Trumbull Dems may be willing to forfeit council majority

When First Selectman Vicki Tesoro stood in front of the newly elected council and declared she would push for a return to seven council districts she acknowledged it was a hard thing to ask.

Her Democrat party had just claimed 16 of the 21 seats on the Town Council, after years of a Republican majority.

“We ran on a platform that called for balance,” Tesoro said on Dec. 2. “If we return to seven districts, it will mean that no party can have more than 14 seats on the Town Council. In other words, I am asking that our party give up two seats in the 2021 election. It is a difficult thing to ask, but it is the right thing to pursue.”

It remains to be seen if Tesoro can get enough support for the plan to pass a vote.

Council Chairman Mary Beth Thornton, a Democrat who supports the plan, said the issue could be on the council’s agenda as soon as its February meeting.

Redistricting would require a simple majority vote of the 21-member council. If approved, Tesoro’s plan would revert the council to the former seven districts, instead of the four districts it was reduced to in 2012 when the GOP held the majority.

That move, which was sharply opposed by many town residents seven years ago, has been criticized since then as well in large part because it cut down the number of polling places, leading to longer lines at the polls in high turnout elections.

But with Democrats holding 16 seats, just one fewer than the maximum possible 17-4 majority, some of them would have to vote to keep two of their party members off the 2021 ballot.

“Conceptually, it just makes sense,” said Majority Leader Jason Marsh, who was on the council in 2015 when Republicans held a super-majority. “I don’t think the possibility of a 17-seat majority is good government.”

Marsh said the experience of being on the council from 2015-17 “felt like spinning our wheels. They didn’t have to listen to a thing we said.”

Marsh said he and his fellow Democrats had given the issue a lot of thought.

“Sometimes you have to put what is best for the town ahead of what is best for our party politically,” he said.

Hearst Connecticut Media recently polled council member and eight of them responded — Democrats Marsh, Bruce Elstein, Michael Miller, Eric Paulson, Joe Gerics and Joanne Glasser-Orenstein, Republican Steven Lemoine, and Lisa Valenti, who is unaffiliated but caucuses with the Democrats. None were opposed to the change, although some were more guarded in their support.

“The idea makes sense, but I haven’t heard the arguments one way or the other,” Elstein said. “It’s a good idea to make sure the town is well represented by both sides on major votes.”

Lemoine took a similar position.

“I haven’t heard it discussed in much detail,” he said. “Personally, I want to believe they have the best of intentions, but to be honest, when has a party willingly given up seats?”

The possibility of having the districts gerrymandered, where Democrats could sacrifice one or two districts by creating large GOP majorities in them while enjoying smaller but still comfortable majorities in the others, is concerning, Lemoine said. Ironically, a similar argument was used by residents opposed to the district reduction in 2012.

“I’m very interested to see what this looks like, but I am skeptical,” Lemoine said. “What’s in it for them?”

Miller said he hoped the council could put aside the idea of “us” versus “them.”

He added that the vote to return to seven districts and a maximum 14-7 party split could also be seen as a vote on “whether we’re forced to work together.” He said he was “definitely leaning” toward supporting the move.

Valenti, Glasser-Orenstein, Gerics and Paulson all declared their support of the return to seven districts, citing factors including better balance and voter convenience.

“It’s really important to make it easier for voters to get to the polls,” Glasser-Orenstein said.

Paulson agreed, citing the fact that voters in District 2, which includes the neighborhoods along Old Town Road near the Bridgeport border, vote at St. Joseph High School.

“That’s a 15-minute drive for them,” he said. “With more districts, people won’t have to travel as far to the polls.”

Paulson said it would be difficult politically to vote to reduce his party’s majority, but said the results would be worth it.

“More balance fosters more bipartisanship,” he said.

Valenti, who said she initially saw the change as a tit-for-tat move to reverse the Republican change to four districts, now said she supports it — for much the same reason Paulson does.

“Having been on the council this past term with an 11-10 split, that was just about perfect,” she said.

Gerics’ support for the change is perhaps the least surprising, considering he was among a group of petitioners who unsuccessfully requested the change in 2016. The council ignoring their petition is what motivated him to run for council, he said.

“I applaud Vicki for doing what’s right, even if it’s not easy,” he said. “It’s politically challenging, but it’s the right thing to do.”

Editor’s Note - An earlier version of this story identified District 4 as voting at St. Joseph High School. The polling place for District 4 is Middlebrook Elementary School.