New Haven Independent
Justin Elicker and New Haven Mayor Toni Harp. Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent

Mayors in three of Connecticut’s four largest cities face challenges today as voters go to the polls in 25 municipal primaries, intra-family fights that typically turn on hyper-local issues, personal ambitions and, occasionally, old grudges.

The Democratic primaries in Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven are reminders that even mayors who become figures in statewide politics are not immune to local challenges. 

Democratic mayors in Hamden and West Haven also have primaries, as do Republican first selectmen in Somers, Southbury and Voluntown. Open mayoral or first selectman seats are sparking contests in East Haven, Middletown and Preston. 

In all, there are 14 Republican and 11 Democratic primaries in 23 communities, including 10 Republican and seven Democratic fights over the nominations for mayor or first selectman. Bridgeport and West Haven are the only communities with Democratic and Republican primaries.

Polls are open from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. There is no election-day registration for primaries.

Mayor Toni N. Harp of New Haven, considered last year as a potential running mate to Gov. Ned Lamont, has had a joyless summer in pursuit of her fourth two-year term as one-time supporters declared neutrality or backed her opponent, Justin Elicker.

At the start of 2018, Luke Bronin of Hartford and Joseph P. Ganim of Bridgeport had hopes they would be running Connecticut as its governor by now, not seeking another term as mayors. But both seem on far stronger footing than Harp.

Tonight, the question in some cases will be not just who won, but by how much — and what does it portend for November, or even beyond?

Elicker already is on the November ballot as a petitioning candidate, committed to staying in the race. A narrow win by Harp in the primary could presage a difficult general-election fight, as was the case in their first matchup for an open seat in 2013.

Six years ago, Harp won her first general election for mayor, 11,362 to 9,417. It was a surprisingly close margin given that Elicker was relatively new to politics and Harp was an influential state senator backed by a who’s who of New Haven political figures.

In November, 15,701 unaffiliated voters will provide a crucial swing vote in New Haven. The primary today is limited to 38,819 registered Democrats.

Harford Mayor Luke Bronin, in foreground, and with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in 2017. File photo. file photo

In Hartford, the results could influence Bronin’s viability as a candidate for higher office. He explored a race for governor in 2018 while in his first term, ultimately quitting to endorse Lamont.

He is challenged by Eddie A. Perez, a former mayor trying to make a comeback after a corruption conviction forced his resignation in 2010, and Brandon McGee Jr., a state representative trying to move up the political ladder.

In Bridgeport, Ganim is trying to show that he suffered no harm at home over an ill-fated run for governor that ended in a 4-1 thrashing by Lamont in the Democratic primary and a less-than-overwhelming 57 percent of the vote in the city. He is challenged by state Sen. Marilyn Moore.

Ganim was first returned to office in 2015, a dozen years after a corruption conviction forced him from city hall.

Republicans have little hope for success in Bridgeport, where there are 11 Democrats for every Republican. But there nonetheless is a three-way fight for the GOP mayoral nomination and contests for down-ballot positions.

A populist wave

A populist wave is shaping the early months of the Democratic presidential primary, but political operatives say that local primaries rarely are driven by national trends, even if some candidates try to tap into broader issues such as gun control and marijuana legalization.

“Municipal primaries are local races about local issues,” said Mark Bergman, a Democratic consultant whose clients include Harp.

That didn’t stop Democratic State Chair Nancy Wyman from making a connection to President Donald J. Trump. She said Trump still is a recruiting tool for Democrats, who made their first gains in the General Assembly in last year’s mid-term elections.

“It has been encouraging to see so many first-time candidates for office across the state,” Wyman said. “We’ve heard candidates say again and again they were frustrated with Republican politics at every level of government, so they put their hands up and said yes to running for office.”

J.R. Romano, the state GOP chair said he sees no such national influence this year, but he expects to see more Democratic primaries for state offices next year, reflecting progressive-moderate tensions. “This is where the modern Democratic Party is going,” Romano said.

Open seats are a generator of nomination fights in three communities.

Middletown Mayor Dan Drew, who explored a run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, is not seeking re-election, a decision that has sparked a four-way Democratic primary. 

Mary A. Bartolotta, a Common Council leader, won the convention endorsement by a single vote over Benjamin D. Florsheim, who settled in Middletown after his graduation from Wesleyan five years ago. Florsheim is on the staff of U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, who currently employs two state representatives.

There is no GOP primary in Middletown, but Romano said he will be closely watching the Democrats to assess how divided are the opposition.

“There’s no question that Middletown is certainly an opportunity,” Romano said. “Sometimes primaries bring out the best in candidates, sometimes they bring out the worst. We’ll watch what happens and evaluate.”

In eastern Connecticut, Preston is holding its first Republican primary for first selectman since 1995, when Robert Congdon won the job. He is retiring after 24 years. Edward Gauthier, a school board member and the son of the GOP town chairman, is facing the runner-up in a close party caucus, Gregory S. Moran Sr.

In East Haven, Joseph A. Maturo Jr., a Republican with a controversial tenure, did not seek the GOP nomination for another term. “Big” Steve Tracey, a bail bondsman and former professional wrestler, and Salvatore R. Maltese are fighting to succeed him. 

First Selectman Bud Knorr of Somers is opposed by Linda Louise LaCasse, a businesswoman. In Voluntown, First Selectman Tracey Hanson of Voluntown is opposed by Skart Paul. In Southbury, First Selectman Jeffrey A. Manville lost the caucus endorsement to Jennifer Naylor and is running as the challenger.

There are Democratic primaries in Bloomfield, Bridgeport, Hamden, Hartford, Middletown, New Haven, North Haven, Oxford, Stratford, West Haven and Wethersfield and Republican primaries in Bridgeport, Brooklyn, Colchester, East Haven, Killingworth, Plainfield, Plainville, Preston, Ridgefield, Shelton, Somers, Southbury, Voluntown and West Haven.

Below are the primaries for mayor or first selectman. (I) denotes an incumbent. 

Democratic Primaries

Republican Primaries

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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