By Peter I. Berman
To the Editor
NORWALK, Conn. – The low turnout yesterday — about 3,000 or just one in five Norwalk Democrats — is puzzling. Especially given the historic four-way mayoral primary with an unprecedented amount raised, about $200,000. That’s more than in regular elections. The 3,000 voters just about equaled the total number of voters who signed the eligibility primary petitions. By contrast, over in Stamford, twice as many Democrats turned out — about 6,000.
With about 16,000 registered Democrats that means Chief Rilling won just one in 10 registered Democratic voters. But he did win one-half of those voting. In recent years only about 12,000 voters have gone to the polls for the municipal elections out of some 45,000 registered. To secure victory the chief would likely have to attract at least one-half of all Democrats plus a few thousand of the 9,000 Republicans and almost 20,000 not affiliated voters. The Democratic voters really need to rally around the chief come November.
One explanation for the low turnout is Democratic voter fatigue at all levels. On the national level Democrats in Congress and the president himself are having difficulty rallying the nation on the major issues. Closer to home the tax and spend policies of Governor Malloy and beleaguered economic recovery in Connecticut are not inspiring much enthusiasm. The problem with this explanation is that over in Stamford Democrats had a respectable turnout.
Another possibility is that two of the conventional “talking points” were noticeably absent from campaign rhetoric — schools and safety. The recent report of the Arbitration Panel let everyone know that our public school teachers are the highest paid of any city in the state. So there’s not much traction for flooding the schools with more monies. And, a revitalized Republican led BOE with a new Hispanic superintendent is getting good reviews. On safety the chief’s understudy is now the city’s police chief.
So there wasn’t much opportunity to talk up improving public safety.
That left “development” and “jobs” — two perennial election talking points. By now after some 20-plus years of failed economic redevelopment most citizens are tired of the “same old” promises on rebuilding the city. By now most citizens know that the city has lots of industrial/commercial use land available left over from its halcyon days as a mill town. And aside from creating a big box mecca and building apartments the grand list has been pretty stagnant. As for jobs the state’s agonizing slow recovery and well known departure of new college graduates for other states suggests the political class is unlikely to generate new jobs.
One plausible explanation is simply sheer “malaise” and “resignation” reflecting broad recognition that Norwalk’s property values — stagnant now for 3 years amidst a national housing boom — are reflecting our high property taxes relative to surrounding communities. And with a national recession likely just a year or two away without any real progress on resolving the state’s unending fiscal crisis there’s little prospects of significant property appreciation in Norwalk. More than a few residents have noticed that a much larger number of the high end properties in Norwalk have come on the market. And that’s also true of the surrounding towns – higher end property owners are heading elsewhere.
Certainly each of the candidates were aware that Norwalk is the high cost provider of municipal services among the state’s cities. And the obvious remedy – curbing future union salary and benefits goes against the long standing Democratic tradition of being the “people’s party.” Councilman Miklave’s promise of a $7 million dollar budget cut didn’t carry the day possibly because the details weren’t spelled out. So if stagnant property values, ever higher taxes and a troubling local economy were the real factors on most potential voters’ minds then the absence of any discussion about taxes and the budget might have simply reinforced popular perceptions that such topics were just off the radar of the candidates as group. Maybe the only real choice for residents concerned about taxes and property values is to put up a “for sale” sign and vote with their feet. Rather than at the polls.
Even more confusing is that three of the candidates had good name recognition. Maybe most voters surmised the chief would take the field having lived and served in Norwalk seemingly forever. So it wasn’t important to vote. Save the energies for November. Yet even the several “debates” weren’t especially well attended. Few endorsement letters, paid or not paid, appeared in the local papers. Despite the large sums collected the proverbial lawn signs were mostly apparent by their absence. Not many campaign buttons either. Only Councilman Miklave really took advantage of the postal service to distribute sizable numbers of flyers, and attractive ones at that.
All in all its hard to make heads and tails out of the low Democratic voter turnout. Norwalk has always been at least in modern times a highly transitional city but one with a long tenured resident base of “old timers” who have provided the core and substance of political life. Maybe even these stalwarts are getting tired. Or maybe the rising prices of Florida retirement properties are precluding the age old strategy of taking the appreciation and escaping to warmer climes. One last possibility is that Norwalk Democrats are “striking” hoping that their oft beleaguered Democratic Town Committee will both become more effective and more “mature.”
Maybe better heads can solve what seems like a real “puzzle.” Despite nice weather Norwalk Democrats stayed home. Maybe they knew all along the Chief would win handsomely. But it’s hard to recall any similar primary in recent decades that captured such voter apathy. But the candidates did collect large dollops of campaign contributions. Maybe that’s our new normal – easy dollars but scarce voters.
Peter I Berman