Lack of Candidates for Local Offices Causing Concern
New London Day, July 5, 2017
By Brian Hallenbeck
You will need a logo. Also, palm cards, lawn signs (except where prohibited), fliers, dog biscuits, comfortable shoes, a list of registered voters (by street address), a thick skin, an umbrella, boundless energy and commitment. Lots of commitment.
Be prepared to spend some money pursuing a job that offers none.
After 28 consecutive years of public service, Bill Sheehan, a member of Waterford’s Board of Finance, said there’s something else prospective political candidates, particularly on the local level, should know about holding office: It’s tremendously satisfying.
“I like local government because you get feedback — positive or negative — instantaneously,” Sheehan said last week as he prepared to lead the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut’s Political Candidate Academy. “If you do something at a meeting, at the next meeting they’ll come out to tell you about it. If you appropriate money for a project, months later you get to see that project built. It’s not like that at the state and federal levels.”
After a six-year hiatus, the chamber revived its primer on running for office last month, worried once again that the region could be about to face a dearth of candidates for this November’s municipal elections. When the chamber introduced its first academy in 2009, it cited concern “with the increasing number of local and state political offices that go uncontested on an annual basis.”
Such a trend, the chamber then warned, “could potentially result in a negative impact on the region’s ability to ensure a healthy social and economic environment for future generations.”
Alarm bells have started to toll.
In North Stonington, First Selectman Shawn Murphy and Selectman Nicholas Mullane II, both Republicans, announced this spring that they won’t seek re-election to the three-member Board of Selectmen, with no obvious successors. Preston’s long-serving first selectman, Robert Congdon, a Republican, hopes to retire this fall but neither party in town has yet championed a successor. Party leaders also are having trouble finding candidates for other positions.
With the Democratic and Republican parties’ nominating caucuses two weeks away — July 18-25 — town committees across the region are still forging slates.
“Right now, I am concerned,” said Joe Jaskiewicz, the former Montville mayor and current chairman of the Town Council and the Democratic Town Committee. “We’ve got a potential slate but people shouldn’t hesitate to come to our meetings. … Let me put it this way, we’re interested in hearing from anybody who’s interested.”
Montville’s mayor, Ronald McDaniel, a Democrat, is not up for election this November, leaving the town’s parties to field candidates for the school board and other panels.
Jeffrey Kulo, chairman of the Ledyard Democratic Town Committee’s nominating committee, said it’s been a struggle to fill his party's slate. He said his committee has been “casting about” for a mayoral candidate, five or six school board candidates, five or six candidates for the Town Council and others. Ledyard’s interim mayor, Fred Allyn III, a Republican whom the council elected this spring to finish former Mayor Michael Finkelstein’s term, is expected to be a candidate in November. Finkelstein resigned to take a job as police chief in East Lyme.
Town committees in some other towns, notably Norwich and Stonington, are expected to fill full slates with relative ease. In Norwich, five candidates have surfaced for the mayoral seat Deberey Hinchey, a Democrat, is relinquishing.
'Growing lack of interest' back to top
The chamber’s academy for candidates did little to dispel the notion that interest in running for local office is declining. Six people registered and showed up for the first session. Four of them returned for the second session.
One of the attendees, John Kiker of Lyme, said he was contemplating a run for the Board of Selectmen in his town, where he serves as an appointed member of the Board of Assessment Appeals and the Zoning Board of Appeals as well as chairman of the Democratic Town Committee.
He pronounced the prospect of running for elective office “kind of scary.”
“There seems to be a growing lack of interest,” said Tony Sheridan, president and chief executive officer of the chamber and a former Waterford first selectman. For the chamber, concerned about the overall health of the community, promoting a robust political process makes sense, he said. Hence, the academy.
Many agree that the major impediments to public service are the time-consuming nature of the work and the negativity and mud-slinging often associated with it.
“I think we’ve demonized the political process to the point that a lot of good people who would be interested shy away from it,” Sheridan said. “At the local level, it’s difficult work that can expose you to criticism. It’s like a cop we expect to do the right thing every single time. If he doesn’t, he’s criticized.”
Sheridan blames social media for making it easier for political opponents to tear down one another.
“If McDonald’s did to Burger King what politicians do to themselves, each side attacking the other, you’d never eat another hamburger,” he said. “No one should get attention for lambasting their political adversary. I wouldn’t even report on it.”
Amid the post-Great Recession focus on the economic outlook, “We’ve become accustomed to being negative,” Sheridan said.
Sean Nugent, Preston’s Democratic town chairman, said there are problems with the current system that calls for the two major parties to nominate and endorse candidates at July caucuses.
“I think part of it is generational,” he said. “What you see is the candidates who are in there have been in it for a while, whether it be the Board of Finance or Selectmen or other boards. Another thing is 50 percent of the registered voters are unaffiliated. People who are unaffiliated can run for something but there's a lot more paperwork, and they don't always align with the philosophies of the parties.”
Nugent said many people are discontented rather than apathetic about politics, and that many younger families don't have time to attend frequent meetings and meet the other demands of office.
For the academy attendees considering whether to take the plunge, Sheehan, the Waterford political veteran, offered some time-tested advice. Both he and Maria Miranda, whose Norwich-based Miranda Creative handled marketing for seven state Senate campaigns in 2016, stressed the value of face-to-face electioneering. Miranda said use of social media is critical in communicating one’s candidacy and advised that campaigns should adorn their communications with logos.
“The hardest door to knock on is the first,” Sheehan said, adding that a pet on the other side of the door can be problematic. “If you’re not a dog person, have some biscuits with you.”
It's also important for a candidate to have a list of registered voters, arranged by street address.
“You don’t want to waste your time on people who can’t vote,” Sheehan said.
At 70 percent of the addresses a candidate visits, no one will be home. In those cases, he said, a “sorry-I-missed-you” note must be left behind, though not in a mailbox, which would violate postal regulations.
Palm cards listing all the candidates on a slate, campaign signs and fliers all involve a modest investment, Sheehan said. Candidates should carry a bottle of water, wear comfortable shoes and decide on a strategy for inclement weather.
“Walking in the rain will show you’re either courageous — or desperate,” he said.
State Sen. Paul Formica, an East Lyme Republican, also spoke to the academy attendees, recounting his evolution from small business owner to local officer-holder to co-chairman of the state legislature’s Appropriations Committee, among other assignments.
Formica’s civic engagement began over the town’s adoption of a zoning ordinance that affected the restaurant he owns, Flanders Fish Market. That led to his service on the town’s Zoning Commission and Board of Finance followed by an eight-year stint as first selectman.
He advised those interested in running for office to first get involved in local affairs. They might find, he said, that they can change things.
“It’s not really political, either, not at the local level,” he said. “You find your responsibility is to yourself, to your word.”
Kiker, the academy attendee thinking about running for office in Lyme, said he liked what Formica had to say.
“That calmed my nerves,” he said.
Day Staff Writers Claire Bessette and Joe Wojtas contributed to this report.