What did we learn from the defeat of the education ballot question? The traditional Democratic Party apparatus, even well financed, is vulnerable to defeat in higher turnout elections, especially in the face of organized opposition. Small election turnouts they can control, large turnouts they cannot.
Small turnouts are field driven. Large turnouts are message driven. The mayor’s political organization has pretty much had its way in races involving low voter performance. What we saw Tuesday is the defeat of a local ballot question by folks who don’t generally vote in local elections. Mayoral elections, be it primary or general, produce turnouts roughly in the 20 to 25 percent range. The city turnout in Bridgeport Tuesday (waiting on the official number) was about mid 50 percent.
The calendar got in the mayor’s way in his quest to appoint school board members. His other option was to wait a year and isolate the charter question in a low-turnout year such as 2013 with City Council and Board of Education seats on the agenda. The mayor’s strategists could have waited, but they decided to go forward. No one can accuse them of conveniently wiring this vote to a narrow turnout. They brought the question to the largest universe. But a lot of credit for the question’s defeat must go to the organized opposition, an eclectic group of social, political and clergy action groups that coalesced behind a simple message. “Vote No. Don’t let them strip your voting rights.”
It’s a message that plays well with African American voters who appreciate the struggle to win the vote. There were very few precincts where the Yes vote won overwhelmingly. There were many precincts, several of those African American dominated precincts, with large No votes. The Bridgeport Education Association, Connecticut Working Families Party, Connecticut Citizen Action Group, Bridgeport Child Advocacy Coalition and a slew of neighborhood and political activists, Democrats and Republicans, worked to torpedo the question. They had money and workers.
Spending records were shattered. The mayor did something that hadn’t been done in a long time for a charter vote, he reached out to the business community to finance his campaign for yes. They included hospitals and utilities. Tom Kelly of Black Rock who voted no on the question is among a number of activists bewildered by the hospital money spent on the effort, as he writes in a letter to the editor:
I strongly suggest that our two local not-for-profit hospitals, Bridgeport and St. Vincent’s Medical Center, better spend their money on health care and not ballot issues. They each donated over fourteen thousand dollars to a political action committee for the thickly veiled educational ballot question in Bridgeport. My suggestion is that these leaders go into their own deep pockets individually on such issues. Doctors take the Hippocratic Oath to do No Harm. These two hospitals by taking such action became Hypocritical Oafs!
StudentsFirst, the education reform group started by Michelle Rhee, made an enormous independent expenditure in the cause of a yes vote. Excel Bridgeport, financed by regional business interests in the cause of education reform, also made independent expenditures. Detractors claim Excel Bridgeport was created to shill for the mayor. Supporters say it was created to be both a support group and watchdog of city schools. They are engaging parents to be more involved in the city school system. The organization pledges a long-term presence in the city.
So where are we now? The mayor says he will not throw up his hands and walk away from a school system in which he says he has no direct control. He does, however, have the power to decide how much money the district receives. Superintendent of Schools Paul Vallas, the turnaround specialist, says he will leave at the end of the school year. Does anyone doubt the current school system is in better hands today than during the era of former school chief John Ramos who threw in the towel? Vallas’ replacement will be key.
With the charter question defeat, how will the Board of Education move forward with school business? Two members aligned with the Connecticut Working Families Party, Maria Pereira and Sauda Baraka, a source of irritation for the mayor, are up for reelection next year. Will they run? Will they continue fighting for the sake of fighting? Is it possible for diplomacy to prevail?