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Story By John Murray
The two challengers in yesterday's Democrat primary in Waterbury both lost to party-backed incumbents, but by forcing the first aldermanic primary in city history they took a bold and small step towards wrestling political power away from aging political machines, and placing it directly into the hands of the voters.
The turnout was low, but the stakes were high. Could a pair of outsiders upend incumbents who had been hand picked by influential insiders? The answer was no, not this time, but they struck a blow for democracy.
How? For the first time in city history there is a primary for an aldermanic slot on November’s ballot. This is a direct challenge to party control of the process, and the first real sign that Waterbury’s vote in 2015 to elect its aldermen by district took another step towards the long and grueling process of returning power to the neighborhoods.
And sadly, many eligible voters in the 4th (East End) and 5th (South End and Downtown) districts were unaware of the unfolding drama that took place in the Democrat Party yesterday.
Four of the six candidates earned positions on the Democrat slate in November, and those four are statistical locks to be sworn onto the Board of Aldermen in a Democrat controlled city.
The primary was forced by two candidates not chosen to be on the endorsed Democrat slate in July. Endorsed candidates were selected by party leaders, and the two challengers; Brenda Liz Cotto and Bilal Tajildeen, for varying reasons, challenged the process.
Cotto had been an alderwoman for the past five years, but when she moved out of the 5th District in July she had to resign her seat. She couldn’t represent a district she didn’t live in. That moment was historic in itself. If Waterbury were still electing its aldermen “at large”, Cotto would have held onto her seat.
Cotto has not always voted the Democrat Party line – which we think is great - and hasn’t been afraid to speak out, which we also applaud. When she moved into the 4th District she sought the support of Mayor Neil O’Leary in an attempt to win a seat back on the board, and was rebuffed. Cotto said she was told she hadn’t been loyal enough, and there was also the sticky situation that the 4th District already had Michael DiGiovancarlo and Jeffrey Hunter filling the two Democrat slots on the board.
Her only option was to collect signatures to force a primary. And she did.
Both DiGiovancarlo and Hunter are popular in the community, and had the significant advantage of Democrat Party muscle on their side, but Cotto’s challenge let the people of the 4th District decide who they want representing them on the Board of Aldermen.
This is progress in the fight to restore political power to the people living in the district. The final vote was DiGiovancarlo (208 votes), Hunter (184 votes) and Cotto (72 votes).
After she lost Cotto wrote on Facebook that she felt called, " to fulfill a mission that entitled me to not only to serve, but to also stir the waters by exciting a system, and so I did."
The drama in the 5th District had a few extra twists. When Cotto was forced to resign her seat the slot was offered to newcomer Bilal Tajildeen, who was already planning to primary Cotto and Sandra Martinez-McCarthy. Tajildeen wants to change the political dynamic in Waterbury and does not want to be beholding to anyone but the voters for a political position. He turned down a guaranteed position on the Board of Aldermen to force a primary for the chance to win that same seat.
Tajildeen’s approach is unorthodox and refreshing, and his candidacy raised the bar on the concept of electing independent voices to represent a district first, and a political party second.
Tajildeen squared off against Martinez-McCarthy and Ivan Roman, both good people, to represent the voters in the 5th District. Roman accepted the invitation to replace Cotto on the Board of Aldermen and ran as an incumbent. Both Martinez-McCarthy and Roman have the backing of the Democrat Party and the advantage of machine politics, but today the people will make the decision.
They chose McCarty-Martinez (138 votes) and Roman (129 votes) over Tajildeen (86 votes.)
The Waterbury Observer championed Aldermen By District for two decades before it finally passed in 2015, and the subsequent six years have brought little change to the political process. The Observer has repeatedly asked Waterbury Mayor Neil O'Leary to develop a training program for new aldermen to orient them to Robert's Rules of Order, to explain a party caucus, and to show examples of how aldermen can and should create their own legislation to change ordinances in the city. For year's aldermen have complained that they don't fully understand the process and are eager for training. Mayor O'Leary has repeatedly said the training program is being developed, but six years of "developing" has brought nothing.
The mayor has control over the legislative process in the city and has decided it's not in his best interest to train aldermen to think independently, or to be more focused on district issues, than his political agenda.
Yesterday's primary was a small step forward, and the people were the ultimate winner because they had choices.
It is our fondest hope that in the decades to come that district primaries evolve into robust dialogue and debate about neighborhood issues, and that a dozen people in every district vie to be one of the three aldermen representing that district. That day will come, and yesterday was a step forward in the right direction.
Congratulations to all six candidates for placing their names on the ballot and allowing the voters to decide.
Alderman By District was the primary winner, and so are the Democrat voters in the 4th and 5th District. Let the people decide.