The local election campaign this year lacked the effervescence of a vigorous contest for the town’s top elected office. First Selectman Pat Llodra’s strong and compassionate leadership over the past extraordinary year effectively deflated whatever political aspirations potential challengers may have been harboring for 2013. Aside from a handful of contests for council seats, for town clerk, for a school board position, local Republicans and Democrats nominated only candidates who were guaranteed election under provisions of Newtown’s charter. (The feisty and occasionally active Independent Party of Newtown (IPN) disappeared completely from the ballot this year.)
While the 2013 election may invite criticism as being undemocratic, it can also be viewed as a reflection of Newtown’s desire for stability and continuity after a year when the town was shaken and transformed by tragedy. Ironically, the disengagement this year of much of the town’s normal political apparatus may lay the groundwork for the kind of community engagement required for success on a range of issues critical to Newtown’s future. The increasingly incendiary nature of politics as it is practiced on the national stage is, for most people, both divisive and appalling — an incentive to recoil rather than redouble efforts to solve our collective problems. Even in the most contentious of election years, political fights in Newtown are comparatively benign. But this year, the community needed an election like this one with the focus on issues rather personalities — and there is plenty to focus on.
Newtown has a school to build, a superintendent to hire, 5,000 students to educate (at $13,000 per), 275 miles of roads to maintain, growing traffic congestion, vacant buildings to maintain/raze/market at Fairfield Hills, a firehouse to construct, and an increasingly restive population of property taxpayers keenly interested in not wasting a dime on any of the above. Notwithstanding the implicit vote for the status quo in Tuesday’s election, a consensus on these obligations and responsibilities will be as difficult as ever to wrangle into a budget — a process that starts in earnest in January.
Elected officials should not interpret the ease of their election this week as an endorsement of them as proxies, authorized to act on behalf of the townspeople as they see fit. Now, more than ever, is a time for them to fully embrace their roles as elected representatives. Representation of an electorate requires first engaging voters, listening to them, and then acting accordingly. The great advantage Newtown’s elected officials enjoy this year is that they will be starting that process of engagement with an electorate that is neither divided nor appalled. Let’s hope they make the most of that advantage.