Montville Democrats struggle to understand Election Day defeats

Montville — "They wanted a change," former Democratic mayor Joe Jaskiewicz said, over and over, Tuesday night. "The people have spoken, they wanted a change."

Democrats stationed at the town's four polling places on Election Day had not even finished calling Jaskiewicz's cell phone with vote totals for each of the 12 candidates for the Town Council. But as Jaskiewicz called out the numbers he was hearing and watching them written on a whiteboard, the room at the Uncasville Diner where the town's Democrats had gathered became quiet, then almost silent.

The final result, confirmed Thursday after a recount, was a reversal of two decades of Democratic majority on the Town Council. In a town where politics has traditionally been a team sport, losing that majority was a blow.

Jaskiewicz, the chairman of the Democratic Town Committee and the head of the Democratic majority on the Town Council for six years, was still not sure on Sunday what had happened. The next day, he planned to go to the first meeting since 2012 in the political minority, having barely won his seat only by the grace of a state law that limits the number of seats on certain town boards that can go to a majority party.

Jaskiewicz, who was outpolled by two other Republican candidates, blamed the losses on low turnout among Democrats — as much as 5 percent lower than in the last town council election, he estimated.

"If we really lost that, then that's what happened," Jaskiewicz said. "I thought we did a good job."

The Democrats, they insisted in the days leading up to Tuesday's election for the Town Council and school board, had spent the last six years keeping tax increases as low as possible while maintaining the services people wanted.

But that wasn't enough — or, at least, it wasn't obvious enough — the voters told them Tuesday. Two longtime Democratic members of the Council, Chuck Longton and Tim May, are out. They will be replaced by Republican Town Committee Chairman Tom McNally, a former member of the Town Council who once sued the town and the current mayor; Republican Jeff Rogers, a retired state trooper who vowed to run for the Council and "drain the swamp" after he was denied a spot on the Parks & Recreation Commission; and Republican Wills Pike, a member of the town's Public Safety Commission who has often been critical of the council's budgeting practices.

Incumbent Republicans Joe Rogulski and Kathleen Pollard both won their seats back, as did Democrat Billy Caron.

The election followed weeks of public swipes on Facebook — one circulating post claimed to document the lack of meetings McNally attended during his time as a Town Council member, another alleging that the council had "failed to budget for the state cuts."

While campaigning at the town's transfer station or going door-to-door, McNally said he suspected voters might take out their frustration with state-level politics on the Democratic Town Council incumbents. But even he was surprised.

"We weren't expecting to win every seat like that," McNally said. "We didn't realize they were that unhappy."

McNally, who will likely be elected council chairman at Monday's meeting, said he hopes to be more transparent, not use municipal bonds to pay for new vehicles and ask the Mohegan Tribe for help marketing the town to new businesses.

Longton, who chaired the Council's finance committee but lost his seat on the council with the least number of votes among all the candidates on Tuesday, said he wishes success for the new council members but expects they will find some of their proposals are easier said than done. 

That includes McNally's plan to save money and buy new vehicles with cash instead of bonding.

"If you take a look at our capital plan, we have been putting aside money each year," Longton said. "We have been saving and trying to pay cash. But sometimes you reach a point where the vehicle needs to be replaced before you've got it all."

"They are going to learn the hard way, just like we did, that some really good ideas are not possible because your hands are tied," he said. But, he added, "if they succeed, the town of Montville will succeed. I am planing to be there on Monday to congratulate every single one of them."

As for the presumptive new council chairman's relationship with Democratic Mayor Ronald McDaniel, whom McNally sued in 2012 and ran against in 2015, Montville's politicians were hesitantly optimistic.

"I think that's something him and the mayor are going to have to work out," Jaskiewicz said.

m.shanahan@theday.com

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