By Stephen Knight
It will come as no surprise that this columnist believes that Wallingford voters chose wisely on November 7th. Mayor-elect Vinny Cervoni was, by far, far, far the only qualified candidate to lead Wallingford town government. He is prepared; he is experienced, and he is mature.
This was the first election for mayor in 40 years where Bill Dickinson was not running, but that is not the only reason that sets this one apart. The Democrat candidates in the previous 20 elections conducted their campaigns quite differently. Here are five aspects that describe just how different this year’s campaign was:
1.Young and totally untested vs. mature and tested: In many of the past contests, Democrat candidates were people with life experience, whether it be marriage, significant years of employment, and/or typical middle-class responsibilities such as home ownership or family responsibilities. This year’s candidate has no such resume.
2.Conventional discussion of issues vs. personal attacks: Never, ever has Wallingford witnessed the vitriol, the wild personal accusations that were thrown at Vinny Cervoni as happened this year. The language and hyperbole of the mail pieces were such that you wanted to wash your hands after having touched them.
3.Level of effort: Riley O’Connell worked harder than any candidate in decades. He had to in order to overcome his paper-thin resume. He was everywhere and used every conventional campaign technique and inserted himself into every public celebration. He could afford to because that has been his occupation for well over two years. Cervoni not only had a fulltime and busy law practice, but also significant responsibilities as the chairman of the Wallingford Town Council.
4.Concern for Wallingford’s fiscal stability vs. unlimited promises of spending based on unsubstantiated claims of phenomenal savings. Perhaps because many previous Dickinson opponents came from the Town Council or private sector employment, they didn’t feel comfortable throwing out numbers they couldn’t back up.
5.Campaign directed against current opponent vs. campaign directed at previous mayor: Obviously, previous Democrat mayoral candidates directed their criticism at the incumbent. Riley O’Connell did indeed direct some criticism at his opponent Vinny Cervoni, but really spent most of his time criticizing Mayor Dickinson rather than differentiating himself from his real opponent. The criticism leveled at Town Hall was so exaggerated that two town employees, one former town employee and one commission chairman felt obligated to set the record straight in this newspaper.
Exaggeration, overstatement and anger are part of every political campaign in every level of government. To some extent, it is forgivable because those who are in the thick of things really get emotional, especially at the criticism leveled at their candidate’s positions on matters of governance. Those of us who supported Vinny Cervoni understood that O’Connell would make a case that a vote for Cervoni was a vote for the status quo, and that supporting Riley O’Connell was to turn over the page and “try something different.”
And O’Connell was definitely pitching that it was time for a change, and that was his appeal. But, somehow, he and the Democratic Town Committee went off the rails about a month before election day and centered their entire campaign on the hope that vicious personal attacks on their opponent would win the day. One only need watch Riley O’Connell’s three-minute closing speech at the Wallingford Community Women’s Forum on October 25th to see this change of tactic at work. Gone was the exuberance, the optimism and the affability of the Democrat candidate. In its place was an angry, near-hysterical indictment of Vinny Cervoni’s character and the odd warning of doom for Wallingford should he be elected.
That may well have worked with those voters of his generation. If you are only peripherally involved in your town, if you have no experience in evaluating who would be the best candidate, then perhaps such low-rent invective would sway you. And hey, O’Connell did receive almost 7,000 votes.
But Wallingford is not Washington, D.C. As stated in a previous column in this space, Wallingford voters want candidates to tell it straight, to talk about the real issues and to treat them as the adults they are. We are proud of our town. We rightfully feel that ugly personal attacks on our elected officials and candidates have no place here, that it demeans us and our community. In the end, the majority of voters rejected that strategy and chose stability, predictability and the one person they knew from experience.
This was a wild ride, but now it’s over. We now turn our attention to the future. The next two years are going to be a fascinating period of transition. Stay tuned.
Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford town councilor.