Enfield Connecticut is a village/small city with a cohesive downtown area surrounded by tracts of open space punctuated by subdivisions.
A large shopping mall anchors the commercial district, Interstate 91 bisects the community on its way from Hartford to Springfield, Massachusetts, providing quick access for the struggling industrial base, and the Connecticut River establishes Enfield's western border.
The population of 45,000 residents is a relatively stable blue collar/white collar mix, and at election time most candidates are known to the voters for their other activities in the community as well as their politics.
Like many similar communities across the nation Enfield is facing serious financial issues from burgeoning school and municipal budgets, a downturn in the housing market that has left about 500 empty houses on the market, and taxpayers were hit with a whopping 14 percent tax increase this year.
That did not make the voters happy, nor did the antics of the Democratic administration. Fights over development issues, fights over party control, fights over taxes and other financial issues, even fights with the local nuns! It was rumored that high-level investigations were underway by both state and federal authorities, and the word 'corruption' was heard in hushed whispers, although not out loud, and not in any official statement.
On the other side of the political fence was Republican Town Chairwoman Mary Ann Turner, an unabashed supporter of George Bush and Dick Cheney, a Republican who really is a Republican not a Republican In Name Only, and isn't afraid to say so. She understands exactly why she is a Republican, exactly what values she espouses, and she is a fighter.
She started the political campaign season back in May, looking for candidates to fill out the 13-member slate for Town Council and Board of Education. She ended up on Election Night standing the entrenched machine on its ear, taking over the Town Council and Board of Education. More on that in a bit.
For at least a decade the Republicans held only the minimal number of seats on each agency, and were essentially powerless if the Democrats decided to rub their noses in the mud.
Nonetheless the Republicans were occasionally successful in getting some initiatives through the system, and had some very good ideas on how to fix much of what is wrong with their local government, if only they had the chance - and enough seats on the council and school board to carry the votes.
I was hired by the Enfield Republicans to handle media relations, political strategy and public relations early in the process, and had a ring-side seat to view the campaign as it progressed.
The candidate selection appeared to go smoothly at first, but almost immediately hit a reef when a dirty whisper campaign started against one of the school board candidates. Democratic operatives passed the false rumors on to a local paper, which threatened to run a story about it. To his credit, the candidate put party loyalty above personal ambition and withdrew his name, effectively squelching the story and the mud slinging, at least for the moment.
When the nomination process was over, and the GOP caucus voted on the slate, controversy was absent and the campaign got off on a positive note. The slate included a nice mix of incumbents and newcomers, white color, blue collar, a businessman, a Baptist minister, a retired Army colonel working a second career in finance, a policeman, technology experts, finance experts, business managers, a real estate broker. There was plenty of commentary about the chances each had of prevailing in their race.
Without question, of the most personable and dedicated candidates, whom I will dub The 13th Candidate, was Clemence Dumont, a naturalized citizen of French-Canadian descent who had just retired after a career in accounting. She was energetic, outgoing, aware of the issues.
She also was a total novice - although not the only one on the slate - whose entire previous political involvement came when she ran for president of the local Women's Club. Over time, one opinion emerged about the relative chances of the 13th candidate.
Hardly anyone in the local party structure, except Mary Ann Turner, or the area media gave her a snowball's chance in hell of winning against a male incumbent who was solidly entrenched with his base, which included the volunteer firefighters, a formidable voting bloc in his district. I agreed with Mary Ann. I believed Clem Dumont had all the ingredients to win, except political experience, which I saw as working in her favor.
Fortunately, Clem took the campaign seriously and had every intention of winning. She attended every meeting, went to the campaign school hosted by the Connecticut Republican Party in the summer. She held a successful fund-raiser, listened intently at strategy meetings, and worked diligently during practice sessions for media appearances, debates and public forums.
And every single weekend she walked her district, knocking on doors, dropping off literature, talking to voters.
Nonetheless, the 13th Candidate still wasn't given much of a chance of wresting the district's voters away from the incumbent. As recently as Monday morning a knowledgeable political editor from an area paper opined that she wouldn't overcome the votes expected from the firefighters and their supporters.
