When Blue Turns Red

How the local laughingstock won an election in Connecticut

Manchester, Conn. just had its 1994. On November 6, the Republicans won a 5-4 majority on the town council, the “Board of Directors,” for the first time since 1989. They also won a 5-4 majority on the Board of Education, winning both of the town’s boards for the first time in 35 years.

The Democrats didn’t see it coming. Snug with their 6-3 majorities on both boards, the Democrats outnumbered Republicans in registered voters by almost two to one, raised $30,000 more than their opponents, and even had the district’s Congressman John B. Larson (D-Conn.) stump for their inevitable victory. When the tallies tipped to the GOP, the Democrats were shocked: “I don’t have any thoughts or wisdom on why that happened,” Democratic candidate Dave Sheridan confessed.

Though blind luck certainly groped its way into the GOP corner, this victory isn’t a fluke: The Republicans united behind a strong message and, quite simply, ran the best campaign.

Modeling their platform after the famous “Contract with America,” the Republicans wrote a “Covenant with Manchester Taxpayers.” Mandatory referendums on town budgets requiring over 3 percent tax increases; “performance-based accounting”—whereby town departments report progress with statistics rather than subjective reports; and a new town ordinance to combat blight were among the Republicans’ promises.

After watching their ideas die in committee for years, however, the Republicans also understood the value of working together. In Manchester, the majority party on the Board of Directors picks the mayor from among its members. While Lou Spadaccini, the Republican leader, had won the most votes of any candidate in two previous elections, he had never become mayor because of his lackluster running mates, to voters’ dismay.

This time, the Republicans emphasized their ticket, rather than the individual candidates. The incumbents campaigned with the newcomers, together knocking on over 18,000 doors, a sizeable number considering only about 10,000 voters showed up to the polls. Most interestingly, they ran TV ads on cable channels—for the first time in local electoral history—chanting the cheesy-but-catchy team slogan: “Vote Line A All The Way”—a reference to their party’s place on the ballot.

The Democrats, on the other hand, were expecting a win, not working for one. Scoffing at the Republicans’ covenant, the Democrats released a laundry list of “144 Accomplishments” ranging from the parochial—sidewalk repairs—to the head-scratching—a “town-wide reading experience.” But running on “experience” revealed a lack of ideas and voters weren’t fooled.

Moreover, the Democrats didn’t run as a team, but as a group of mayoral candidates. Because the highest vote-winner of the majority party is traditionally named mayor, many voters, the Journal Inquirer reports, appear to have voted for only one of the Democratic candidates, instead of all six of them, to improve his or her chance of becoming mayor. Unfortunately for the Democrats, this so-called “bullet voting” cost them the election.

Certainly, the question of whether the Republicans will actually govern better than the Democrats awaits an answer. And a Republican upset in a small Connecticut suburb doesn’t say anything about 2008. But municipal elections, if not indicators of national trends, are microcosms of our political system. Political junkies shake their heads over a sound-bite driven media, fat cats’ hands in politicians’ pockets, and incumbents growing bedsores in their Senate seats. But sometimes, fresh ideas and a good pair of tennis shoes trump conventional wisdom and win elections.

If anything, Manchester’s experience should teach minority parties everywhere that merely wishing for voters to come to their senses isn’t enough. Too often, disgruntled minorities hiss that voters are too stupid to make the right choice. Instead, they should realize that to win elections, you simply have to be the best choice.

Brian J. Bolduc ’10, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Winthrop House.