Wanted: Opposition party for Bridgeport

Published on May 12, 2011 by

I am a lifelong Democrat. I was raised in a union household, which included my dad, who was a shop steward at General Electric on Boston Avenue.

After law school, I served as a member of the Bridgeport Democratic Town Committee, was selected by my fellow Democrats to serve in two national conventions, once as a member of the Credentials Committee and another time as a full delegate, and was deputy counsel to the state Democratic party.

So what follows are not the observations of one who has a rooting interest in the success of the Bridgeport Republican Party.

As we begin another municipal election cycle, the Bridgeport Republican Party is poised to perpetuate the irrelevance, which it has so richly earned in recent years.

As the great and revered Democrat Al Smith was fond of saying, “Let’s look at the record.”

Not a single member of the Bridgeport City Council is a Republican, thus permitting the “Republican caucus room” to serve as a standing joke.
Unlike neighboring towns, our City Charter does not require minority-party representation in the municipal legislative body.
Not a single member of the Bridgeport legislative delegation is a Republican and most general assembly seats in Bridgeport go “unopposed” in even-numbered years.

The final validation of the GOP’s irrelevance came during the 2009 elections, when the Republican candidates for the Bridgeport Board of Education were significantly outpolled by two candidates running on the Working Families party line.
One candidate, Sauda Baraka, had won election to the Bridgeport Board of Education as an African-American Republican in 2005. However, she was denied re-nomination by a Republican Party which was evidently intent upon further shrinking its miniscule base of support, rather than fielding a diverse slate of candidates capable of winning support in a citywide campaign.

Ironically, the two candidates elected on the Working Families line, Baraka and Maria Pereira, have spent the last two years accepting the role of the “loyal opposition” that Bridgeport’s Republicans should embrace, but have instead spurned.
What about the remaining Republican voice on the Board of Education? This voice has been perhaps the most consistent and predictable supporter of the Finch administration and the interests of the Democratic machine.
It seems that only in a contest for Registrar of Voters, a paid elective office which could not be held by a Democrat, did the Republican Party of 2010 become energized and involved.

Why the GOP?
So, why does Bridgeport need a viable Republican Party, capable of fielding creditable candidates?
The simple answer to that question is that a healthy opposition party is essential if there is to be any restraint on the arrogance and contempt for the public welfare, which the exercise of absolute power produces. In politics, just as in economics, a monopoly should be avoided. Unfortunately, political parties are not subject to the anti-trust laws.
In 2011, access to the political process in Bridgeport is controlled by a Democratic machine, whose 10 district leaders perform a gatekeeper function, designed to secure loyalty and obedience from all who are permitted to enter.

In Bridgeport’s ethnic and racial minority community, the situation is particularly disheartening. The Democratic machine smugly deposits the votes of the city’s minority residents in the bank well before Election Day. It is therefore free to ignore the real concerns of the community, secure in the knowledge that no alternative to the “culture of bossism” exists because the Republican Party cannot, or will not, supply a meaningful alternative.

Another byproduct of the GOP’s electoral irrelevance is the absence of any external pressure upon the Democratic machine. Worse yet, the system spawns “Republicans” who are content to serve as accomplices, enablers, and loyal subjects of the Democratic machine. They allow their Republican registration to be used by the machine, when the requirements of a state statute mandating minority- party representation prevents the appointment of a registered Democrat to a board or commission.
Reformers won

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, the Republican Action League (ral), under the leadership of attorney James Stapleton, revitalized the anemic Bridgeport Republican Party. A Republican won a citywide election for probate judge in 1970, and in 1971 Bridgeport elected a Republican mayor.

This was possible, only because of the existence of a genuine two-party system, as well as the presence of hard-working residents dedicated to the principle checks and balances.
For two years, my husband and I, along with attorneys from the firm of Cohen and Wolf, taught a constitutional law class at Harding and Central, known as “We the People.” The class was designed to prepare students to compete in a statewide competition held each December at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.
One of the most interesting classes concerned the role of political parties since 1800, in ensuring a system of checks and balances so essential to madisonian democracy.
Unfortunately, political leaders in Bridgeport have failed to recognize the lessons that history teaches. As a result, the free flow of information in the marketplace of ideas has been stifled, and machine rule has been perpetuated.

At this point, I can hear many of you saying, “But I don’t agree with the platform of the Republican national party,” or “I support President Obama.”

The Sullivan doctrine
When I hear these objections, I think of the observation made by John Sullivan, the longtime Democratic first selectman of Fairfield. Although his community was reliably Republican in state and national elections, Sullivan was repeatedly re-elected. He would explain his success by noting that there is no Democratic way to plow the streets, and no Republican way to collect the garbage.

If the Republican Party in Bridgeport appears different than the Republican Party in Trumbull and Fairfield as a result of a serious recruitment effort, so be it!

Certainly, the Bridgeport Democratic Party has a complexion that is different from that of its suburban counterparts.

A revived Republican Party must make a conscious effort to recruit candidates and to register voters in every Bridgeport neighborhood. This will require leaving its minority-party comfort zone, and using its most valuable resource, a place on the ballot, for the benefit of our city.

The Bridgeport Republican Party has an opportunity. Unfortunately, it probably does not have the necessary will.