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OP-ED | A Tale of Two Cities

by | Aug 18, 2015 5:30am () Comments | Commenting has expired | Share
Posted to: Analysis, Election 2015, Opinion, Millennial Voices, Bristol, West Hartford

Democrats in Bristol were jubilant on the night of Nov. 6, 2001. On a ticket led by then-Mayor Frank Nicastro, the Democrats had won a clean sweep of the local races.

As he soared to a fifth term in office, Nicastro brought with him every Democrat on the ballot; Democrats would control the Board of Education and the Board of Assessment Appeals by two-to-one margins, and hold all six Council seats as well as the mayor’s chair and treasurer’s office. Coupled with the city’s legislative delegation, which was a Democratic state senator, two Democratic state representatives and a single lonely Republican, Bristol was unquestionably a Democratic stronghold, and in Bristol or Hartford, no Democrat saw any reason why that should change anytime soon.

Thirty minutes northeast, West Hartford Democrats were having a good night as well. A team of political neophytes had managed to win a major victory, carrying in newcomers Jonathan Harris, Scott Slifka, and Beth Bye, among others. By the night’s end, the Democrats controlled the Town Council and Board of Education, throwing out the Republican majority in town government.

Since 2001, however, Democrats in West Hartford and Bristol have seen vastly different fates. In West Hartford, no Democrat has lost a municipal race since 1999, and the last remnant of Republican power in town slipped away with Bye’s election as state representative in 2006. Harris and Slifka have both been candidates for statewide office, and insiders suggest each could run again, while Bye chairs the powerful Appropriations Committee in Hartford and rumors swirl that she may seek higher office in the near future. For state Democrats, West Hartford is a plentiful source of money, future candidates, and votes.

By contrast, Bristol has been a major Democratic disappointment. Democrats lost mayoral elections in 2005 and 2013, and at the moment, the Republicans hold the mayor’s and treasurer’s offices, majorities on the Council, Board of Education and Board of Assessment Appeals, and three of Bristol’s four legislative seats. Nicastro, now a state representative, is the last vestige of Democratic dominance in the city.

Why did the Democratic Party flourish in West Hartford while failing in Bristol? The difference can be explained in part by party unity, or lack thereof.

In West Hartford, the local party has been remarkably unified, led by even-handed party elders like Larry Price, Maureen Magnan, Rosemarie Tate, and the late Rae O’Toole. West Hartford also has benefited from the remarkable wisdom and guidance of Kevin Sullivan, the former State Senate President and Lieutenant Governor. And West Hartford has largely avoided contentious primaries, opting instead to be a “big tent” party, a place where liberals and progressives can comfortably coexist with more moderate Democrats.

West Hartford Democrats have even been willing to welcome former Republicans, folks who were driven out by that party’s relentless march toward clown town (ahem, Donald Trump). State Rep. Joe Verrengia, Town Councilor Leon Davidoff, and former Board of Education member Naogan Ma are all examples of former Republicans who’ve been elected as Democrats in West Hartford, and contributed mightily to the party in town.

Things couldn’t be more different in Bristol, where the local Democratic Party has been consumed with factional battles for years. Supporters of former Mayor Art Ward, Councilor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu, and former Registrar Mary Rydingsward have fought for power on the Democratic Town Committee, and in bitter primaries in 2006, 2007, 2010, 2012, and 2014. And the strife has taken its toll — former Democrats have left for friendlier pastures. Henri Martin, once a Democrat, now serves as a state senator, with an (R) after his name.

More important, however, is how the Democratic Party’s message has resonated with certain kinds of voters, while missing the mark with others. Today’s Democratic Party appeals to better-educated, more diverse voters — exactly the kind of electorate we see in West Hartford. Bristol, by contrast, is a whiter, more working class city, and the problems Democrats have in appealing to working class whites have been well documented. In Connecticut, Democratic struggles with working class white voters have led to losses in historically Democratic towns like New Britain, Meriden, and Danbury.

Some Democrats will argue, likely out of public view, that it doesn’t matter if the party wins the white working class. In a country that’s becoming more diverse and better-educated every day, why worry about appealing to a shrinking segment of the population? But that line of thinking is wrong. The Democratic Party becomes ever-more dependent on the moneyed elite for every working class American that switches over to the Republicans. If party leaders want to to build a durable Democratic majority in this country, they’re going to need to learn how to appeal to West Hartford and Bristol alike.

