insightful forum. Kudos to the organizers.
See video of forum above and continuation below.