Trumbull town council leader says goodbye after 9 terms

Mary Beth Thornton

Mary Beth Thornton

Contributed /

TRUMBULL — After two decades of continual involvement in Trumbull politics, Mary Beth Thornton, a nine-term member of the town council including the last four as chairman, recently resigned after moving out of her district.

Her time in government began with a simple request, which she flatly rejected.

“Back in 2003, (former First Selectman) Ray Baldwin was filling out his ticket, and they were looking for people to fill some seats in District 2,” Thornton said. “At the time I was pretty well-known in the district, because I was active in the Nichols Improvement Association. So Ray called me and asked if I would be interested in running for town council, and I said, ‘No, thanks.’”

But Baldwin persisted. At the time, each party nominated two candidates for each of the council’s seven districts, with the top three candidates winning seats on the 21-member council. Mary Ellen Lemay, who is now chairman of the town’s Conservation Commission, had already agreed to be a Democratic candidate in the Republican-leaning district.

“So it was like, OK you won’t win anyway,” Thornton said. “Then, on election night, this was back when they still had the voting booths and they counted the votes at the polling place, Mary Ellen came out and told me she had won. I said, ‘Good, can we go home now?’ And she said ‘No. You won too.’”

Since then, Baldwin said, Thornton’s handprints have been on every major project that has been brought to completion, including the Trumbull Early Childhood Education Center, the Trumbull High School renovation, two Police Department renovations, the expansion of sidewalks throughout town and, most recently, the planning of the Veterans and First Responders Center on the site of the old veterans building on Kaatz Pond.

“That would never have gotten off the ground if it hadn’t been for her,” said Baldwin, who chairs the building committee currently fundraising and designing the new building. “Without her leadership, that would have gone nowhere.”

Baldwin said Thornton’s greatest strength was the thoughtful manner in which she addresses problems. That was on display throughout her first campaign for office.

“Back then we would have house parties to meet the candidates, and Ray would always speak first and I was the caboose,” Thornton said. “And people would ask questions like, ‘What do you think about the sewer project?’ and I would say, ‘I have no idea.’”

But Thornton said she enjoyed the challenge of reading up on various topics like sewer expansion, school HVAC requirements and snow plow maintenance costs.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding,” she said. “But the more you know, the more you can help the community.”

The past 18 years have also had their share of setbacks, most notably in 2011. Timothy Herbst, the former Planning and Zoning Commission chairman, had defeated Baldwin in 2009 and had been popular enough in his first term that most Democrats in town were reluctant to challenge him.

Thornton gave up her seat on the council to run for first selectman, and was soundly defeated. But just a few months later, Trumbull Democrats nominated her to fill an unexpected vacancy when a member moved out of town. She rejoined a council that had been redistributed among four districts and had taken a hard right turn, and was one of just four Democrats on the 21-member council.

The challenge then was how to make a difference when it seemed her vote would make no difference, she said.

“Even if your vote doesn’t matter, I still think people take notice when you speak out,” she said. “Even if you’re a lame duck or in a super minority, it moves the needle.”

After three terms in the minority, the needle did move back the other way, and Democrats currently hold a 16-5 majority. However that number will shrink as a result of a planned return to seven districts, which will limit parties to 14 seats. Thornton said she is not planning to run for town council in her new Tashua neighborhood. At least not yet.

“With 16 Democrats, and only 14 spots on the ballot (in 2021) it’s kind of like musical chairs,” she said. “Once you give up your chair, there’s not always another one open.”