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Shouted votes in Groton and Stonington fall on leaders' deaf ears

I thought one of the most glaring examples I've ever seen of a political leader ignoring a clear message from voters was when the vice chairwoman of the Groton Democratic Town Committee, Natalie Billing, attacked the leading vote-getter in her party's recent primary for Town Council.

Billing complained that voters had bought into a "false narrative" of incumbent Councilor Portia Bordelon's campaign — that she was the only councilor who longer supported the Mystic Oral School proposal — to keep her council seat by forcing a primary, despite the party leadership's stunning refusal to nominate the biracial woman for reelection.

Instead of celebrating Bordelon's hard-earned victory, Billing attacked the party's most popular candidate and the people who voted for her.

But I saw another noteworthy example of a political leader ignoring a loud and clear message from voters when Stonington First Selectwoman Danielle Chesebrough chided voters after Tuesday's overwhelming rejection of her administration's proffered tax break for a rich developer proposing more affordable housing for Pawcatuck.

Chesebrough called the enormous vote against the corporate welfare she was pushing "disheartening" and said voters were misled by social media.

This was a Stonington version of attacking voters by accusing them of not understanding the facts. Like the party vice chairwoman in Groton, she basically said they bought into a false narrative.

In both these instances, elected leaders chose to question the wisdom of voters instead of listening to what they had to say. In my mind that's turning a cold shoulder to what democracy is supposed to be about.

In Stonington, the message was loud and clear, and I would suggest voters were quite well informed and extraordinarily motivated. They turned out in historic numbers for a referendum and shot down, by a ratio greater than two to one, the town's generous tax abatement offer to a Boston-based developer that is expecting to make a lot of profit off of public investment.

Certainly some of the overwhelming vote could be attributed to Pawcatuck residents who already have much more affordable housing in their community than any other part of town.

And, really, who could blame them for suggesting that it should be fairly spread around? And why should the town take a position in which it is officially endorsing one community alone for affordable housing? Because of state law pertaining to affordable housing, the more of it they push on Pawcatuck, the less chance there is that it will be required in other parts of town.

But I think the overwhelming message from the vote was not about affordable housing at all. It was a loud and sharp rebuke of the practice of offering tax breaks to developers when all the rest of us continue to pay our fair share.

That's why people from all over town turned out in such dramatic numbers. It was not, the first selectwoman should understand, to simply reject affordable housing in Pawcatuck but rather to tell the town to stop giving away tax breaks.

Stonington should not present itself as desperate.

Unfortunately, political leaders have left Stonington voters with no choice other than Chesebrough for first selectman in the fall election, since she scored endorsements from both Republicans and Democrats.

I'll bet she couldn't do that again.

I long ago left lost confidence in her leadership.

First, she enabled a stunt protest, hyped by a news release, of Gov. Ned Lamont's early coronavirus pandemic controls, helping the town's "Make Haircuts Great Again" barber defy the governor's public health orders. She did the exact opposite of what a leader should do in a public health crisis.

Then she refused to censure a town police commissioner for hateful reposts on Facebook that attacked gays, "illiterate gang bangers coming across the southern border" and people of color who, the reposts suggested, may no longer deserved tolerance.

Our first selectwoman's response to these bigoted opinions from the police commissioner promoting intolerance: Oh, just get to know him.

No thanks.

I wasn't ever going to vote for Chesebrough again, even before she decided to complain about voters being misguided.

I'm not sure how I ended up living in a place where the first selectwoman tells me I'm supposed to tolerate hate speech aimed my way, who facilitates Trumpist protests and complains about voters who reject her heavy-handed corporate welfare.

The failed political leadership in town has left me no alternative to which I can turn.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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