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Op-Ed: Is West Hartford the Republican Party’s Turning Point?

Front row (from left) Lee Gold, Mark Merritt, and Roni Rodman, and (back row) Rick Bush, all left the Republican Party Friday and will be running for Town Council as a third-party slate. Courtesy photo (we-ha.com file photo)

Jonathan Wharton, an associate professor and associate dean of the School of Graduate and Professional Studies at Southern Connecticut State University, and a frequent guest on NPR’s ‘Wheelhouse’ radio show, grew up in West Hartford. Wharton was former chairman of the New Haven Republican Town Committee and Connecticut Republican State Central Committee member. He wrote this column for CTNewsJunkie.com, where it originally appeared.

By Jonathan L. Wharton

Jonathan L. Wharton. Courtesy photo

This month marked a milestone for several West Hartford Republican officials. Not only did they become unaffiliated with the GOP, but also they announced that they are planning to restart A Connecticut Party – the centrist state and local party that former Gov. Lowell Weicker led in the 1990s. To revive the party, West Hartford candidates would need to submit a petition to state officials with signatures from 1% of the town’s voters from the previous municipal election.

But Weicker and A Connecticut Party also have been known for the introduction of the state’s income tax. As my columnist colleague Terry Cowgill offered recently, “West Hartfordites with long memories might look at [A Connecticut Party] line on the ballot and recall how much they – or their parents – hated Weicker for going back on his promise.”

Since West Hartford is my hometown, I was intrigued by what was happening with reviving the third party. As a centrist seeing both major parties lose so many moderates, I was equally curious about local officials’ leaving the Republican Party.

When I grew up in West Hartford in the 1990s, it was a centrist Hartford suburb. Nearly a third of voters were either Republican or Democrat and the remaining were unaffiliated with any party. But in the last decade especially, Republicans barely make up 18%. Most importantly, more voters – especially unaffiliated ones – lean significantly toward the Democratic Party.

It’s no secret that Councilman Lee Gold has been an outspoken minority party leader about a variety of local issues. Plus the former Republican Town Committee chairman, Mark Merritt, grew very concerned about the political direction of the local party committee and a “rational alternative” was warranted.

When I spoke with Merritt and Gold last week, they mentioned their political dilemmas. As a party leader, Merritt came from a moderate position and he often argued with party officials that last year’s presidential election was a “fair election.” Getting past that was difficult for him and other leaders. So reaching consensus within the committee on other matters proved to be difficult.

Merritt and Gold also suggested that national party politics have been seeping into local politics. They stated that finding a middle ground within the party committee and town council was nearly impossible.

Gold suggested that national politics has trickled down to West Hartford politics.

“We’re all residents of West Hartford. To just vote ‘No’ because of the opposing party, is not effective for all of us,” he added.

As a former local party chairman, I understand Gold and Merritt’s concerns. But I had to ask if Gold leaned on other party officials, especially state Republican Party leaders for advice. He admitted he “did not seek out directly to state party officials” and essentially these internal committee concerns and national-level issues led him and others to begin anew through a third party.

“It’ll be A Connecticut Party 2.0!” Gold exclaimed excitedly. “It’s a different opportunity right now.” Since there are so many Republicans registering as unaffiliated voters, this moment is ripe especially for younger voters, stressed Gold and Merritt.

A while back, I stressed similar concerns about the overwhelming (and growing) number of unaffiliated voters in Connecticut. With so many New Yorkers relocating to our state and younger voters choosing not to be affiliated with a political party, both Republicans and Democrats should be concerned.

But is this the time to restart a viable third party, even at the state and local level? As someone who studies these levels of government, I would offer that Connecticut is overdue for party reform in addition to new political party options.

So the political changes in West Hartford could be a start toward some party competition, if not party reform. But how far this will spread beyond West Hartford will be the bigger question, especially with the gubernatorial race next year.

Republished with permission from CTNewsJunkie.com, all rights reserved.

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