By Neil Vigdor
Call it the Ella Grasso effect.
From the melting pot of New Haven and rustic Redding to the “Hardware City” of New Britain and the state’s smallest municipality in Derby, women on the ballot made history Tuesday across Connecticut.
Female candidates won a number of high-profile local races, breaking through the proverbial glass ceiling in male-dominated political circles.
“You’re used to seeing what we say is the good old boys’ network in politics,” said Erin Stewart, the Republican mayor-elect in reliably blue New Britain.
At 26, Stewart is believed to be the youngest female mayor-in-waiting in Connecticut history, thanks to her upset of Democratic incumbent Tim O’Brien. She’s the daughter of former New Britain Mayor Timothy Stewart.
Saying she looks up to fellow New Britainite and former U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson, for whom she worked as a field coordinator, Stewart attributed the success of female candidates to their credentials, rather than their gender.
“I think we were fortunate to have many female candidates that stepped up to the plate this year,” said Stewart, the second female mayor in her city’s history.
New Haven, the state’s second-most populous city, elected its first female mayor in Democratic state Sen. Toni Harp. Voters in Derby did likewise, throwing out GOP incumbent Anthony Staffieri in favor of Democrat Anita Dugatto, a dentist and lifelong city resident.
Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman marveled at the successes of women in Tuesday’s municipal elections.
“As a person who started my life off in a male world all over, it’s really the man’s world for us,” said Wyman, a Democrat.
Women make up about 51.3 percent of the population in Connecticut, which elected Grasso as its first female governor in 1974. Since then, there has been one other woman governor, M. Jodi Rell, and three female lieutenant governors, starting with Eunice Groark and leading up to Wyman.
“To see more and more women getting in more of a balance is wonderful,” Wyman said. “It’s not as shocking or surprising as it might have been years ago.”
Redding also ushered in a new era Tuesday, choosing Democrat Julia Pemberton over Republican Chris Hocker to succeed retiring GOP First Selectman Natalie Ketcham. Pemberton is the first Democrat to hold the town’s top office in a generation.
Voters in Norwich, in the southeastern part of the state, elected Democrat Deb Hinchey as the city’s first woman mayor, casting aside Republican incumbent Peter Nystrom.
The trend also played out in Torrington, which embraced GOP City Councilwoman Elinor Carbone as its next mayor. Carbone defeated Democrat George Craig to keep the mayor’s office in Republican control.
“I think one of the qualities that most women possess, which I think is really important, is empathy and a capacity to listen,” said Jayme Stevenson, the first selectman of Darien.
Stevenson was part of a sisterhood of GOP women incumbents that coasted to victory Tuesday, garnering 3,012 votes to just 51 for her write-in opponent en route to a second term as her town’s top elected official.
In Newtown, First Selectman Pat Llodra, who shepherded her community through its darkest days following the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, won a third term in an uncontested race.
Fellow Republican Pat Murphy captured a sixth term as mayor of New Milford, while Roxbury and New Fairfield also elected women leaders.
“I think Connecticut is looking for people who are moderate, open-minded, community-oriented and hard-working,” Stevenson said. “I think women tend to be a little bit more moderate in their thinking.”
Stevenson interpreted Tuesday’s upsets by female candidates as an indictment of career politicians.
“I think people are disillusioned with typical politicians,” she said.
Despite the gains by women on both sides of the political aisle, some people tempered their enthusiasm, saying there is much more work to be done to achieve equality in government.
The Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, an agency created by the state in 1973, underscored that there are only 28 women nationwide such as Harp, who are mayors of cities with a population equal to or greater than New Haven’s 130,700.
“As we congratulate her on her election to this leadership position, we must also call attention to the unfortunate reality of the lack of political parity, which continues to cause a gross imbalance in our elected leadership,” Teresa Younger, the commission’s executive director, said in a statement.