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Berrigan on New London politics: Go Democrat or go home!

I was reminded of the refreshing perspective peace activist Frida Berrigan brought to the New London mayoral race last fall, after reading her new essay on her candidacy posted on salon.com.

Berrigan's smart, insightful and sometimes whimsical account of the race, her first stab at political office, is a testament not only to her gifts as a writer but a glimpse of how her plain sensibility can continue to enliven city politics.

She modestly and justly claims a small victory, having scored more than 10 percent of the vote as a write-in candidate for the Green Party, which could claim only about 70 registered voters at the start of her campaign.

"The political scene in New London is more than well established. It's written in concrete: Go Democrat or go home!" Berrigan wrote. "In our town of 27,000, set along the confluence of the Thames River and Long Island Sound, only about 16,000 of us are registered to vote and only 3,000 to 4,000 of us turn out for off-year local elections."

To illustrate some of this entrenchment, she noted that her opponents — two white guys, one a Democrat one a Republican, each 20 years her senior — grew up blocks from each other and attended the same high school.

They could argue, she said, over who said what at a City Council meeting a decade ago, and they did.

What a delightful and unexpected lift Berrigan brought to last year's mayoral race, as she spoke up for a constituency, a big swath of the city's underprivileged, usually taken for granted by the Democrats in power.

She routinely talked about — yes, she said, she even had a stump speech — about improving city life, planting trees, making city streets more walkable, widening transportation options.

In one polite but insistent complaint, she called out the mayor for ignoring the charter and hiring departments heads who don't live in the city. She criticized his excuse — that he wanted to hire only the best — as insulting to the people who live and pay taxes here.

She complained, again, in the nicest way, about institutions such as the hospital and colleges, that pay no taxes and employ well-paid professionals who largely live out of town.

My favorite of her targets was Electric Boat, which she criticized, not for its mission of building weapons of mass destruction, as you might expect, but for its poor civic behavior in New London.

She's right about this. It's a corporation made rich on public dollars that exclusively focuses its largesse on executives and shareholders with little community outreach or generosity. It does virtually no charitable giving in the community and went to court to fight the property taxes it owes New London.

It is a sharp contrast for those of us here who remember the corporate generosity of Pfizer, when the drug giant had a significant presence in the community, as EB does now.

I was appalled, during one of the debates in the mayoral race, when Berrigan raised EB's lack of civic contributions, a prominent Democrat, put on the city-funded payroll after working on the mayor's last campaign, loudly booed her comments. Talk about rot in the system, an insult to civil discourse.

Berrigan is charming when she talks about a horn toot a city trash truck driver gave her, after their curbside chat about increasing the sanitation budget and improving recycling efforts.

A few high school football players, trick-or-treating at her door, reported that their mothers would vote for her after they related her talk at their school.

"I was so happy, I dumped the rest of our candy in their bags," she wrote.

Berrigan opened her essay by describing the reaction of her 7-year-old son, on hearing she was running for mayor, thrusting a fist in the air and saying, "Yes! We get to live in the mayor's house!"

She broke the news to him that if she won, they would keep living in the same place and it would become the mayor's house.

That didn't happen, but Berrigan had a successful political debut in New London, raising new issues, expanding the dialogue and broadening participation.

More than 10% of the vote for a political newcomer, a write-in candidate, is a siren call announcing that the political status quo was not working.

It appears Berrigan will stay involved. She doesn't rule out another run.

Maybe her son will indeed someday get to live in the mayor's house, after all.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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