Bringing balance to New London politics

Come November, New London voters will directly elect a mayor for the third time in recent history. The strong mayor form of government returned to the city just two terms — eight years — ago with the vigorous and longstanding endorsement of The Day.

Under Democratic mayors Daryl Justin Finizio and Michael Passero, the city emerged from a council-city manager system that kept things running but not humming. While there will always be failures and frustrations, momentum has picked up in New London as a result. A directly elected, four-year mayor can get the ear of the governor, for example, and market the city to developers in a way that proved impossible for city councilors and did not suit a succession of city managers. Even if nothing else had changed, New London and southeastern Connecticut have gained visibility in the state and the marketplace.

As noted, the first two mayors have been from the city's heavily majority Democratic party. The custom of electing mostly Democrats to the council has not changed at all. With that in mind, The Day welcomes the announcement by Martin Olsen, currently the lone Republican on the council, that he will run against Passero, who announced his bid for re-election in January.

A healthy political corollary for the advent of strong mayor governance would be strengthening the multi-party system. At the municipal election level, many people are willing to vote for candidates they recognize rather than for a party label. For that they need a field to choose from and recognizable, plausible candidates from more than one party.

The city's Republicans have a chance here to grow into something more formidable than they have been. Party chairman Rob Pero should concentrate on activating his troops, adding members, signing up voters and helping Olsen campaign. And if the recent past is an indication, they won't be the only ones: the Green Party has had some electoral successes and can be expected to capitalize on the growing awareness of the environmental issues that gave the party its name.

There is little likelihood Candidate Olsen could win this time around, given the sharp discrepancy between registered Republicans (1,583, according to the Secretary of the State's office as of November 2018) and registered Democrats (8,596). However, all seven council seats will also be on the ballot. Olsen, the sole council Republican cannot run again for his seat while running for mayor.

Up for grabs is a newer demographic: any combination of young, politically agnostic, unmarried, Latino, or new in town. Republicans, Greens, and any minority party would be foolish to cede blue collar or minority voters to the Democrats just because it used to be that way. Political affiliation is in play nationally. Nor does New London look predominantly as it did when the Democratic Town Committee assumed the profile it still represents, of longtime city dwellers organized around some key political families and their allies.

A more politically balanced council might accomplish the other significant task still to be fleshed out in light of the charter revisions that brought in the strong mayor — checks and balances between the legislative branch (City Council) and the executive (the mayor). At the time the revisions passed, it was predicted they would eventually need some tweaking when all had shaken out.

Principally, the council controls the purse strings by acting on the budgets proposed by the mayor and the Board of Education. Much power lies therein, but the budget process continues to devolve into petitions for referendums which, when held, mean the council loses the last word.

Now that there has been nearly a decade to see how it all works, are residents satisfied with the role given the City Council? Are the two branches, both controlled by Democrats, working well to balance each other? If not, is it a matter for charter revision or just a genuine two-party system?

Voters may not be ready for a Republican or a Green as mayor, but they are surely ready for a good contest. And regardless of who wins, New London will be better for a real debate on the issues that the city faces, including downtown development, school building, and urban blight among them.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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