Processing Your Payment

Please do not leave this page until complete. This can take a few moments.

August 9, 2023

Fairfield County turned blue, but in town halls, politics is still local

KYLE CONSTABLE / CTMIRROR.ORG As a U.S. Senate candidate in 2016, Dan Carter addressed a Trump rally in Fairfield. As a first selectman unopposed for reelection, divisive issues like Trump are off the table.

They are bright spots in the dreary landscape that Connecticut’s richest corner has become for Republicans: Toni Boucher and Dan Carter, losers in recent runs for the General Assembly, are unopposed in campaigns to hold top offices in Wilton and Bethel.

The defeats of Boucher in 2022 and Carter in 2020 as they tried to recapture their old seats reflected a realignment of suburban Fairfield County from reliably red to blue. Last year, Democrats also swept state House elections in Greenwich and Fairfield and won in a newly drawn district in Wilton.

Municipal elections are notoriously hard to read for broader trends, but the odd-year viability of the GOP in towns that no longer elect Republicans for state or federal offices in even years is an indication that town hall may be the last place in America where all politics, indeed, is local.

“I tell people all the time, ‘There’s no Republican or Democrat way to pick up the trash or plow the streets,’ ” said Ben Proto, chair of a state Republican Party that has suffered from a backlash against Donald J. Trump and his discredited denial of the loss to Joe Biden in 2020.

Mike Mandell, a former executive director of the state Democratic Party, agreed that municipal races are far more likely than state or federal contests to be detached from national politics, but not entirely for Republicans in Fairfield County.

“There’s still that hurdle of you’re running with a brand that is not beloved nationally or certainly not in Connecticut,” Mandell said.

That will be tested in Greenwich and Fairfield, where the chief elected officials are Republicans facing Democratic opponents. In both cases, the incumbents are former state representatives, Fred Camillo in Greenwich and Brenda Kupchick in Fairfield.  

Lynn Vanderslice, the Republican first selectwoman of Wilton, all but labeled her job as apolitical when she announced her intention to retire in April: “For those interested, the first selectman position is less politics and more strategy and operational and financial management.”

If that sounded like a solicitation for others to run, it was. 

Over eight years as first selectwoman, Vanderslice had noticed a growing reluctance to serve on boards and commissions, stepping stones to a seat on the Board of Selectmen. She considered not running four years ago but ran again when neither party seemed ready with a successor.

“There was no succession planning by the Republicans to replace me, and there was no succession planning by the Democrats to develop a candidate,” said Vanderslice, an accountant who served on the Board of Finance for seven years before becoming the chief elected official.

Boucher said she ran only after failing to convince others to run. She is 73, a grandmother of six who was widowed two years ago and is an active philanthropist. Recent gifts include $8 million to the UConn School of Business, where she obtained a mid-career MBA.

Tom Dubin, the Democratic chair of Wilton, and Boucher told similar stories about talking to potential candidates who had the qualifications to run, but were not at a point in their careers where it was practical, either for financial or family reasons.

Still, the free passes extended to Boucher in Wilton and Carter in Bethel were  surprising, given that Democrats have seen their voter rolls swell in both communities, a trend that accelerated after Trump’s election in 2016.

“I think it was post-Trump on steroids that flipped things,” Vanderslice said.

In 2015, when Vanderslice won the first of her two four-year terms and the notion of a Trump presidency was far-fetched, Republicans outnumbered Democrats in Wilton, 4,051 to 2,932. Unaffiliated voters numbered 4,255, roughly the same as the GOP.

Democrats caught up in 2019 — and kept going. As of last November, there were 1,000 more Democrats than Republicans in Wilton.

“Now it’s 40% unaffiliated, 34% Democrats and only 25% Republicans,” Vanderslice said.

Boucher knows well the changes. Beginning in 1996, she won six terms in the state House, then five in the state Senate, finally losing in 2018 to a 22-year-old Democratic phenom, Will Haskell.

Last year, when Haskell opted for law school over reelection, Boucher ran for the open seat, testing how much of her previous loss was due to Haskell’s energy and Trump’s unpopularity, as opposed to the Democratic tilt.

Ceci Maher, a Democrat of Wilton, won with 57% of the vote. Wilton, one of eight towns in the district, more narrowly went for Maher, giving her 51.5%. Boucher said she assumed the race was her last.

“I really had retired. I have run 16 races, and I’ve won 14,” Boucher, who had run for municipal offices in Wilton before winning her 11 General Assembly races. “That’s an excellent record to retire on.”

Boucher had been a member of the school board and Board of Selectmen.

“So this is like going totally full circle,” Boucher said. “It’s refreshing to take off your political hat and put on just the town hat.”

Carter is a former Air Force pilot who won the first of his three state House terms in 2010, unseating a Democrat. He ran for U.S. Senate in 2016, losing to Democrat Richard Blumenthal pretty much everywhere, including Bethel.

In 2020, he attempted a comeback, challenging Rep. Raghib Allie-Brennan, D-Bethel. Carter took 48% of the vote in Bethel.

His current status as an unopposed candidate for first selectman of Bethel is related to a decision last year by Vanderslice in Wilton to create a full-time position of town administrator.

The job went to Matt Knickerbocker, the Democratic first selectman of Bethel, whom Vanderslice had come to know and respect through their mutual work on the regional council of governments. 

Knickerbocker resigned in Bethel, and Carter won a special election in February to succeed him, defeating a Democratic selectman.

Carter said he has been struck by how rarely partisan politics are a factor in the job.

“It’s usually not super political,” Carter said. “In a municipality, people don’t want  national politics or all the drama. It really is about doing things just to bring the community together.”

Carter hosted a visit recently from Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat who beat Republican Bob Stefanowski in 2022. Carter had been the manager of Stefanowski’s campaign until a shakeup last summer, a topic that didn’t come up.

“He really wanted to just sit in my office and talk,” Carter said. “He opened up with some pretty open-ended questions about what was on my mind, what were residents thinking, what was important to them. That kind of thing.”

Carter and Allie-Brennan each said they’ve developed a working relationship just three years after a heated effort to unseat him. 

Allie-Brennan said he still disagrees with Carter on a wide range of issues, but few  turned out to be relevant to how Bethel is run. Still, Allie-Brennan acknowledged he was bothered by Carter’s lack of an opponent, if only as a sign of civic health.

“I was definitely asked to run,” Allie-Brennan said. “I considered it very heavily.”

Sign up for Enews


Order a PDF