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Mystic Education Center, fresh perspectives among reasons cited for Groton primary results

Groton — Opposition to the redevelopment of the Mystic Education Center, a desire for fresh perspectives and advocacy on issues, and an effective campaign were among the reasons cited that helped Town Councilor Portia Bordelon become the top vote-getter in Tuesday's Democratic primary.

Town Councilor and party Chairman Conrad Heede lost his spot on the November ballot in the primary, which some attributed to opposition over the mixed-use development proposal at the education center, also known as the former Mystic Oral School.

The Democratic slate for Council in the November election is as follows: incumbents Bordelon, Aundré Bumgardner, Rachael Franco, Juan Melendez and Juliette Parker, along with newcomers Edward Jacome, Bruce Jones, David McBride and Melinda Cassiere.

According to unofficial results, Bordelon was the highest vote-getter across all of Groton's seven voting districts, except for District 3, which covers part of the City of Groton, in which Bumgardner was one vote ahead of her.

Bordelon, a town councilor since 2019 who petitioned for the primary after she wasn't endorsed for Town Council, said in a statement Wednesday that she attributes her success to a combination of factors. She said she's a lifelong Groton resident, a Fitch High School graduate and mother, so "there’s a sense of community connection when I call or knock on a door."

She said her campaign spent a lot of time "canvassing and engaging with constituents on a personal level" and also noted her "transparency, advocacy, honesty, availability and willingness to speak up when needed."

"I strive to look at all different demographics, across all the different districts," she said. "That’s the importance of district representation, and I think it’s that approach to advocacy that resonated with voters."

Groton Democratic Town Committee Vice Chair Natalie Burfoot Billing said Wednesday that all candidates got a lot of votes, but she said people "bullet voted" for Bordelon, meaning they voted for just one candidate. Burfoot Billing said another factor in Tuesday's results was the Mystic Oral School.

"Obviously, a lot of her supporters bought what I call the false narrative: that she's the only councilor who no longer supports the oral school project," Burfoot Billing said. "I think that’s false. I don’t think there's a lot of disagreement, but the disagreement is about whether councilors should be undermining the town attorney and complicating the town's position as it negotiates an exit strategy."

The Town Council approved the development agreement for the former school, but Bordelon later said she was withdrawing her support. The town attorney had advised the councilors to not speak about the proposed development due to potential legal consequences.

The developer and the town disagree over the contract and are in mediation.

Burfoot Billing also attributed Bordelon's win and Heede's loss to columns written by The Day's columnist David Collins, and said Heede's support four years ago for developing the Mystic Oral School made him a target.

Democratic candidates for council assessed the primary results on Wednesday.

"I think it had a lot to do with the Mystic Education Center," Franco said.

Cassiere said she heard a wide range of concerns at the doors from voters, ranging from them just wanting new faces to feeling as if they weren't heard sometimes. "I'm really excited that we have our team, and I believe that we're ready for November," she said.

Jones said Bordelon ran a good campaign, had a lot of support, is "well liked" and got her people out to vote. He said he doesn't think Heede's loss was due to any particular issue, but if something is going on in town, as party chairman, Heede is the most visible person and is the one who has to make the public statement. "He takes the incoming," Jones said.

"I'm a little sad to see Conrad Heede go," Jacome said. "He's very energetic, and I had common ground with him. As someone who got me involved, I just want to thank him."

"The voters came out," Jacome added. "They spoke. Now it's time to come together to form a cohesive team as we head into November."

Bumgardner, who supported Bordelon in her primary bid, had said in a statement late Tuesday that the primary results show that "the Democratic Town Committee does not control our community electoral process: the people do."

"The people chose to exercise their right to vote," Parker said Wednesday. "Our process is a democracy."

In a statement, Melendez congratulated Bordelon and said that he thinks she "ran a tireless campaign that allowed her to get her message out effectively."

"I want to thank my good friend Conrad for working year in and year out to grow the Democratic party in Groton to the point where we have more interested candidates than available seats," Melendez added. "Historically the Democrats couldn't even fill the slate. We no longer have that problem, and I know that no one is happier about that than Conrad."

Burfoot Billing said that with the primary over, the Democratic Town Committee "will begin the slow and difficult process of healing the divisions," though she acknowledged that is going to be challenging.

Heede declined to comment on the primary results. He has been a town councilor since 2017.

Scott Westervelt, co-chair of the Mystic Oral School Advocates group, which opposes the proposed development, commented Wednesday on Bordelon's win in the primary: "I do believe that her support for the Mystic Oral School Advocates and her opposition to the mega development played a part, as well as her own merits."

The Republican slate for council currently comprises Westervelt, Bill Furgueson, Kathy Chase, Diane Barber, Jenn White, John Scott and Robert Boris.

New London City Councilor James Burke, a volunteer for Bordelon's campaign, said both Bordelon and Bumgardner, who was the second highest vote-getter Tuesday, have fresh perspectives and progressive politics.

Burke said his childhood home is on Cow Hill Road and obviously the Mystic Education Center was a contentious issue, but he thinks it "more just elevates the advocacy Portia brings out on all issues," whether it's public safety, public education or economic development. 

k.drelich@theday.com

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