Those who follow Hartford city politics have learned to expect the unexpected: twists and turns, strange bedfellows and even the occasional scandal. But the announcement that mayoral candidate Shawn Wooden was dropping out of the Democratic primary seemed to catch even the most connected insiders by surprise.
One common response from city power brokers is that Wooden's endorsement of Pedro Segarra for mayor and his last minute switch to running for city council is "good for the city." By avoiding what would have been a hotly contested primary, the theory goes, Hartford can heal and be united.
I could not disagree more.
I believe Mayor Segarra and Mr. Wooden are admirable leaders with many positive qualities. My frustration has nothing to do with either of the individuals involved. Further, as a registered Working Families Party voter, I cannot vote in the Democratic primary.
But contested elections are already too rare in Hartford. A competitive race between highly qualified candidates is something many community activists and ordinary citizens value. Instead, once again, the decisions have been made for us by a small group of power brokers and party leaders. That's not healthy for democracy, and it perpetuates the pattern of voter apathy and mistrust.
Healing and unity are nice. But democracy is not a spectator sport. In Hartford, all too often, ordinary citizens are left on the sidelines while the real decisions are made behind closed doors by the town committees and political heavyweights. It's no wonder that most voters in Hartford feel that they are totally irrelevant to the people who represent them in government.
For those not familiar with some of the details of Hartford's elections, consider the following:
• The board of education has nine members: five are appointed by the mayor; only four are elected by the voters. Until very recently, three of those four were automatically the three Democrats handpicked by the Democratic Town Committee, because of the Democrats' overwhelming advantage in party registration. (In 2009, the Working Families Party defied conventional wisdom and won two of the four seats.)
• The city council is a nine-member body. By law, no more than six of those members can be Democrats. The six candidates chosen by the Democratic Town Committee have not lost a seat for as long as anyone can remember. Republicans and minor parties like Working Families fight it out for the remaining three seats.
What decisions are left to voters? One of nine members on the board of education and three of nine on the city council. The rest are appointed or picked by party insiders.
I am not questioning the intentions or the integrity of any of the individuals involved in this most recent political truce. But Hartford needs a different kind of politics, in which elected leaders are accountable to the citizens of the city as a whole, not just a small group of party insiders.
Maybe then we wouldn't have to push, prod, and cajole voters out of their homes on Election Day with get-out-the-vote drives. Maybe then the city council would focus its energy on something other than who is next in line for a leadership position. Maybe taxpayers would show up at city hall the next time elected officials announce another plan to give a multinational company tax breaks while raising taxes on small businesses owned by Hartford residents.
As a registrar of voters for Hartford, I regularly attend citizenship swearing-in ceremonies to give people the opportunity to register to vote once they have become citizens. I am reminded of what people from around the world go through to live here in the United States, and of how precious our democracy is.
In Hartford, I fear, a vibrant, participatory democracy remains an elusive goal.
Urania Petit of Hartford is the Working Families Party registrar of voters.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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