Luckily, they’ve got a great opportunity to try that the upcoming election, with Bristol Democrats running one of their strongest slates in years. Zoppo-Sassu, the mayoral candidate, would be the most qualified mayor Bristol’s had in decades, and the first woman ever to lead the city. Councilor Calvin Brown, running for his second term, could be a rising star in state politics, as long as he isn’t defeated in November. Winning in Bristol this year should be a top priority for the party. If Democrats can figure out a winning formula, it could be the key to winning not just in Bristol, but in similar communities around Connecticut, and across the country.

Kiernan Majerus-Collins, 20, is a student at Bates College and a Democratic Town Committee member from West Hartford. He can be reached on Facebook

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

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(18) Archived Comments

posted by: Jim in Mfg | August 18, 2015  3:12pm

Mr. Majerus-Collins,
Why do you presume that your readers would agree that Democratic electoral success is a good thing.  Here in deep blue CT there is no check on the public unions.  As a one party state, we are missing a balanced approach and often have no elected officials that are not in the pockets of the public unions.

posted by: kiernanmc | August 18, 2015  10:04pm


@Jim in Mfg

As a Democrat, I believe Democratic electoral success is a good thing. The fact is, unions and labor provide the best protection for working people against exploitation.

posted by: oldtimer | August 19, 2015  9:06am

What about those other democratic cities in CT, like Hartford, New Haven or Bridgeport? Those democratic bastions where liberal policies have destroyed traditional families,employment,  the education system and where the crime and murder rates escalate? And the story is the same across the country. When will the citizens of these cities realize that democratic policies have enslaved them to a life of hopelessness and dependency upon those politicians who are systematically destroying our great country?

posted by: Truth_To_Power | August 19, 2015  10:08am

@kiernanmc: You state that “unions and labor provide the best protection for working people against exploitation.”

Who protects the non-union ‘working people’ against being exploited by the unions who control the politicians?

posted by: RicB | August 19, 2015  11:24am

In todays regulated ( by the government at all stages) labor climate, their really is no need for labor unions. They only serve to drive up the cost of everything, only to benefit the privileged few including the labor organizations, lobbyists, union members and the Democratic Dictatorship. How silly is it that state employees have unions, the state cannot break it’s own labor laws which protect all workers. I for one see no need in our over regulated government world of today for labor unions of any kind. Maybe I’m wrong, so without getting nasty,let us know why labor unions in this day and age are really necessary.

posted by: RicB | August 19, 2015  11:27am

No more Dem’s in Bristol! That would lead to higher taxes, runaway spending and more union concessions. Vote with your heads and your pocketbooks/wallets.

posted by: SteveM | August 19, 2015  3:23pm

This young man writes a piece promoting his party yet includes not one idea for his town. Forget party, what ideas are you bringing to the table? How will you make life better for residents? Asking for party loyalty is treating voters as idiots. Put out good ideas, the votes will come.

posted by: kiernanmc | August 19, 2015  4:27pm


@Truth_To_Power rather than resent the decent life public employees have managed to fight for and win, why not help in the cause of making sure every worker has decent wages and good benefits? Don’t allow the wealthy to pit private sector workers against public sector ones. They want us fighting over table scraps while they take home the feast.

@RicB the GOP leadership in Bristol has failed over the last two years. It’s time for a change.

@SteveM this is a political analysis column. I’ve written about policy before, and I’ll write about policy again. I regularly propose policy ideas on my Facebook page (facebook.com/kiernanmc), and I invite you to follow me there to see more of what I think we can do to make West Hartford, and all of Connecticut, a better place to live.

posted by: oldtimer | August 20, 2015  8:56am

Ahh, the author has failed to address my questions as to why CT’s cities, which have been under democratic rule for decades, have enslaved its citizens to a life of hopeless government dependency in some of the worst living conditions.

posted by: Truth_To_Power | August 20, 2015  9:04am

kiernanmc: You chose NOT to answer my question or acknowledge the problem of public sector power over government. Instead, you chose to pretend that ‘we’ could ever be on a level playing field with the public sector, as long as we joined a union.

It’s clear that you are a politician-in-training. I hope the readers notice this and check you off their list of future, potential candidates.

posted by: iculus16 | August 20, 2015  10:33am

How can you say GOP leadership has failed, when you don’t even live in Bristol? You write this article talking down to the people of Bristol because you live in West Hartford and are saying West Hartford people are smarter and more educated than Bristol people. I for one am offend by those comments and think you should worry about the community in which you live and we who live in Bristol will worry about our community.

posted by: Greg | August 20, 2015  10:45am

West Hartford is West Hartford due to a few things that have very little to do with D/R: Highly educated citizens, very high incomes, the benefit of “white flight” from decades ago (want D credit for that?), a long history of being the anti-Hartford, etc. As a result of that, property values are high, the residents can afford the very high property taxes, etc, thus funding the local government rather well. 

