By Lorraine Connelly
During a meeting with congressional Republicans shortly after his 2009 inauguration and with the country still mired in fiscal crisis, President Barack Obama told GOP leaders that “elections have consequences,” and, in case there was any doubt, he reminded them, “I won.” Since that time “elections have consequences” has become a catch-all phrase, the polite way for winners to tell losers: “Tough luck, you lost. Get over it.”
At Wallingford’s Town Council meeting on January 18, Councilor Joe Marrone reiterated the tired trope “elections have consequences” as he rendered the Council’s judgment as to who should replace Democratic Councilor Gina Morgenstein’s vacated seat.
Like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, each of the male Republican councilors gave their pronouncements delivering a swift blow to the Democratic Town Committee’s recommendation to fill the vacancy — Alexa Tomassi — the next highest vote-getter in the November 2021 election.
The Democratic Town Committee met last month and unanimously supported Tomassi to fill the vacancy after Councilor Morgenstein announced her intention to step down and not serve her third term. [Full disclosure: I am a member of the Wallingford Democratic Town Committee who voted for the recommendation.] Tomassi, age 30, is a relative newcomer to town politics, having never served on boards or town commissions. She is young, energetic, and articulate, but perhaps unproven in the eyes of the Republican majority.
The Town Council’s Republican majority was not compelled by the Town Charter to accept the DTC’s recommendation and they chose not to, breaking with precedent. They felt more comfortable choosing Democrat Jason Zandri, age 53, who has served six terms on the Council to fill the vacancy.
To his credit, Zandri has ably served on the council and has been a vocal critic of the mayor, when appropriate. He is perceived as pragmatic by his fellow Councilors and as someone who can work across the aisle. Last spring, Zandri left the Democratic Town Committee over an internal disagreement. He had hoped to petition on as a Council candidate in the November election when a health incident left him hospitalized, preventing him from gathering the required signatures to do so.
Abiding by the DTC’s recommendation may have been the better option for all parties in the long run. For one, there are issues of precedence, decency, and electoral fairness to consider. Most importantly, there is the backstory of the 2020 election when Democratic Town Committee members, in reviewing election results, reported an irregularity in the 9th voting district. This triggered a recount which resulted in Republican Town Councilor Craig Fishbein being returned to his dual role as State Representative for the 90th District.
As close as Democrats came to victory in 2020, they were unable to crown their party’s candidate, but certainly earned the Miss Congeniality distinction. Considering the difficult political decision the Council recently faced, equity and good will should have been an exercise of civic muscle memory rather than recessed for political convenience.
If congeniality doesn’t win elections, neither does fanning the flames of partisanship. The vituperation that attended the January 18 meeting offers a critical civics lesson about the need to balance two truths at the same time. Certainly, Tomassi earned her votes, but the Republican majority had the prerogative to fill vacated positions. This is a legitimate consequence of their election.
The real issue facing Democrats on the national and local level is the great divide between pragmatism and progressivism. Tomassi, in an interview on the Citizen Mike show, hinted at this divide when she referenced the Council’s preference for a “moderate” man over a “progressive” woman to fill the vacancy. The Democratic party’s views and platforms have not coalesced on this divide, and until it does there will be divided camps. This is where elections truly do have consequences.
In the November 2021 election, out of 8,068 registered Wallingford Democrats only 3,981 (just less than 50%) showed up to cast their votes for Town Council and Board of Education candidates. Until Democrats in Wallingford can do better-than-average in local elections, Republicans get to decide.
The Democratic Town Committee will now have to deal with the return of Zandri, the prodigal son who left the leadership’s tent, to the council. Will he be welcomed back with open arms or be shunned as an interloper?
The good news is that this is not an apocalyptic event. A planet-killing meteor is not heading for Wallingford, this is a pebble in the shoe of local politics. Don’t look up, look forward — to the next election.
Lorraine Connelly is a writer and Wallingford resident.