Something was really weird at Testo’s Restaurant Monday night amid the political divisions casting votes for their respective state senate candidates at the Democratic Party convention: it was all so civil. What’s this political world coming to? After all, we were inside the restaurant of Democratic Town Chair Mario Testa where food fights, politically speaking at least, could break out at any time.
Testo’s is one place you don’t mind a plate of linguine and red clam sauce right to the chops. Mario serves tasty dishes at affordable prices. The town chairman popped in and out of the first endorsement session Monday night when delegates selected freshman State Senator Andres Ayala for another two-year term. Ayala’s opponent, City Librarian Scott Hughes, showed some surprising political strength for someone with limited experience in the city schmoozing political regulars, and that may say something about the jagged state of the city’s Democratic political organization these days. Hughes enjoyed plenty of delegate support to wage a primary.
For the past 11 years, Ayala has built his political profile as City Council president, a member of the State House and now as state senator following his 2012 primary win over incumbent Ed Gomes and former State Senator Ernie Newton. Discontent over a variety of issues including personality clashes, education, patronage positions and political decisions has fueled insurgent resolve in some neighborhoods. Hughes is benefiting from political hostility in the Upper East Side where insurgents grabbed a majority of Democratic Town Committee seats in a March primary, as well as prickly relations in the East End, led by Newton and District Leader Ralph Ford, with Mayor Bill Finch. The mayor and Newton, once close, have had a political falling-out. They met a few days ago for a possible political patching, but it doesn’t look like they’ll be warm and fuzzy in the near future, at least.
Newton is expected to receive the endorsement Wednesday night for a return to the State House seat he once occupied. Incumbent Don Clemons has decided not to challenge Newton. Clemons placed Ayala’s name into nomination, perhaps a show by Ayala he has some support in the East End. Newton won the East End precincts in the 2012 primary against Ayala. Newton is supporting Hughes.
The mayor’s political organization aided Ayala’s election two years ago and right now Ayala is the favorite for another two years. If Hughes is to be competitive he must qualify for public financing that will trigger an $83,000 grant under the state’s Citizens Election program. That’s a nice pot of dough to wage a battle. Without that, you’re less the all-important one-third chunk in the goal to convince MOM–money, organization and message–to drive your race.
Lurking at Ayala’s convention was that mischievous political operative Americo Santiago who managed Ayala’s campaign two years ago. These days Americo preens love, peace and diplomacy in his approach to politics, an elder statesman who spends many months of the year in Puerto Rico, returning for a show of support.
With Ayala seemingly in decent shape, the mayor’s political operation this cycle has two primary goals: the election of the city’s anti-blight czar Chris Rosario to the State House seat occupied by Christina Ayala and the return to the State Senate of Anthony Musto who was endorsed for another two-year term. He will face political activist and healthcare professional Marilyn Moore in a return of their close 2008 primary.
There were no surprises Monday night. Musto went in expecting the endorsement and Moore went in knowing she had enough support to qualify for a primary. When things go as expected it limits the chaos.
The Moore-Musto primary is the classic insurgent versus political organization matchup. The mayor’s people believe they can keep it close in Bridgeport and croak her in the suburbs. Moore is tapping into the voter anger that vanquished the endorsed candidates for school board in last September’s primary. She served as candidate campaign manager for the effort that brought together a coalition of forces opposed to Finch’s education agenda.
Moore will not win Trumbull numerically but in elections winning is relative. In 2008 Musto receive about 90 percent of the vote in Trumbull while Moore performed strong in Bridgeport. Musto now has a voting record to sell. Moore also has his voting record to exploit. Moore must improve her Trumbull voter performance. The mayor’s people promise she will not.
This primary carries an interesting dynamic for Governor Dan Malloy who’s facing a tough reelection and needs a strong turnout from Bridgeport in November. If you’re a Malloy political operative, who’d you rather have on the ballot for state senator in November, a suburban legislator with no core constituency in Bridgeport or an African American women who’s built coalitions in the city? Musto, in his acceptance speech last night made sure to reach out to Moore supporters, asking for their support if he makes it to the general election. It was also a nod to Moore supporters ripping mad by the confusion over the date, time and location for the convention based on the inconsistency of notices sent.
After the convention, sitting at a table adjacent to Testo’s bar was former State Senator Ed Gomes with his political supporters from the African American-rich Wilbur Cross precinct, Gomes’ political base. Gomes is supporting Moore. Three years ago Hartford political bosses carved Wilbur Cross into Musto’s district to help save him from a Republican in the general election. The move blindsided Gomes who was in a hospital bed recovering from heart surgery when the decision was made.
Gomes pointed out the moment, this will be the first time electors in Wilbur Cross can vote in a primary for State Senate since the redistricting plan moved them into a new senate district. Gomes, a man of pride, stings from the insult of removing him from his base. Then he broadened that crocodile smile of his. “You just wait and see what happens in this primary at Wilbur Cross. Anthony Musto’s in for a big surprise.”