Making sense of surprising Groton results

The most shocking local election result Tuesday came in Groton where Democrats won control of all nine seats on the Town Council, a nearly complete flip for a council Republicans have dominated 8-1.

After long being a place of steady political habits, Groton has gone through wrenching reversals in recent elections. Recall that in 2013, Democrats captured 5-4 control of the Town Council, ending a 30-year run of Republican dominance.

Two years later came the reversal with Republicans placed back in control.

"I thought we did a very good job when we were in there. I am shocked. Shocked," said Joe de la Cruz, the lone Democrat to win re-election in 2015, after he heard the results. He would later leave the council to run successfully for the 41st District seat in the state House of Representatives.

On Tuesday, it was the Republicans’ turn to express confused amazement. “I don’t know what the voters are trying to tell us,” said the ousted long-time Republican Councilor Harry Watson.

It could be that projected deep cuts to state education aid to Groton, proposed by Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, had the ironic result of damaging the reputation of the Republican council. In reaction to the governor’s drastic cuts, the only plan on the table when the council was formulating its budget, the council made corresponding severe cuts in local education spending, forcing the closure of an elementary school.

Were parents taking out their discontent on the Groton council? If so, the irony gets thicker because the state aid was ultimately restored in the budget the legislature finally enacted in October, four months late and shortly before the local election.

The Republican-controlled council may have also found itself out of step with the majority of voters. The results would suggest that. It fixated on cutting spending and tax-rate control, normally popular goals, but at 23.63 mills, the town has among the lowest mill rates in the state and one that supports popular public services, such as a great senior center and library.

High taxes are as much a product of the town’s political subdivisions — the added fire district taxes and the 5.2 mills imposed by the City of Groton on property owners — as they are a result of town spending. Perhaps voters saw as ineffective and unwelcomed the council’s attempts to squeeze out savings at the expense of education and services, particularly since taxes still went up.

Was there a Trump factor? Were Democratic voters energized by their collective discontent over the election of and performance by President Trump? There were signs of that statewide. If true, it could change the political dynamics going into the 2018 race for the governorship and state legislative seats.

Before Tuesday, it appeared Connecticut Republicans would be the beneficiaries in 2018 of voter anger over the state’s persistent budget problems during a period of Democratic control of the House, Senate and governor’s seat. But if grassroots Democrats are rising up against Trump and the Republicans, and attracting quality candidates as a result, the dynamics could change.

Democrats took control of the Farmington Town Council for the first time in 20 years and of the Town Council in Glastonbury for the first time in 14 years. In Trumbull, Republican First Selectman Tim Herbst, who is leaving the seat to run for governor, saw it go to a Democrat. The Connecticut Mirror reports that Democrats flipped control of governing boards in New Britain, New Fairfield, Southington and South Windsor as well.

Yet belying an anti-Trump explanation for the Groton results was Republican Alderman Peter Nystrom’s victory in the Norwich mayoral race, a Democratic city, and the success of Republicans in taking control of the Montville Town Council from the incumbent Democratic majority.

Tuesday provided its share mixed signals.

As for the new Groton council, one of its first orders of business should be meeting with Town Manager John Burt, hired by the outgoing council just four months ago, to make clear the division of duties and to review his current set of priorities.

While one-party control is not a healthy situation, it could provide an opportunity to work with the City of Groton council, also under full Democratic control, to find ways of reducing duplicative spending in a harmonious fashion.

The newly elected Groton Democrats should well know that if they don’t make voters happy, it will be their turn to express their shock in 2019.

 

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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