Local Democrats still sorting out the presidential field

With dozens of debates, a caucus and a primary behind them, local Democratic voters are reassessing their favorite candidates in the winnowing field.

Day reporters conducted email interviews this week with registered voters who had agreed to share their thoughts on the presidential race. This story concentrates on the Democratic field. Future articles will include interviews with supporters of President Donald Trump. (If you'd like to join the conversation, fill out the form at the end of the online version of this story.)

While many of those who contacted The Day have settled strongly behind a candidate — particularly Sen. Bernie Sanders and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the top two finishers in Iowa and New Hampshire — others are still considering two or more of the Democratic candidates. Nevada Democrats will caucus and South Carolina will hold a primary this month.

"The primaries and debates have helped to narrow my choices," said Mark J. Bancroft of Pawcatuck.

Bancroft said he is leaning toward moderate candidates: Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Mike Bloomberg. His top reasons for voting include one big one among Democratic voters: removing President Trump from office and "returning respect and decorum to the presidency." But he also is making a choice based on candidates' stance on climate change, the environment and healthcare.

"The candidates at this point have yet to discuss to my satisfaction a road to recovery on any of the topics," he said.

Michael J. Gaffey of Old Lyme, another voter leaning toward Bloomberg and Klobuchar, cited pragmatism as a key consideration. He wants to remove Trump and the GOP control of the U.S. Senate, but he is also concerned about improving Obamacare, changing America's diplomatic policies, reducing the deficit and addressing global warming.

Bob Salen of Niantic said he believes Trump should be defeated "at all costs." He is leaning toward Joe Biden and Buttigieg, though he thinks Bloomberg is a possibility as well.

"At this point I have some leanings," he said, "but ultimately they have to be able to defeat Trump."

Salen's top issues include "getting real about taxes and spending," including the national debt. "Nobody is addressing these issues honestly," he said.

He also wants to make sure the next president protects the Social Security and Medicare safety nets, restores trade and global political alliances, and aggressively addresses climate change.

"I am an unaffiliated voter who now feels that the GOP is completely gone into the Trump camp and becoming as corrupt as he is," Salen said in an email. "The Democrats are too busy attacking each other instead of coming up with policies and plans they come together on."

'A practical progressive'

John W. "Bill" Sheehan, a member of the Waterford Board of Finance, said he is planning to vote for Klobuchar if she's still in the race at the time of the Connecticut primary, which will be held April 28.

"Senator Klobuchar is a practical progressive who has won votes in Trump favorable districts and works across the aisle in the Senate," Sheehan said. "She has also shown the grit to stand up to the incumbent during the campaign."

Sheehan said he met Klobuchar, who finished a strong third in New Hampshire, in New London when she made a local appearance for Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign.

Another Waterford resident, Ed Pellegri Jr., said he considers himself an independent but registered as a Democrat to be able to vote in the primary.

"Republican primaries are usually a foregone conclusion," he said.

Pellegri said he hasn't made up his mind on a candidate to support but has eliminated Biden and Sanders. Issues of importance to him include gun control, medical costs and wage disparity; he'd also like to see reins on Congress, including term limits and job benefits more in line with what other federal workers receive.

Susan Menghi of Waterford said her top issues include combating climate change, humane immigration policies, gun safety and healthcare.

"Humanity has been broken by our current political state led by a complete narcissist," she said, "and we need to re-learn to treat others how we want to be treated."

Menghi said she is still deciding between Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

"I feel that these two candidates best understand how our American citizens need to be taken care of," she said. "We all deserve an adequate piece of the American pie."

Of all the issues being raised in the campaign, Menghi said her No. 1 priority would be free, universal healthcare under a single-payer system.

"There's plenty of government waste that can be cut to pay for it, as well as rolling back tax cuts on the wealthy and corporations," she said. "Healthcare is a basic human right because it's something that everyone will need as some point."

Staunch Sanders supporters

Front-running Sanders has plenty of support locally.

Greg Kotecki of New London said Medicare-for-all is one of his top policy priorities, as are labor rights, a higher minimum wage and "less radical" Supreme Court appointments.

"Bernie has covered all these issues throughout his campaign," Kotecki said.

Still, he worries that Sanders faces an uphill battle.

"Clearly the corporate Democratic machine fears the changes proposed by Sanders and has attempted to stop him and his campaign," he said.

George Blahun of Waterford, another Sanders supporter, said he would like to see Social Security put on sound financial footing. He also wants Medicare-for-all and a greater spotlight on climate change.

