By Mark Pazniokas
Connecticut voters produced a night of firsts and upsets Tuesday as women won mayoral races for the first time in New Haven, Norwich and Derby, Democrats made major gains in Fairfield County and Republicans won in the Democratic communities of Ansonia, Bristol, Meriden and New Britain.
State Sen. Toni N. Harp won the New Haven mayoralty, a victory that puts an ally of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy as the top official in the city most crucial to his re-election in 2014. In upsets, Democrats won mayoral races in Stamford and Norwalk.
But the GOP had its share of upsets as well: Democratic incumbents lost in Ansonia, Meriden and New Britain, and Republicans won open seats for mayor and first selectmen in Bristol, Branford and Westport, communities that had been run by Democrats.
Democrat Deb Hinchey unseated Republican Mayor Peter Nystrom in Norwich, where she will be that city’s first female mayor. Democrat Anita Dugatto won the same distinction in Derby. In Redding, Democrat Julia Pemberton won an open race for first selectman in a town run by Republicans for a quarter century.
In Danbury, one of Malloy’s potential challengers next year, Republican Mayor Mark D. Boughton, won a record seventh term, defeating Democrat Paul McAllister by 2-1. McAllister petitioned to get on the ballot after Democrats failed to nominate a candidate. Democratic Mayor Neil O’Leary won re-election in Waterbury.
Republican Elinor Carbone won the open mayoralty in Torrington, solidifying a GOP gain first made in that Democratic city by Ryan Bingham, who did not seek re-election.
In Bridgeport, Democratic Mayor Bill Finch sustained a loss without being up for re-election: He lost control of the Board of Education in a battle that pitted the Democratic establishment against a coalition of Democratic insurgents, members of the Working Families Party and unionized teachers. The election had become a proxy fight in the national debate over how to reform urban schools.
After a night of up and down results, the leaders of the Democratic and Republican state parties pronounced the night a victory, each justifying their claim by pointing to its share of upsets. With the 2013 municipal races in the books, both parties showed an eagerness to quickly pivot toward 2014.
“While tonight’s results certainly speak to the competency of our great candidates and the strength of our Republican message, they also offer an important overview of the state’s political landscape as we look ahead to the 2014 elections,” said Jerry Labriola, the state GOP chairman. “Based on tonight’s results, it’s clear that voters across the state are fed up with Dan Malloy and the Democrats’ tax, borrow and spend policies.”
Prior to the election, Democrats stressed the role of local issues and personalities in municipal races and downplayed the influence of state or national issues. But Jonathan Harris, the executive director of the Connecticut Democrats, was willing to reconsider Tuesday night.
“Chairman Labriola said this would be a referendum on Gov. Malloy, and it is,” Harris said. “The result? A big win for Gov. Malloy and Democrats across Connecticut.”
The real impact on 2014 will be determined by the ability of the two parties to leverage the municipal wins into a better ground game. The GOP wins will mean little next year if the new Republican mayors of places like Bristol, Meriden and New Britain cannot persuade the independents and cross-over Democrats to stay with the party.
In New Haven, Harp, a Democrat who initially declined to seek the open seat, defeated Alderman Justin Elicker, a Democrat who ran as a petitioning candidate in a city where Republicans have no political clout. A tally by the New Haven Independent had Harp winning with about 54 percent of the vote, without a count of absentee ballots.
Harp will take office Jan. 1, succeeding the city’s longest-serving mayor, John DeStefano, who was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2006, losing to Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell. According to the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, women are mayors in only 27 U.S. cities of New Haven’s size or larger.
New Haven generated the biggest vote for Malloy in 2010, when he was elected governor by a scant 6,404 votes in Connecticut’s tightest gubernatorial election in 56 years. Malloy campaigned for Harp in the primary and general election.
Voters went to the polls Tuesday to pick mayors and first selectmen in 126 of Connecticut’s 169 cities and towns.
In Stamford, where Malloy backed the loser in a Democratic primary, former Lt. Gov. Michael C. Fedele conceded defeat to Democrat David Martin, returning control of the state’s fourth largest city to Democrats after a four-year term by Republican Michael Pavia, who succeeded Malloy as mayor in 2009 but did not seek a second term.
In Norwalk, Republican Mayor Richard A. Moccia lost to Democrat Harry Rilling, the former police chief.
In Ansonia, Mayor John Della Volpe, a Democrat, lost to David Cassetti, who was the first Republican to win the office since 1997, according to the Connecticut Post.
In New Britain, Republican Erin Stewart unseated first-term Democratic Mayor Tim O’Brien by a comfortable margin, an upset in an older industrial city that is growing more Democratic. Her win returns the mayoralty to the Stewart family: O’Brien’s predecessor was her father, Tim Stewart, who did not seek re-election after four terms.
O’Brien was elected after winning a three-way Democratic primary in 2011, strongly backed by Malloy.
Another upset victory for a Republican came in Meriden, where Republican Manny Santos bested Democratic Mayor Michael Rohde, according to the Meriden Record Journal. In Bristol, Republican Ken Cockayne won the seat being vacated by a retiring Democrat, Art Ward. Republican Jim Marpe won the open race for first selectman in Westport.
Republican incumbents also won in East Haven, Greenwich, Shelton, Stratford and Trumbull. In Stratford, former state Rep. John A. Harkins easily won a second term. Mark Lauretti, who has talked about running for governor, won a 12th term in Shelton. In Trumbull, Tim Herbst also won big, as did Peter Tesei in Greenwich.
Republican Joseph Maturo won a 7th term in East Haven, a city under the microscope for its tense relationship with Latinos. The police department was roiled by a federal civil rights investigation, and Maturo made national news with a racially insensitive reaction, his promise to reach out to Hispanics by eating a taco.
Democratic Mayor Scott Jackson, an ally of Malloy’s, won re-election in Hamden, as did Democrat Ben Blake in Milford.
In Griswold, voters got a reminder that every vote can make a difference. Republican Kevin A. Skulczyck beat Democrat Philip E. Anthony Jr. by a single vote, 853 to 852.
The mayors of Bridgeport, Hartford and New London were not up for re-election.
The Day of New London reported that the Mohegan Sun was expected to seek a recount in a binding referendum that appeared to shoot down the tribal casino’s bid to open a casino across the state line in Palmer, Mass.