New London Democrats celebrate victories, reassess party

City Councilor Anthony Nolan, right, reacts as Martha Marx takes notes as preliminary election results come in Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, at the Democratic Party Headquarters in New London. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
City Councilor Anthony Nolan, right, reacts as Martha Marx takes notes as preliminary election results come in Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, at the Democratic Party Headquarters in New London. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

New London — The Democratic Party in New London is changing, and some say that has a lot to do with a more progressive faction helping to blur traditional party lines.

Some call it an evolution. Others call it a fracture that has played out in past months at Democratic Town Committee meetings. Some of the recent discussions had centered on a decision by state Rep. Chris Soto, D-New London, to support candidates outside the party.

In an Oct. 27 forum titled “Harnessing New London’s New Political Talent,” Soto brought together a group of four school board candidates he said would inject energy into local politics — “regardless of party.” Along with Democrats Jefferey Hart and Regina Mosley, Soto highlighted Working Families Party candidate Alisha Blake and Green Party candidate Erick Carrion. Soto also has expressed his support for Green Party candidate Mirna Martinez, who in the past has been cross-endorsed by the Republican Party.

Mosley, Hart and Martinez all were elected. Blake and Carrion made respectable showings, in some cases outpolling Republicans.

Soto points out that Democrats did not have a complete slate of school candidates when he decided to hold the forum and the party also has shunned cross-endorsements.

“I was highlighting new faces, younger faces and new names into the political system. The median age in New London is 31 years old. There is a strong argument we need people with fresh ideas and fresh energy,” Soto said.

He has experience in generating enthusiasm. When he decided in 2016, at the age of 35, to make a run at the 39th House District seat, the Democratic Town Committee rejected him in favor of six-term incumbent Ernest Hewett.

Mounting his own campaign, Soto beat Hewett at a primary by a nearly 2-1 ratio and sailed through the regular election against two opponents to become the first Latino representative in the city’s history.

“One thing I’m proud of is that the Democratic Town Committee is starting to better reflect the community,” Soto said. “My goal has been to bring people to the DTC who historically haven’t had a voice within that space.”

Ronna Stuller, chairwoman of the New London Green Party who challenged Soto for the 39th District House seat, said it appears Soto helped inspire a movement that has more Democrats being up-front about where they have differences of opinions.

“The party machine seems not to be the force it was at one time in New London,” Stuller said. “I think within the Democratic Party this year, as opposed to years past, we hear fewer candidates saying ‘Row A all the way.’”

Board of Education President Scott Garbini, for instance, publicly endorsed Martinez as the next board president.

“These individuals really went out on a limb because it wasn’t that long ago that the wrong lawn sign could get you kicked off the (Democratic) town committee,” Stuller said. “I see it as an evolution. I see it as a really good development for civil politics in New London.”

Martinez secured her third term on the school board without a cross-endorsement, a first for the Green Party in New London.

Democratic Town Committee Chairman Kevin Cavanagh said the committee does not cross-endorse for several reasons: he doesn’t want donations to the Democratic Party to go to candidates outside the party and the mixing of party platforms and party values could be confusing at times for voters. He said cross-endorsements should be reserved for candidates who do not have enough people to run from their own party.

Cavanagh said he did not see any kind of progressive takeover but rather different segments of the party energized to support different candidates, like Hewett, Soto and Mayor Michael Passero. He said the party and its candidates always have been a diverse group and registrations have increased in recent years, a good sign for Democrats.

He credits the success of the past two elections to not only a slew of qualified candidates but with “people just working very hard getting out there with their message.”

Longtime Democrat Margaret Mary “Peg” Curtin, the town committee chairwoman in the city's 2nd District, said Soto is a good person to have on the Democratic side and he has served to bring in younger and more diverse crowds, both to the polls and to the political process.

His decision to endorse outside the party was “a little bit out of the ordinary,” Curtin admits.

“You work as a team and you support that team. We nominate a Democratic slate and we work with a Democratic slate. What he did in a sense could have hurt the party,” she said.

In the end, she said, it’s hard to argue that changes are not beneficial considering the results of the recent election. Democrats now hold 13 of the 14 seats on the City Council and school board. They will hold 11 over the next two years with the recent election of two Republicans and one Green Party member.

Curtin, who did not seek re-election to the school board, does see the blurring of party lines as the way things are headed and “maybe not a bad thing,” as long as the strongest candidates are elected.

Zak Leavy, a Democrat who also did not seek re-election to the school board, compared what is happening in New London to the support from Democrats for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, whose candidacy crossed party lines.

“Locally here I think things are evolving. You saw Green Party candidates elected on their own line. A Working Families Party member arrive in the city and get 1,000 votes,” Leavy said. “You see more diverse slates, more women, people of color and younger people.”

“We always need to change and adapt so we are a party that reflects what our city looks like,” Leavy said. “I don’t think there is necessarily resistance to that. We are a big party and have a lot of diversity and beliefs. There are always going to be disagreements but, at the end of the day, we all try to support each other.”

Republican Town Committee Chairwoman Shannon Brenek, a deputy registrar of voters, said she is waiting for a deeper analysis of the votes to figure out why more Republicans were not elected, despite strong campaigns.

From an outside perspective, Brenek said she thought the Democratic party was fractured with a progressive faction challenging the “old guard.”

She chided Soto for announcing his intention to highlight new candidates but failing to reach across the party lines to draw attention to some Republicans, including six female school board candidates, many of whom were running for the first time.

“If you’re trying to be open and get voters to meet new candidates, you’re leaving a party out,” she said.

“I think there is a fracture in their party but there is such a huge base that will vote the Democratic line unless you can get out there and grab that vote,” she said.

New London has 15,794 registered voters: 7,849 Democrats, 1,453 Republicans, 6,287 unaffiliated and 205 other.

g.smith@theday.com

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