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Turning Up The Turnout

Race For Strong-Mayor Job Could Bring Out More Voters


September 02, 2007

Hartford held a mayoral election four years ago, but almost no one came. Only a fourth of registered voters bothered to show up, the lowest turnout of any municipality in the state with a contested election for the top spot. Although Hartford is the state's second-largest city, first selectmen or mayors of 10 other municipalities took office with more votes than our mayor.

We don't know what the voter turnout for the September primary or November election will be. But we do know that there is a lot of activity directed toward the coming election. A large group of candidates, many backed by solid resumes, significant political experience and ample workers and campaign funds, is working hard to attract voters to the polls. Their level of success will be an important indicator of the success of charter revision.

The two charter revision commissions that met between 1999 and 2002 worried about the declining willingness of Hartford citizens to vote. We were concerned because we thought that failure to vote reflected an unhealthy disconnect between citizens and their government.

In part, we worried that people did not vote because they had given up hope that we could fix what ailed the city. And in part, we feared that if Hartford's vote totals looked like those of much smaller communities, the city would have a hard time making its voice heard at the state Capitol.

We hoped that charter revision would ultimately lead to reinvigorated local politics. We chose a strong-mayor system primarily because we thought that it would make the city's government work better. But we also thought that if people understood the structure of their government and the important role of the mayor, they would be more interested in exercising their power to choose. We believed that by making the mayor's salary commensurate with the job's importance, we would make competitive races for the job the norm, not the exception.

Four years ago, our hopes were not realized. This year, they may be. That might not make all of the candidates happy, but it's good for democracy and good for the city.

Of course, the race for mayor is not the only election we will hold this fall. We will also chose the nine members of the city council. That race, unfortunately, seems destined once again to take place almost entirely in the shadow of the contest for mayor.

The limited attention given to the council candidates, as opposed to the candidates for mayor, was a fact of life even when the charter gave the power to govern to the council and manager, not to the mayor. Running at large, even in a city as small as Hartford, is a daunting task that requires a lot of organization and money, at least enough to produce and send out citywide mailings.

Both voters and the press tend to think of the contest as one between slates, not among individuals. Those challenges make it very hard to build a council candidacy without the endorsement of a political party, and political party nominating processes are always dominated by the person with the votes to be named head of the ticket.

The charter commissions recognized these facts and tried to invigorate the council as a political check on the power of the mayor by creating council positions elected from districts as well as at large.

Because running in a district would not require the same resources as running at large, we thought that district seats on council would open the doors to more independent voices. We also hoped that the added competition from people who were able to concentrate their activities in a part of the city would stimulate more interest in voting and otherwise participating in the political process.

The city councils that considered charter revision had all been elected at large, and they didn't take well to the idea that the system they knew should change. Although a petition drive put the district election system on the 2000 charter revision ballot, the over 70 percent majority that voted for it fell a few hundred votes short of the legally required turnout. The petition drive to put district elections onto the 2002 ballot failed, and the council structure was not changed.

The council and mayor elected in 2007 should revisit that issue. Although the intensity of the mayoral contest is a sign of returning political health, our governance system will not work as intended until the council is also seen as a full partner in government. That can only happen, no matter who the mayor is, when the council's political base is, in part, independent of the mayor.

A council with some members elected from districts and some members elected at large can also perform the necessary role of providing a political incubator and ladder. I find it striking that only two of the challengers for mayor have served on the council, and for both of them, that service was in the fairly distant past.

Healthy organizations are constantly identifying and building up future leaders. In a city, one would think that the council would be a logical source and testing arena for future mayors. Providing a way for newcomers to the political stage to build on neighborhood reputations to enter the council, and to move from district to at-large seats as their reputations spread, would create a path to leadership that we do not have and clearly need.

And, of course, the presence inside the city government of some ambitious outsiders would keep everyone on their toes. That is the essence of the theory of democratic checks and balances on which all of our governments are built.

The election of 2007 looks to be a good start. Let's make sure 2011 is even better.

Allan B. Taylor, a lawyer with Day Pitney LLP in Hartford, was chairman of the city's 1999 and 2002 charter revision commissions. He has served on the city council and board of education, and is the chairman of the Connecticut State Board of Education

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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