Monday, October 27, 2014

Underhanded Opposition to Aldermen by District

It was very disappointing to read today's coverage of the Aldermen by District issue in the Rep-Am. At first I was confused by their one-sided, inaccurate, and unappealing reporting. Then I went back and read today's Editorial, in which they clearly state that they think Aldermen by District is a bad idea. Then their appalling coverage made sense--forget journalistic integrity, the Rep-Am is trying to torpedo the Charter Revision.

First off, let's look at their excessive use of the word "ward." Nobody has been referring to electing Aldermen by Ward. Nobody has been talking about dividing Waterbury into different Wards. It's an ugly word that conjures up images of ghettos and urban corruption. The Rep-Am's decision to change the language of the debate is a sneaky, underhanded ploy to manipulate the voters. They should be ashamed of themselves, but they probably aren't.

Secondly, let's look at their choice for front-page coverage of the story. "Charter change seen boosting minority clout," an article that makes it sound like the point of Aldermen by District is to take power away from the white people in Town Plot and Bunker Hill and give it to the blacks and Hispanics in the inner city. Again, this is a sneaky, underhanded ploy to manipulate voters, the same trick that was used to defeat a similar proposal during the 1990s. Opponents of Aldermen by District are hoping to play on the latent racism, the fear of urban minorities, that still exists in Waterbury. It worked in 1999, and they are hoping it will work again in 2014.

Front page of the Rep-Am, October 27 2014

Then there's the Paul Pernerewski factor. Pernerewski, who has served as President of the Board of Aldermen for many years, has been a vocal opponent of Aldermen by District, but he's been clever about his opposition. Instead of coming right out and saying he thinks it's a bad idea, and instead of saying why he thinks it's a bad idea, he spins it to make it sound like you shouldn't bother voting for it, because no one cares about it. When Pernerewski was talking to Larry Rifkin on WATR last week, he said something to the effect that he voted to put it on the ballot so that voters would feel like they had a voice, but that of course it won't pass. In other words, toss them some crumbs, it won't change anything. The Rep-Am included a quote today in which Pernerewski again says that it won't pass because no one is interested in it.

But here's the thing. The Rep-Am almost did some good journalism on this. They used velvet gloves, but they did point out that Pernerewski is at risk of losing his seat on the Board of Aldermen if the measure passes. They spun it to make him sound noble--oh gosh, he voted to put it on the ballot, even though he could lose his position, what a great guy!--when in fact he's been actively trying to sabotage the measure. If you're going to quote someone who is opposed to a ballot measure, and it's obvious that person has a personal stake in the game, call them out on it. This applies to pretty much all the aldermen, as well as all the major players on the Town Committees. If they are opposed to Aldermen by District, we have to consider how the shift in power will effect them personally.

As for the other reasons to vote against Aldermen by District:

1. Aldermen by District will pit neighborhoods against one another.

This argument is being made by people who live in the neighborhoods with plenty of representation on the Board of Aldermen. They are in the privileged neighborhoods, so they don't see that we currently have neighborhoods pitted against one another. That's the system that has existed for decades: the "nice" neighborhoods vs. the "bad" neighborhoods. The "nice" neighborhoods get represented. The "bad" neighborhoods get ignored. We already have "little fiefdoms," it's just that the folks currently in power don't want to give up that power. The fact that people in the "nice" neighborhoods think everyone is being treated equally is proof that we have a problem. Aldermen by District will give representation to all neighborhoods, ending the current system of inequality and injustice, ending the domination of three or four fiefdoms over the rest of us.

2. If certain neighborhoods had better voter turnout, they would be better represented.

This is one of the biggest lies in town. It's a trick I've seen used repeatedly for years. When a group complains that they are being ignored, they're told it's their fault because they aren't more like the group in power.

Here's how the current system really works. Each political party has a Town Committee with members from each of the five legislative districts. Membership to the Town Committee is all about cronyism. If you're on the Town Committee, you nominate your friends and family members to join the committee whenever there is a vacancy. The Town Committee decides who their candidates will be in every election. The selection has nothing to do with where the candidates live. It has to do with who is the right "fit" for the political party. It has to do with who has political clout. It has to do with whether or not the Town Committee is feeling pressure to include a minority candidate. Ultimately, however, most of the candidates are pulled from the same small group, who tend to live in the same small handful of neighborhoods. It's cronyism, with an occasional minority allowed in to keep up the appearance of inclusive government.

3. The current system works just fine, everyone's happy with it, and no one really wants to change it.

Waterbury is well known for its history of political corruption, so I suppose it makes sense that the people in power are insisting that the system isn't broken, and I suppose it makes sense that the people in power are trying to mute the voices of the disenfranchised voters who want to change the system.

4. Voters will lose power, because they will be limited to voting for only 2 candidates, instead of 9.

It took me a while to figure this one out. The way I see it, voters will be empowered, because instead of trying to choose between 27 candidates, they'll be presented with a manageable, realistic 4 to 6 candidates. And the three candidates who win in their district will be directly accountable to them

Then I noticed that this criticism is pretty much always tied to a concern that neighborhoods with low voter turnout will be electing inferior Aldermen, and that people in the neighborhoods with high voter turnout will suffer as a result. Translation: people who live in the outer ring neighborhoods, the ones near the borders with Middlebury, Wolcott, and Cheshire, don't want the people living in the inner city to have any say in what happens with our city government.

The Rep-Am claims that there haven't been any groups organizing to support Aldermen by District, that there "isn't much chatter about it," that there hasn't been any community outreach campaign, that there have been no leaflets distributed--but those things have been happening.

Hiding the truth is a sneaky trick used by people in power to suppress people without power. It's usually associated with countries like North Korea or Russia, who use the media to control what information is available to their people. The Rep-Am and certain political players have done a good job of trying to suppress the truth about what's going on with the Aldermen by District issue this year. We'll find out next week if they've succeeded.

For reasons to vote yes on Aldermen by District, check out my blog post on all the ballot questions, and read John Murray's article for the Waterbury Observer.

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