Callahan: Why Local Election Turnout Sucks

Hey, there’s a Democratic primary for Board of Education today and we’ll post results as soon as we have them after 8 p.m. If local voting trends continue the turnout will be death valley. Meanwhile OIB correspondent Jim Callahan, who’s covered and observed city politics for more than 30 years, shares his take on why today’s electorate is not psyched to vote in local elections.

On a stuffy August night in 1983 about a dozen representatives of the four hopefuls for the Democratic mayoral nomination met at the Austin Street Saloon in the South End of Bridgeport.

They were seated around a large round table toward the back of the front room. No one was hiding. This was out in the open. The ones who couldn’t fit at the table were pulled up on other chairs snug behind their pals. Most had briefcases. The table was covered with writing pads and assorted other papers, a few beer mugs and a couple half-filled pitchers.

Most were under 30. The representatives of Tom Bucci, John Mandanici, John McNamara, and Charlie Tisdale were meeting to see what they could do to try to have an honest Democratic primary for mayor.

To that end each campaign was passing to each other sacred documents of a Bridgeport political campaign: the cheat sheets.

Dozens of volunteers for all four campaigns had gone door-to-door to solicit votes for the September primary. Each campaign noted on their voter sheets which names had moved. In many cases, these names were registered to vacant buildings or vacant lots, addresses whose buildings were destroyed in the great absentee landlord weenie-roast of residential properties since the 1970s.

The four campaigns were sharing their lists of the Democratic enrollment. They were agreeing which names they would all challenge if that name showed up to vote.

Let’s get this straight: despite their relative youth, these were not born-again pols. They were just as practical as their parents or mentors. The practical facts of the matter were each side knew they could gouge another side badly. Did anyone say absentee ballots? It might embarrass the winner, however, and make it just that much more easy for Republican Mayor Leonard S. Paoletta to return to office using his hated if accurate anti-corruption message.

Each side wanted to win badly. So badly they were willing to do it honestly.

I know. Get the digitalis.

The fight to control Bridgeport drove partisans passionately. That heat was transferred to the voters. Turnouts went through the roof. That’s the difference between 2013 and the 1980s.

Control was involved. Yes, it was racist: a lot of whites wanted to stop “the minorities.” It also would be ignorant to suggest there weren’t more than a few black and Puerto Rican residents who felt the same way about the whites. Yes, it involved social justice: a lot of blacks and Puerto Ricans thought they were getting the shaft in government hiring. Hey, they were. It would be ignorant to suggest a lot of whites felt they were fighting to save professional standards in Civil Service.

It created a feeding frenzy in the Democratic Party for any office, state or local. From 1979 through 1985 there were major contested primaries. It didn’t settle down until the Democratic Party rebalanced its elected representatives to better reflect membership in the black and Puerto Rican community. That’s a long way of saying a lot of white guys got whacked.

Unlike today, there was an active and winning Republican Party. Bridgeport has been a Democratic city for over 100 years but the Democrats have always had trouble making that stick until recently. If it wasn’t the Republicans getting in the way it was the Socialists under Jasper McLevy who served as mayor from 1933-57. A very upsetting way to run a democracy if you were a Democrat.

Republicans won the mayoralty because they were the out party. When Democrats fouled up too much there were enough Republicans joined by other disaffected voters to win.

It was always tough. By my observation, the Republican Party organization under Republican Chairman Marie Scinto in the 1980s was better disciplined than any faction of the Democratic Party during that time. Dems relied on brute force, a blind pull of Democratic votes in selected neighborhoods.

The Republican volunteers under Scinto carefully marked off their favorable Republican voters and unaffiliated voters. If they were ballpark, the money was found somehow to advertise to disaffected Democrats. Republicans were competitive, but they were not locks to win.

You may be shocked to learn certain Republicans–you know, the reform party–on occasion might employ election tactics some might find sneaky if not downright illegal. Some Democrats were. After all, they weren’t used to getting a taste of their own medicine.

In addition to being “practical” on occasion, it is important to remember the Bridgeport Republican Party at one time was the fifth largest of any town in Connecticut. Even when they lost, they made a dent. While they didn’t have the money in Bridgeport the Democrats could command, they could find some to run campaigns as long as they had that organization.

That group aged. They were difficult to replace because of the difficulties of maintaining an urban Republican Party structure anywhere in the northeast United States. The national focus of the Republican Party has shifted to the south and southwest. This has damaged all Republicans in New England. It has almost killed urban Republicans, including those in Bridgeport.

So today Bridgeport Democrats cruise, only turning out as many voters as deemed safe for victory. The ethnic wars were settled. Everyone is part of the organization.

Insurgents come along. Mostly amateurs. Outrage is cheap. They usually don’t have powerful enough ideas or know how to express them or know how to organize a vote. Or all those things.

The four-year mayoral term helps the status quo. People don’t get a chance to practice losing so they can learn to win since that charter change in 1998 eliminated the two-year term for mayor.

The lack of media coverage helps the status quo. There is little TV or radio news. The Bridgeport Post-Telegram newspaper–my old shop for which I hold the dearest affection as a community newspaper (hello former publisher Betty Pfriem!)–was sold to Thomson Newspapers in 1988. Thomson did not believe in local news. They renamed the product The Connecticut Post, stopped covering Bridgeport unless someone was killed, didn’t do a very good job at that most of the time, and finally sold it. Hearst has it now, and is covering local news again.

The new guys may rebuild a connection. People may find out what is going on again. If people don’t like it, maybe it will promote change in the system. With Thomson, you could have installed Barenaked Ladies as mayor–the whole band–and no one would have been the wiser.

There is not the same pressure on the political system today, even with an issue as important as public education. The Bridgeport voters have not been electrified by an interest group or individual to make voting in local elections as important as it was 30 years ago.

Obviously they will still vote. They came out in droves for President Obama.

The voters are not tested by local issues. For all they know, things are fine. No one informs them. They are not encouraged. As long as the trash gets picked up, the cops show up on calls, and taxes don’t get worse, things are all right.

There is no point of reference things could or should be different.



  1. Jim Callahan, once again simply an “excellent” look at history here in Bridgeport. It is a look back at the political climate that goes back over 30 years which means a lot. Those who are interested in politics in Bridgeport had no idea about how we got here.

    There are sooo many great points you list but I would like to address this one. Jim, you wrote, “So today Bridgeport Democrats cruise, only turning out as many voters as deemed safe for victory. The ethnic wars were settled. Everyone is part of the organization.” The ethnic wars were watered down by the Democratic Town Committee by changing the makeup of the 90-member DTC, half of the DTC became black and Hispanic with 26% being black and 24% Hispanic. Then each group had two of the 10 district leaders. The DTC chairman did a good job by including both groups into the membership but they had no real power but the ethnic wars were settled. In doing so there were former white DTC members who were mad they got pushed out. The racial divide is still there.

    Jim Callahan, this is must reading for anyone who is concerned and interested in Bridgeport, thanks.

  2. Report from the field. As of 10:29 am 130 people have voted at Black Rock school. I was the 130th person to vote. Andre Baker was there, the wife of Hennessey was there. Go Giants!!!

  3. What Jim said about people registered to vote at phony addresses is exactly what I found last year and mentioned here. As for the insurgents being amateurs, having worked with them last year especially WF they are anything but. Very well organized and able to form coalitions. Last year’s victory in the Charter Revision would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier.
    And if the upset this year holds, maybe just maybe people will realize it is worth coming out to vote in the off years and their votes make a difference.


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