Some city mayoral candidates are tripping at the starting gate, embarrassed or defeated by simple tasks. The bumbles have brought one contest to an end and made two others more intriguing.
In the season's marquee race in New Haven, the Democratic front-runner to succeed 20-year veteran John DeStefano Jr. is not enjoying the coronation she foresaw when she entered the contest.
State Sen. Toni Harp won the New Haven Democratic Town Committee's endorsement with few dissenting votes. The rules, however, require more than a roomful of hurrahs at the meeting. Certain documents need to be filed. The dates fly fast on these municipal contests. One or more of Harp's establishment supporters neglected to meet the deadline on some simple but essential documents.
Harp's place as the endorsed candidate, an advantage in most party races, was thrown away by an unforced error. It was one of several in a pattern that is making observers grumble that she may be losing the competence part of the race. Full marks for that go to steely challenger and former city economic development official Henry Fernandez. With New Haven's credit rating downgraded again last week, capability assumes urgency.
Fernandez is relentless, with no instinct for the gooey deference Harp has come to expect in two decades in the legislature from handing out vast sums of public money to private interests. Harp and Capitol insiders are alarmed that Fernandez has raised more money than the presumed winner of the contest. One of Harp's lobbyist pals, left-wing favorite Betty Gallo, sent an unsettling email to fellow lobbyists saying this would be an awfully good time to say thank you to Toni Harp for all she's done for them by sending a campaign contribution.
The aggressive pitch sounded like a quid pro quo. It was all the more jarring coming from (and on behalf of) faux reformers who once claimed that millions in public funds for campaigns would chase purveyors of special interests like Gallo and her clients out of the contribution business. Gallo makes Harp look like their tawdry tool.
Fernandez has made Harp's family seem more unsavory. The Harps look like big winners in the lucrative poverty business. Fernandez is making a persuasive case that the Harps, including the controversial, late Wendell, husband of the candidate, are rich slumlords with one of the state's highest bills for unpaid taxes. Toni Harp claims to know nothing of all this.
Adding to the unease of insiders backing Harp is the hiring of Jason Bartlett as her campaign manager. It is the great mystery of the season. A few years ago, the Bethel Democrat lost his own seat in the legislature after a messy arrest over car registration and driver's license blunders. Bartlett was also at the helm of Democrat Mary-Jane Foster's mayoral bid, which went from promising to disastrous over filing document errors. Bartlett ran New Haven Democratic state Sen. Martin Looney's unsuccessful 2001 challenge to DeStefano. Harp's allies see a worrisome pattern, as does Fernandez, who delights in tormenting Harp with the details of her New Haven mansion. It has an elevator!
Luckier than Harp so far has been Republican former Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele in his race for mayor of Stamford. He won the party endorsement in July, and his opponent, Jerry Pia, failed to submit the 648 signatures of registered party members that would have forced a primary.
Fedele can concentrate on the November contest as Stamford Democrats spend the next three weeks in a primary race of their own. Three candidates hoped to be in it, but Bill Callion, who garnered just two votes when the local party committee voted on an endorsement in July, failed to submit the required number of valid signatures to get on the ballot. Finding and persuading 5 percent of local party members to sign a petition should not be such a burden.
Callion's failure leaves endorsed, popular Democrat David Martin to face state Rep. William Tong, who ran for his party's nomination for the U.S. Senate last year. The mayoralty would be a consolation prize or rest stop until the next big chance for glory comes along.
Kevin Rennie is a lawyer and a former Republican state legislator. He can be reached at email@example.com.