New London Republicans regroup after Election Day losses

New London — When the new City Council is sworn in on Dec. 7, it will be the first time in recent memory that the seven-member council is completely composed of Democrats.

The Nov. 3 election delivered a blow to the New London Republican Party when voters, by a mere three votes, ousted the lone Republican councilor, Martin Olsen.   

Republican mayoral candidate Bill Vogel, soundly beaten by Democrat Michael Passero, said last week the party is taking a hard look at what happened.

He said he still believes people in New London vote for the person and not the party but that Passero’s popularity helped all the Democratic candidates.

Passero had defeated incumbent mayor Daryl Justin Finizio in the Democratic primary.

“There was a pretty strong anti-Finizio movement going on. People geared up heavily in favor of Mike in the primary to ensure Finizio did not get re-elected,” Vogel said.

Democrats also hold six of seven seats on the Board or Education, with the seventh slot going to a Green Party member, incumbent Mirna Lis Martinez.

As for the mayoral race, Vogel said Republicans initially were focused on ensuring Finizio did not win another term.

In the event Finizio had won the primary and faced Passero as a petitioning candidate, Vogel said, there was concern about splitting the votes with a Republican mayoral candidate.

In the end, Vogel said, he stepped forward to take up the cause.

“I probably am not the strongest Republican that could have run, but I was the only one,” Vogel said. “Had a person that was more competitive than me run, we could have gotten more votes — more votes on the mayoral line, which could have translated into a better showing on the council line.”

Vogel said it is not unusual in New London to have a strong Democratic majority, but as recently as 2009 voters chose a council where Democrats were in the minority.

From 2009 to 2011, Republicans Rob Pero, Martin Olsen and Adam Sprecace were elected to a council with Green Party candidate John Russell.

Vogel said numbers show unaffiliated voters could have played a much larger role in this year’s election than they did.

Of the 14,788 registered voters, Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 7 to 1: 7,172 to 1,321. The city has 6,132 unaffiliated voters.

Vogel said numbers show that the percentage of registered Republicans who voted was actually higher than the percentage of Democrats — 30 percent of Democrats versus 33 percent of Republicans.

The low number of unaffiliated voters who turned out, 13 percent, led to a drop in the overall voter turnout to 23 percent. There were a total of 3,399 votes cast.

Olsen, who has served four terms as a council member and is the lone Republican, had relied on those unaffiliated votes for a win.

With a vote total of 1,557, Olsen lost by three votes to Democrat Efrain Dominguez. More than 1,000 votes for Olsen came from non-Republicans, since only 439 Republicans voted in the election.

Olsen said the loss stung, but he said dating back in the 1980s he has lost four and won four elections. He also ran as a petitioning candidate against Finizio and fellow Republican Rob Pero in 2011, the race that led to Finizio taking over as mayor.

“Three votes is discouraging, but at the risk of sounding cliché, it is what it is,” Olsen said. “I worked hard both as a councilor and a candidate. I feel good about my effort in both areas.”

Vogel said Olsen’s efforts on the council and name recognition make him a strong candidate.

“If you are going to vote Republican, they have to be a pretty established person,” Vogel said. “Next election we will try to satisfy that trend.”

In the near term, Vogel said Republicans will have a shot again in two years, when there will be no anti-Finizio vote.

“One of the keys," he said, "is to identify candidates earlier to get more visibility.”

As for being the chairman of the Republican Town Committee and the mayoral candidate, Vogel said it was “not a preferred approach.

“In my case, it’s either I run or nobody runs. I wasn’t about to let the party go without a candidate.”

Evidence of how a party affiliation can help change a candidate’s chances in the election is Jason Catala.

Catala was a five-term Republican member of the school board who lost his re-election bid in 2013. He switched party affiliations and this year managed to secure the most votes of all school board candidates.

Catala said he was welcomed with open arms by Democrats and has not had to compromise his core values.

“I’m going to go in there the same Jason Catala that went in as a Republican, this time as with a ‘D’ next to my name. If I see a situation I need to vote my own way, I’m going to. In politics you only have your word. For the citizens and students, I’ll keep my word.”

He said in addition to a hard-fought campaign with backing from his own team, the Democratic party added the “extra push” he needed to ensure a win.

With 1,955 votes, Catala said, “I think the Republicans didn’t hold it against me.”

Republican Registrar of Voters Rob Pero, who served eight terms on the City Council and finished third in the mayoral race in 2011, said he believes the Republican Party is still alive and well.

“I think we need to collectively come up with a better strategy and push harder,” Pero said. “I think anybody can win on any given day, but they have to be hungry and show some passion about issues in the city, connect with voters on those issues.”

Pero said he also thinks the New London Green Party missed an opportunity for cross endorsements by declining to cross-endorse some Republican candidates. The only non-Democrat elected during the election was Martinez, who was cross-endorsed by Republicans.

“The Republican Party is going to be there. It’s going to be OK," Pero said.

The city does not have a minority representation rule that bars one party from filling all slots on the council.

Council President Wade Hyslop, who did not seek another term, said he's seen enough councils dominated by Democrats to know there is still diversity in the voices and personalities among them.

“They don’t always come from the same point of view. They have their own minds rather than just toeing the line,” Hyslop said. “Even with the past council we saw a lot of division amongst the Democrats. That’s reflected in a lot of the votes.”

“To me, people worked hard to get elected, and as a result you can wind up with one party,” Hyslop said.

g.smith@theday.com

Twitter: @SmittyDay

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