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Great debate road show wraps up

Last week we wrapped up our seven-town tour, presenting debates in contested races for top leadership positions throughout our readership area.

After watching the zero-sum politics in Washington, where lobbyists exert tremendous influence and both parties confuse compromise with surrender, it is good for the soul to observe representative government in its purist form. Some of the political meanness seen at the national level has popped up in our local elections, unfortunately, but for the most part they remain respectful affairs. With rare exceptions, the audiences that turned out for the debates were respectful to the participating candidates.

Once elected, those at the local level actually have to make sure things get done — public safety is provided, roads are maintained, schools are available to provide a public education, development is managed, budgets balanced and the spending of tax dollars accounted for. They can't afford endless policy debates. When problems arise local leaders hear about it, directly.

Our first debate was held on Sept. 26 in Waterford for the first selectman’s race there and the last a little more than a month later, on Oct. 29 in East Lyme, also a race for first selectman. In between there were debates in New London, Preston, Old Lyme, Montville and Stonington. Towns have their hyper-local issues, but there were some concerns that crossed town lines − volunteer fire companies hardpressed to maintain adequate membership, fears about state spending cuts to come, finding workable ways to regionalize some services.

Debates were held in school auditoriums, school gyms and, in Stonington, a community center. The turnouts were good everywhere we went and, in some cases, standing room only. While turnouts are comparitively low in local elections, the folks who do bother to vote are invested in the process. 

It could be argued that these debates largely attract the partisans, supporters of the candidates who have already made up their minds. But based on my discussions with the locals, there are also always those in attendance who arrive with an open mind about assessing who is the better candidate to lead their town. This seemed particularly true in Preston, where a good percentage of the town showed up to pack the auditorium at Preston Plains School and hear the candidates for first selectman — Democrat Sandra L. Allyn-Gauthier and Republican Gregory S. Moran Sr. — make the case for why they should be the one to replace Robert Congdon, retiring after 24 years in that job.

I had the honor of moderating and asking questions at four of the debates, while a moderator provided by the League of Women Voters of Southeastern Connecticut provided the moderator for the New London mayoral debate, while I asked the questions. The League also provided timers for six of the seven debates. In Montville we tried something different. Three high school students asked the questions of the candidates for mayor. I moderated. The students did great and we may try the format elsewhere. Thanks to those readers who submitted questions and, in doing so, helped us prepare for the debates.

In Old Lyme, the debate for Board of Selectmen candidates was presented by the Lyme-Old Lyme Chamber of Commerce. We brought along our cameras. All the debates are available for viewing on our special election page on, so their reach extends beyond those in attendance. A shout out to Peter Huoppi, our director of multimedia, and Tim Cook, a multimedia photojournalist, for overcoming a variety of technical challenges at the various venues to record the events.

Don’t wait for 2020. Get out and vote Tuesday. It matters.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.



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