On Tuesday primary voters will decide which three Democrats advance to the general election as prohibitive favorites to win seats on the Board of Education. The percentage turnout will be death valley. Will it hit the teens? Same thing for the November general election when five school board seats and all 20 seats for City Council will be on the ballot. There was a day when turnouts for municipal election were huge, including 30 years ago when Charlie Tisdale became the first African American to be nominated by a major party in Bridgeport, winning a Democratic primary in September before falling short in the general election. Oh, what an election ride!
Republican Lenny Paoletta’s 64-vote win for mayor over Democrat John Mandanici in 1981 set up the 1983 general election between Paoletta, Tisdale, Mandanici and perennial independent candidate Ralph Cennamo.
Mob hits, fire bombings, bulletproof vests, charges, counter charges: you name it, elections in the early 1980s had it all. The ’83 race, 30 years ago, is memorable because you’re never going to see a turnout like that again in a mayoral election. Turnout was approximately 70 percent. Yes, that’s correct, 70 percent. Three full-blown operations. By contrast the turnout for Bill Finch’s 2011 reelection win for mayor was 18 percent.
Mandy had served the city for three terms before Paoletta squeaked a win, amidst an FBI probe of Mandy’s administration and party chaos. (Mandy was not charged.) Think of a cross between John Fabrizi and Archie Bunker and you have Mandy. Pure emotion, in your face, sausage finger in reporter’s chest: “Look, you little bastard,” he’d say, “here’s how you’re going to write this story.”
For his part, Lenny had balls that clanked. Handsome and stubborn, he could turn a pretty good line. Mandy really didn’t worry about appearances, so Lenny promised: “One of the images we will improve upon is how the mayor conducts himself in public.”
Tizzy, who had managed (like he does today) the city’s anti-poverty agency, emerged as the single greatest political organizer in the city stitching together disaffected Dems, young political organizers and swelling registration ranks by inspiring the black community. His followers were dubbed the Tizzies. Cagey, calculating, smart policy wonk, he had challenged Mandy in a 1981 primary. Mandy won, but couldn’t make peace with Tizzy. Fifty percent of the black community, believe it or not, voted for the Republican Paoletta. Two years later, following a deadlocked party convention in which no one received the endorsement for mayor, Tizzy won the primary, in a field loaded with white guys including former mayor Mandanici and future mayor Tom Bucci, becoming the first African American to run on a major-party ticket in the city.
After the primary Arthur DelMonte, who had secured a ballot spot on the Taxpayer Party line, ceded his ballot line to friend Mandy.
Some Democratic party regulars, and white voters suspicious of Tizzy, split off with Mandy. Electorally, the city was a much different place, white voters were the majority and the gap between registered Democrats and Republicans not nearly the 10 to 1 of the current registration. Seemingly it was the best chance, considering the times, for Tizzy to win the general election, three white candidates splitting that constituency. Tizzy fundamentally did not campaign north of Capitol Avenue in heavily white neighborhoods. He worked turnouts in heavily black precincts. He ran a close spirited race.
Lenny won the election approximately 16,000 to Tizzy’s 15,000 to Mandy’s 10,000.