White affluence has it’s benefits, yes?

As a result of a lot of factors that ultimately start with winning the genetic lottery, the residents of lovely WeHa held their local government to an extremely high standard for delivering timely, effective town services and when the town fails to do so they hear about it very quickly.  Take a drive down Farmington Ave from WH Center to Downtown Hartford after a mild snowstorm and you’ll see the polar opposites of Democratic rule over two adjoining municipalities along with their stunningly divergent attitudes towards delivering city services.

Look, if you want to be a party man and revolve your political views “because Democratic Party”, that’s perfectly fine.  When you argue, however, that Democrats produce such great outcomes in municipal governance, because Democrats(!), please be aware you have a tale of two very different Democratically controlled towns side by side.

In light of this, please do address how well Democrats have done in CT’s cities in fixing the endemic drug/crime/education/etc problems that don’t seem to change despite decades of Democrat rule.  If Democrat policy is so great for the poor and working class, how come CT’s cities are in such bad shape?

Also, at least acknowledge and be honest about a good chunk of Democrat success in affluent communities is due to that evil white privilege we hear so much about these days; you know, those affluent white folks with college degrees and six figure incomes; insulated from the ghettos of minorities mere blocks away by a convenient town line, a pile of cash, and a police force charged with keeping everyone else out.

posted by: gutbomb86 | August 21, 2015  11:58am


Typical garbage from commenters who can’t see the bigger picture and just want to blame Democrats because they can’t function outside of partisan trench warfare.

Greg & oldtimer - let me know how well good ole West Hartford would do with Hartford’s population, poverty and the giant gap in PILOT money that Hartford has to face each year. Let us know how West Hartford’s property values would do if the town was forced to accept every DOC halfway house or drug treatment center the state decides to dump on those she-she neighborhoods. Let me know how any city in the USA can buck the reality that they’re stuck under a federal system that allows corporations to pillage and move money offshore, all the while convincing lemmings to support policies that bleed them dry. Let me know how West Hartford’s residents would do if they were unable to get a job interview because of the color of their skin.

Please. Spare us this garbage. Maybe if folks like you poked your head up above the partisan trenches you might see reality.

CT has, for our entire lifetimes and longer, fought through public policy and economics to concentrate poverty and people of color in larger cities. White privilege and NIMBYism have kept public transit and affordable housing out of the suburbs and rural communities, and conservatives whine about all the spending on the cities as if those cities are funded appropriately per capita. Give us a break. You’re full of it. I’ve been in the schools. I’ve been in homes in most of Hartford’s neighborhoods. I’ve seen what they deal with from police. The truth has nothing to do with Democrats or liberals or even typical Republicans (because I know plenty of Republicans who have common sense, unlike what we see in these comment threads).

Social programs are just band-aids on the larger diseases of greed and racism. Social programs don’t cause poverty. Greed at the top causes poverty. And there is absolutely no comparison between social programs as a cause of poverty and the fact that the federal gov’t looks the other way when massive amounts of money are siphoned out of our economy to offshore accounts and shelters. Even a fractional, tiny change in our country’s taxation policies would open a floodgate of change in our economy. But don’t count on it happening, even if Sanders is elected.

By all means, as you and your pals are circling the bowl with the rest of us, keep whining about the poor who are essentially stuck living within walking distance of public transit. Your problems *must* be their fault.

posted by: Greg | August 21, 2015  7:04pm

Gut- Did you even read my post??? Because you’re making my exact point since I said things like:

“the benefit of “white flight” from decades ago”

“White affluence has it’s benefits, yes?”

“As a result of a lot of factors that ultimately start with winning the genetic lottery,”

Please, with all respect to you, reread what i wrote and you’ll realize we’re actually on the same page, with the exception that I’m telling Mr. Majerus-Collins he can’t give credit to democrats for West Hartford’s success due to the exact things we’re both mentioning in our comments, especially when attempting to hold WH to a standard against an older industrial town like Bristol.  Nor does he mention a comparison to Hartford/New Haven/Bridgeport/et al if he wants to actually make a statement about how Democrats perform.

