It is said that we learn much more from our failures that our successes, and that holds true in politics as in life. Jason Zandri ran as thorough, well-funded and energetic a campaign as any in recent memory, yet he got clobbered. Immediately, cries of “Dickinson is invincible” went up, which is an attempt to avoid answering the question as to why, despite all the money and energy expended, his opponent could not gain traction for his election.
In his column last week, Mike Brodinsky stated that the voters opted for the status quo. He did not, by the way, describe them as apathetic. No, the voters were hardly apathetic, but they were unconvinced by the Zandri campaign. Here are three reasons why: reliance on outside advice, reluctance to acknowledge the obvious, and a platform not thoroughly developed.
Outside advice: The Zandri campaign spent a significant sum on consultants from outside of town, and the result was the use of some tactics that just don’t sell here. Wallingford isn’t Podunk, but the people that live here have a strong sense of community; and attracting endorsements and money from out-of-town unions, suggesting that the Mayor only shows up for events for fifteen minutes, and disparaging his unique and popular high school graduation performances smacks of politics practiced in urban New Haven, not suburban Wallingford.
Reluctance to acknowledge the obvious: If you are trying to replace an official that has won election fifteen times, don’t you think you need to start by acknowledging that he must be doing something right? During the campaign, we read that the AAA credit rating was no big thing, that we were overtaxed, and that we required property tax reform. For one thing, the AAA rating is a big deal. Secondly, almost everyone in town knows that much of Bill Dickinson’s spending philosophy is centered around keeping taxes reasonable. And unappropriated cash reserves being a source of overtaxation when these reserves give most in the community a sense of stability?
Incompletely developed platform: Okay, most people agree that Bill’s attitude toward email and the Internet doesn’t square with the technology most of us employ on a daily basis. And this has been a campaign staple for his opponents for years.
But you can’t build an entire platform on this issue.
People tire of hearing it, and you look like a one-trick pony if you try to build an entire campaign around an issue that doesn’t directly affect 99 percent of the voters. The rest of the items on the platform began to look like filler because there was no specificity.
For example, the campaign stated at some point that North Haven has trash collection and we don’t.
Okay, so what will this cost? How many trucks? How many more employees? How would residents who opt to bring their trash to the dump themselves benefit? None of these questions were answered.
And even the technology issue around which the entire campaign seemed to be centered had no specifics. What exactly is the plan? What will it cost? Will town employees lose their jobs? Hopefully not, so how exactly will the benefits be realized?
My point is this: a campaign to replace a popular incumbent is an uphill fight, to be sure. So job one for the challenger is to convince the electorate that you are up to the job; that you have thoroughly grasped the complexities – all the complexities – that managing an enterprise the size of Wallingford’s municipal government entails.
In other words, as one Democratic elected official from another community told me this week, you have to build the trust with the voters that the incumbent has spent years developing. Bill Dickinson isn’t “invincible,” but even people who don’t agree with him trust him. They know where he’s coming from, and they know where he wants to go.
Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford Town Councilor.