"I will support anyone the Democratic Party nominates," he added.

Some advocates of Sanders said that they were surprised by how well he is doing in the polls and that they were pleased he challenged the Iowa results.

While critics have said Sanders is too liberal to win a general election, William Keating of New London contends he is the most electable option and the best hope for defeating Trump.

"He is a candidate voters can invest their hope in and therefore he is a candidate for whom voters will actually organize around and most importantly show up to vote for," Keating wrote in an email. "I think he will continue to do well as the primaries go on, but I do not think it is a given race. He has the ability to galvanize the independent voter, but as Trump hysteria ramps up during the primaries, Democrats may not give him the chance."

Jason Morris of Norwich said he's content with Sanders' performance thus far. Akin to other Sanders' supporters, his appreciation for the Vermont senator is driven by policy.

"I'm a Navy veteran that used to write off all politics saying, 'They're all puppets and bought by the rich and corporate,' but that was changed forever when Occupy Wall Street began in September of 2011," Morris wrote in an email. "I agreed strongly that we are struggling under socialism for the rich and rugged capitalism for the 99%, that our education system is also being guided by money and profit motive with charters and technology, that our healthcare and pharmaceutical industries are preying on the sick and poor, and money in politics is a root cause to a lot of this corruption and suffering."

Sanders' calling card is economic inequality, and most everyone who provided answers to The Day mentioned it in some form, including Patricia Vener-Saavedra of Hamden, who touched on both economic and environmental topics.

"Climate change needs to be addressed because on a dead planet, no one can survive," Vener-Saavedra wrote. "Wealth/comfort/health disparities need to be addressed. As a socialist, I don't believe that there should be 'haves' and 'have-nots.'"

Aside from climate change, reformed public education, economic inequality, money in politics and healthcare, likely Sanders voters said their most important issues are a higher minimum wage, jobs, women's reproductive freedom and personal choice, student loan debt, investment in infrastructure, reinstatement of former President Barack Obama's Wall Street reforms and reinstatement of the Trump rollbacks on wildlife protections.

Vener-Saavedra also mentioned what other Sanders backers hold up as the main difference between him and not only the Democratic presidential field, but all politicians: integrity.

Voters argued that Sanders' integrity stems from his conviction. To them, he's had the same moral and political stances on all of his policies for decades, and he's never bent to outside pressure to change those stances. Adam Rose of Mystic said as much.

"The issues most important to me are healthcare (particularly Medicare for All), making college more affordable, the environment (particularly the Green New Deal), and the economy (ensuring corporations and wealthy individuals pay their fair share)," Rose wrote in an email. "Both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren talk about these issues, but Bernie has been on message for the past 30-40 years and the candidate I trust the most to stick to his agenda."

Buttigieg supporters stress health care, integrity

Norwich resident Bill Kenny said Buttigieg first attracted his attention because the candidate was a mayor.

"Buttigieg talks extensively about empowering middle-class and working Americans so they can thrive, which, when I look to my left and right on my street, in my neighborhood and across my city, is what I have for neighbors," Kenny said. "I think we've had enough government by and for the 0.1%."

Kenny noted that as a retiree, he has private insurance from his former employer, but too many people don't have insurance.

He called Buttigieg's support for what the candidate calls "Medicare for all who want it" a "balanced and thoughtful position between those who would eliminate private insurance for a government only system and those want only market-force insurance coverage, leaving the sick and the poor to die."

Kenny said Buttigieg hasn't yet spoken as extensively as he would like on climate change or on how we "find a balance between a national defense policy that protects us while deterring our foes and reassuring our allies."

Stonington resident John Groton said the most important issues to him are health care, the environment and gun laws, ones the candidates are talking about. What nobody is talking about, he said, "is the growing budget deficit that Trump has taken to a whole new level."

Also a Buttigieg supporter, Groton thinks his preferred candidate has done very well so far.

Similarly, Mary Kay Michaels of Niantic commented in an email, "I think Pete is performing remarkably well considering he's a young outsider and is running against the Washington old guard. His campaign strategies seem to be on target as he has a slight edge in the overall number of acquired delegates."

At 66, important issues to Michaels are health care, Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid.

"There are countless issues since Trump was elected candidates need to and are addressing, i.e., unifying the country, immigration, the arts, education, NATO, taxes, etc.," she said.

In the end, she said she'll support any candidate the Democratic Party nominates, as she wants Trump out of the White House.

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