But he didn't know how hard Clem was working. And all the naysayers forgot one important facet of the election equation. The incumbent may have had the fire fighters' votes, but Clem Dumont had their wives'.
She continued to walk and knock on doors right up to the day before Election Day, uncovering a trove of votes in one area of the district that the incumbent had taken for granted, and thus ignored. When the cold and dark drove her indoors, Clem and her husband Mike took to the phones, calling registered Republicans and Independents who were likely voters.
In the 48 ours before the polls opened they made 500 phone calls. When the numbers came in on Election Night, she matched the opponent in the middle of his strongest section of the district, losing there by only one vote. But then she took the second polling place by more than 30, losing the third by less than two dozen.
In the end the 13th Candidate, Clem Dumont, took the district by 6 votes. Not a huge victory, but a victory, an especially sweet victory considering that she was supposed to be crushed by the incumbent.
Without her the Republicans still would have had a majority on the council. With her they have a super majority that for the first time in more than a decade will have sufficient votes to propose policy and enact policy.
When asked by the media how she managed to emerge victorious in what was considered to be an impenetrable district, Clem responded with her "Ant Theory."
Simply explained, she toiled like an industrious ant building an anthill, piece by piece, day by day, never stopping, never losing site of the goal, always working. No one paid any attention to her, she noted, yet she was always there, always working, always campaigning.
There are many other reasons why the Republicans took the election last night in Enfield, Connecticut. They had the issues, and they certainly had the leader in Mary Ann Turner.
She started out the victory commentaries Tuesday night intending to apologize for her sometimes brusque manner with the statement "Let's get this over first ... If I have yelled at you ..." to which the entire room erupted with a very good natured "What do you mean IF?" That was followed by a roar of laughter and the comment "We accept your apology!" to even more laughter.
When the numbers went up and the crowd realized the extent of the GOP victory, they started to understand why she works the way she does, and she saw the rewards of leadership, lonely though that spot may be at times. But on Election Night, everyone was her best friend.
The candidates should not be discounted. They worked hard and they worked smart. They are honest and care about their community, and they worked as a team.
Yet the campaign was no cake walk. In fact, it was an especially tough campaign for the GOP.
One candidate had so many of his lawn signs stolen that the combined value ultimately reached the level of a Class D felony and a report was filed with the police. Another was the target of an especially vicious smear campaign and character assassination. An estimated $11,000 of damage was done to a council candidate's car when the fuel system was contaminated.
Democratic dupes, hiding under the cowardly umbrella of Internet pseudonyms, planted rumors in political blogs in an attempt to cast doubts and aspersions. To their credit, Enfield's Republicans rallied to the side of their fellow candidates, posting their names and daring the assassins to identify themselves and back up their filth with facts.
There were no takers. Slander apparently is much more fun when no one can identify its source.
My favorite rationale from the other side of the fence appeared in the Hartford Courant thus:
"Democratic Deputy Mayor Kenneth Hilinski, an at-large council member who lost his bid for a second term, said the Republicans got their message out better than the Democrats."
I totally agree.
Although this campaign was no where near the level of a national campaign, it nonetheless had all the elements that are necessary to victory, and are so often missing on the national level.
Voters across this country, across party lines, across economic, racial and religious demographics, are sick to death of being treated like unintelligent, incompetent sheep. That is why so few come out to vote in so many elections.
There are many issues facing this country, just as there are many issues facing communities like Enfield, Connecticut. Voters know this. What they are looking for is hope, justifiable hope, that if they avail themselves of the most basic of our constitutional rights, they will be rewarded by office holders who really will work for them.
I watched Clem Dumont and her fellow Republicans throughout the campaign, and I know they will work to deliver the kind of government their community deserves. If Clem Dumont wants to run again in two years one thing is certain; lots more people in her district will know her, and no one will say she took them for granted.
She will continue to build her anthill, and she will do a good job for her district.
National candidates may want to take a long look at the campaign waged by The 13th Candidate. It contains the key to victory.
If you have any questions, give her a call. She's great at getting her message across on the phone. She's even better in person.
Wednesday, November 07, 2007