Do we not agree?

posted by: gutbomb86 | August 21, 2015  10:06pm


There’s a difference, Greg. You’re saying Kiernan can’t pat Democrats on the back for doing a good job managing West Hartford without blaming Democrats for problems in poverty-stricken cities. I don’t agree with that. The Democrats could very well make a mess of West Hartford with bad policies but they haven’t, by and large. There are plenty of towns where Democrats and Republicans do well because the margin of error is huge.

But they don’t have to deal with the problems Hartford’s gov’t has to deal with. And they are not saints in Hartford by any means - I don’t know why anyone would want to run that city with the deck so completely stacked against it. Everything is transactional. Frankly it’s a miracle they’ve done as well as they have. The place is hemmed in by unwelcoming affluence supported by decades of realtors steering people of color away from specific neighborhoods. That’s illegal now and what we’re seeing is a slow integration process into the suburbs - which is a good thing.

Look there are no Republicans who can solve the problems Hartford faces every year, either, without fundamental changes to the way the state operates. Fund PILOT 100%. Fund the ECS 100%. Make rural and suburban towns accept public transit and affordable housing and make them accept their own ex-convicts in their own halfway houses. Their own drug clinics. Stop sending your arrestees to the regional jail in Hartford that essentially blights a whole neighborhood. etc. The playing field needs to be even and Hartford shouldn’t be forced to accept the suburbs’ garbage.

That said, credit where credit is due is fine and I think Kiernan is sincere and that’s also fine. But as I’ve lived in a seven different CT towns over the years (including WeHa), it’s really obvious that party affiliation often is meaningless in local politics. A well-run town is a well-run town.

posted by: Greg | August 22, 2015  10:38am

Gut, again you and I agree on most of the points we both made re: urban/suburban, affluence, et al.  I agree with giving credit where credit is due…i do live in WH and despite not being a democrat by any means I am very aware i live in a fantastically managed city and frankly I don’t care which political party runs the place.

I also work in downtown Hartford and crossing Prospect Ave daily shows the stark contrast in how the two towns are run, and at a certain level you can’t blame poverty or lack of funding for not being able to plow the roads, pick up the garbage, or respond in a timely manner to a malfunctioning traffic signal. Not to mention scandal after scandal popping up monthly in the Hartford Courant originating from city hall.  Can’t blame the ghettos and gangs for rampant mis(non)management, graft, and corruption.

I grew up in Waterbury, i get the urban problems better than most.

If Mr. Democratic Party above wants to take credit for WH’s successes, he also has to take Hartford’s (or any town’s) failures as well.  Pedro is a Democrat and Pedro has been a failure.  Now Hartford is being the test case for a carpetbagging, privilege party hack to springboard into bigger and better things, likely at the expense of the residents themselves…perhaps Kiernan would like to address that entire dynamic and defend his precious political party’s actions there…

posted by: Politijoe | August 23, 2015  8:37am


@Kiernan: great summation on the macro-politics of the Democratic Party.

posted by: Jim in Mfg | August 24, 2015  10:17am

@kiernanmc - The majority of the union members in CT are Muni and State workers, not private sector unions.

I generally agree that unions can help balance the abuses of powerful companies, especially in the early 20th century.  However, public service employees in CT are not employed by a greedy capitalist.  They are employed by us, the taxpayers.  They are very well protected by state labor laws and generous HR policies at the municipal and state levels. Their collective power has been wielded very successfully and it has made them the new “government class”.  Bulletproof job protection. Golden medical plans (for life, no less).  Amonst the worst are gov’t pensions, spiked by outrageous OT and supercharged by career end promotions (Ojakian, 65 year old judges, etc.).  How can you defend these abuses of taxpayer dollars?

I have been working in manufacturing for 44 years with numerous companies and have not seen “exploited” workers.
I don’t resent that public employees treated fairly.  I do resent the government job compensation has spiraled up so much that threatens to crowd out all other Municipal and State budget needs.

Example:  Sandra Kee Borges works for the city of Hartford for 17 years – retires at age 42 with a pension of 82k per year.  This will cost Hartford (and the St of CT) millions of dollars as this pension can last 50 years!.  That is triple the time that she worked for that pension.  I can cite many more examples of excess compensation to the privileged gov’t class and the big problem is that it was paid for by taxpayers.  There is a big difference with overpaid private CEO’s, because nobody forces you to buy a GE product to fund Neutron Jack’s CEO pension.  (conversely, we do not get the option whether or not to pay Muni and State taxes for “services”).

The hardworking non-gov’t taxpayers cannot continue to support these levels of compensation and benefits to our public “servants”.

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