The next mayoral election is 2015, but if you want to build coalitions, speak out on issues and poise yourself as mayoral timber, it’s not too soon to commence groundwork. That, at least, is the thinking of a number of political operatives and neighborhood leaders prevailing upon Anthony Bennett, pastor of Mount Aery Baptist Church with one of the largest congregations in the city, to consider a run for the city’s top spot.
Bennett has emerged an an articulate ministerial force in the city who was a vocal critic of Mayor Bill Finch’s campaign effort, defeated by voters, for a mayoral-appointed Board of Education. If Bennett decides to do it, he would be an intriguing candidate with strong oratory skills, a diplomat’s touch and a potential reach across all demographic groups. After the mayor’s effort was defeated, Bennett did not gloat. He penned a commentary piece that stressed cooperation.
Now that we have chosen to continue the process of electing our Board of Education members, where do we go from here? Do the Board of Education and the divided charter revision camps delve into a chaotic communicating process that ends in stalemate? Or do we engage in a process that moves us toward a more healthy sense of educational reform where a broader section of the community participates and shapes that reform?
Former State Senator Ernie Newton who churches at Mount Aery, says Bennett would be a “helluva candidate. His name is being mentioned. He’s well-liked and he cares about people.”
Bridgeport has not had a mighty African American candidate for mayor since Charlie Tisdale, the top political organizer in the city in the early and mid 1980s when Bridgeport’s voting populace was still predominantly white and some voters prone to ignorance and bigotry. In 1983 Tisdale became the first African American to be nominated by a major party for mayor, winning a Democratic primary in a large field of white opponents. He finished a close second to incumbent Republican Lenny Paoletta in a general election turnout of roughly 70 percent. (Yes, not a typo, 70 percent.)
Times have changed and so have the faces of the electorate, albeit much lower election turnouts that benefit incumbents. As Newton puts it: “The minority is controlling the majority.” African American and Hispanic voters now make up the majority, but Bennett has the ability to transcend race.
The November ballot question to determine the selection of school board members was largely defeated by African American voters, led by a number of city ministers who saw the effort as stripping voting rights. Finch put his prestige on the line and lost after urging voters to support his education-reform initiatives. The loss was like a punch to the mayor’s solar plexus. Still, if Finch seeks reelection, as he is expected to do, he will be well financed. He lacks a tangible high-profile development to call his own after five years on the job, but if the Steel Point redevelopment of the East Side becomes a reality and other development projects teed up advance he’ll be repositioned for another four years, barring a major tax increase and crime issues, easier said than done.
A lot can happen over the next two years that will sort out Finch’s eventual opponent. If Pastor Bennett gets in the game, it could be a game changer. Can he raise money?
Bennett’s bio here.
Bennett’s commentary piece following the defeat of the ballot question:
In the winter of 1967, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began to put on paper what would become his final book entitled, “Where do we go from here: Chaos or community?” This book articulated some of the tensions, complexities and challenges faced by the Civil Rights movement and American race relations in light of the emerging black power movement.
I believe this title, “Where do we go from here: Chaos or community?” best describes the dilemma we, the citizens of Bridgeport, face following our rejection of the charter revision committee’s education reform question. On this past Tuesday, the voting citizens of Bridgeport answered a resounding “no” to the effort seeking to establish a mayoral-appointed Board of Education. As one of the thousands of “no”-voting citizens, I thank every person, organization and supporter who stood up for our right to choose who will represent us in the policy and governance decisions of our school district. In spite of the confusing way in which the charter revision question was positioned and presented on the ballot, a sufficient number of voters understood what was at stake for them and the children of this school district. Subsequently, the majority of Tuesday’s voters chose not to give up their right and privilege to cast their vote in future Board of Education elections.
As much as I am tempted to savor the victory in our right to vote for Board of Education members being preserved, I hear Dr. King’s question being asked among the various stakeholders of our Bridgeport community. Now that we have chosen to continue the process of electing our Board of Education members, where do we go from here? Do the Board of Education and the divided charter revision camps delve into a chaotic communicating process that ends in stalemate? Or do we engage in a process that moves us toward a more healthy sense of educational reform where a broader section of the community participates and shapes that reform?
While I certainly am not seeking to suggest that I or this essay can provide a comprehensive blueprint for this movement toward a healthy educational community, I seek to offer some reflections from the many conversations I have engaged in with members of the Bridgeport community.
The first insight in moving forward is for our mayor, Excel Bridgeport, A Better Bridgeport and members of Bridgeport Regional Business Council to realize that many of us who voted no to the charter revision question actually very deeply desire education reform. We indeed desire the students of Bridgeport learn in state-of-the-art schools with optimal classroom size, a curriculum that is relevant and meets the highest of standards, appropriate resources and teachers and administrators who are compassionate, competent and qualified. We also understand members of the Board of Education need to be competent in their ability to govern such a complex and dynamic system as our educational system. Those of us who voted no to the charter proposal care no less for the children of this district than those who voted yes. We are a broad group of parents, guardians, business persons, community leaders and citizens who believe education reform is possible without silencing the voting voice of the people.
Secondly, accountability can only be achieved in an environment of transparency and public trust. The vote on this past Tuesday was also a statement to the lack of transparency of this entire process. Much of the rhetoric in speech and print spoke of our need to care for the future of our children by holding the mayor accountable in giving him/her authority to appoint Board of Education members. To be clear, the primary role of the Board of Education is to govern contracts worth millions of dollars, which really means jobs and services. Unfortunately, our children are often an indirect consequence of this power grab. A more transparent process would have helped all of our community stakeholders to weigh the pros and cons of such a shift in authority. Giving the public more information regarding this kind of a major issue can actually be a good and positive gesture toward accountability and public trust.
It appears that the mayor, Excel Bridgeport and members of the business community did not expect the citizens of Bridgeport to defend their right to elect their own representatives. However, whether you agreed with his effectiveness or not, remember that former superintendent Dr. John Ramos would constantly remind the students, parents and personnel of the district to “Expect Great Things!” I am praying that those who voted yes on the charter question will still expect great things–-like a citizenry who value their right to choose those who represent their children’s interest. I want to expect that those who backed the yes vote will now put some of their financial resources into the facilitation of a process that ensures a transparent way for all of Bridgeport stakeholders to be informed of and participate in comprehensive educational reform. I am sure there are those who voted no to the charter question who might be willing to participate in such a process. Provided, however, it’s more than a photo op or a mirage of meetings to conceal clandestine gatherings making deals and decisions without broad public discussion. Moving forward, it is my prayer, and will be my effort to do my part in working through our chaos so that the children of Bridgeport might learn in the high-quality, world-class educational community that they deserve.