CHESHIRE — Town Republicans came out of Nov. 5th's election emboldened by campaign messaging they say resonated with voters.
Their Democatic opponents, roundly defeated in their quest for at-large seats on the Town Council, are regrouping, and looking for a comeback in 2021.
In the race for those at-large seats, Republican incumbent Rob Oris Jr. led all candidates, amassing 4,356 votes, according to unofficial election results which still need to be certified by the Secretary of the State’s office.
Republican incumbent Sylvia Nichols (4,350 votes) came in second, while fellow Republicans Paul Bowman (4,337), David Borowy (4,207) and Tim Slocum (4,196) came in third, fourth and fifth, respectively. Democratic incumbent Patti Flynn-Harris, finishing sixth with 4,013 votes, did not earn reelection to another term. Fellow Democrat Lynn Alvey Dawson finished a distant seventh, with 3,561 votes.
In 2017, five Democrats ran for at-large seats on the Town Council. This year, the party only ran two candidates.
Gary Rose, a political science professor at Sacred Heart University and Cheshire resident who moderated the Town Council candidates forum last month, said that decision alone was surprising.
Rose, based on his own observation of the townwide campaign, said he saw a Republican Party whose candidates overall were “energized” and “probably had a better feel on the needs, desires and the priorities of the local community” than did Democrats.
Republicans in particular seemed to be “out in front” on issues like economic development and school building modernization than their political opponents.
“Republicans seemed to be more forward-looking in this campaign compared to the Democrats,” Rose said.
Oris, upon his swearing in will serve his fourth term on the council. He indicated he will seek another term as the council's chairman.
"I think the people of this community spoke overwhelmingly in favor of our leadership," Oris said. "I think what we brought to the table, Paul Bowman and myself as chairman and vice chairman, we put politics aside and advance things that are good for the community."
In another race, for Board of Education seats, Republican newcomer Tim White garnered the most votes, with 3,756 tallied, according to unnofficial results. Fellow Republican candidate Andrew Martelli came in second with 3,682 votes. Democrat Anne Harrigan, who came in third with 3,450 votes, was the only candidate from her party to finish among the top four.
The fourth place finisher was Republican newcomer Faith Hill, who finished with 3,431 votes, just 19 fewer than Harrigan.
Those results showed a significant shift than over the past four years. In 2015, Democrats won all four Board of Education seats that year.
Republican Town Chairman Guy Darter, who was defeated in his bid for election to the Town Council's second district, said he was pleased by how his party's candidates had fared overall in the election.
“There's no other word, we crushed the opponents,” Darter said. “We took seven seats in the council. We now have five seats in the Board of Education — the max we can take. We just ran a good campaign.”
In past years, the council's membership had been more narrowly divided along party lines. Just four years ago, the council's membership was five Republicans to four Democrats. Two years ago, that gap expanded six to three. Now after Tuesday's results, that gap is seven to two.
Darter said, regardless, the council itself “runs very much as a non-partisan body.”
Darter said his opponent, Jim Jinks, who prevailed, “ran a good race.”
“Jim's a good guy. We disagree on maybe the direction of the town. But he's a good guy. He will work with them, the council and the second district. That's true of every candidate. They will go out and give all. There's no monetary gain, nobody gets paid. They're giving their time because they want to help town they live in.”
Democrat Jeffrey Falk, defeated in his bid for reelection to the Town Council's third district seat, said the widening gap between Republican and Democratic members of the Town Council is “not the direction we want to go in.”
Democrat Sam Rosenberg, a political newcomer who finished fifth in the Board of Education race, said she believed the results of the Town Council race “really trickled down” into the board race.
Rosenberg said it will be interesting to see how the board moves forward, particularly when it comes time to negotiate new contracts with the unions representing teachers and school building adminsitrators. Both of those contracts expire during the upcoming term, in 2021.
The election itself was in part a referendum on the current board, which had weathered public outcry over bullying and the failed Summit program in the past term.
Rosenberg said though the election results were disappointing, she enjoyed waging an election campaign.
“Does it sting a little that I lost? Yes, but I benefited more from rolling my sleeves up and being part of the process than just standing by,” Rosenberg said.
Jami Ferguson, another Democrat who was also defeated in her bid for a Board of Education seat, feels similarly.
“I really enjoyed going out there and meeting so many different people in the town I live in and being among a group of volunteers who are passionate for their town. I made dozens of new friends I didn't have six months ago,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson recommended a checklist of how to connect with voters and answer questions, in future elections as Democrats look to take back the seats they lost.
“Just those little how-tos would be helpful,” she said.
All newly elected and re-elected council and board members will officially be sworn in on Dec. 2. The Town Council is scheduled to hold its organization meeting, during which it will determine a chairman, vice chairman and other liaisons and committee leadership, on Dec. 3.
Ham, who will be sworn in as a new member of the Board of Education, said when reached the day after the election she was “totally surprised, thrilled and happy” by the results.
Ham said she is excited to join the board in its upcoming term.
“I love the energy of the board and what's going on,” she said, adding she anticipates the next term will be a “productive” one for the board.
Ham said she believes the election's outcomes were partly based on the public venting over the board’s handling of various issues during its current term — including the botched roll out of the Summit online learning platform, and bullying in schools — an issue that came up during contentious public discussions last spring.
Ham brought up other topics — including the fact public address occurs at the end of board meetings and a board that seemed to be pushing for new school construction — as other examples which showed the board, as currently constituted, seems disconnected from its constituents.
Corey Nash, former vice chairman of the Republican Town Committee, said candidates from his party appeared to have done a better job overall of introducing themselves first as individuals and then introducing their political stances.
“It appears the Republicans did a really good job in doing that. But it's not to say the Democrats I met did a bad job,” said Nash, who interviewed candidates from both parties on the Cheshire Cast podcast, which he co-hosts. In the end, though, the results of the election are what they are.
“I myself made very informed votes when I went to the polls. I had the privilege of speaking to every candidate,” Nash said. “That was an amazing experience for me. The one thing every candidate has in common, win or lose, is that they are all very passionate about town. Passionate about what they feel can be done here. I didn't get a lot of trash talk. I met a really lot of passionate people. Every citizen should be proud we have those types of people in town.”