A Tale of Two Mayors

North Branford, CT is a Town of 15,000; it is primarily a bedroom community, with most residents commuting to a different municipality (mostly New Haven) to work. New Haven is only nine miles down the road, though given how congested the roads are this journey takes far longer than it should. In November of 2019 residents of both New Haven and North Branford went to the polls to elect their local officials.

North Branford residents elected all nine members of their Town Council. All members are elected town-wide on the same-ballot; meaning that the nine candidates with the most votes win a seat on the Council…with one curious caveat that I’ll discuss shortly. Six of the nine seats on the Council were won by the Republicans. Meanwhile in New Haven, the Board of Aldermen (which is just a different term for Council) is elected from 28 different districts, called wards. The Democrats won all 28 elections for the New Haven Board of Aldermen.

While it may seem that the New Haven Democrats did a better job winning office than the North Branford Republicans, this isn’t really the case. In North Branford, no political party is allowed to hold more than two-thirds of the seats on any local board. What this means is that the North Branford Republicans couldn’t win more than six seats on the Council. Curiously, this means that if the Republicans nominated seven candidates for Council and one of their candidates finished in seventh place, he or she actually wouldn’t win- the spot would go to the highest placed Democrat instead. Which of course is why the Republicans (and the Democrats for that matter) only nominated six candidates each. New Haven has no such constraints, and thus the Democrats will have complete control of their Board of Aldermen.

New Haven and North Branford both have new mayors; Justin Elicker (a Democrat) in New Haven and Bob Viglione (a Republican) in North Branford. Mr. Elicker ran for the office of Mayor, actually defeating the incumbent Mayor, Toni Harp in the Democratic primary and then winning the General Election…against Ms. Harp, who earned the Working Families party nomination after losing the Democratic primary. Mr. Viglione on the other hand didn’t run for Mayor of North Branford at all; he ran for Town Council. North Branford doesn’t have a directly-elected mayor; rather, the Council candidate who wins the most votes is given the title of Mayor, though the only additional power is chairing meetings of the Council. Mr. Viglione is a highly-regarded local barber, and thus had the advantage of being able to work and campaign simultaneously.

Full disclosure: Mr. Viglione was my barber when I lived in North Branford.

The North Branford Town Council only meets every other week, and day-to-day administration is handled by an appointed Town Manager. There is certainly some work to do outside of formal Council meetings, but fortunately for Mr. Viglione’s loyal customers he still has plenty of time to cut-hair. Fortunate for Mr. Viglione as well, seeing as all elected officials in North Branford are unpaid. In contrast, per the Connecticut Post the Mayor of New Haven is paid around $130,000 a year, and is thus expected to devote all of their working hours (and then some) to the City’s business.

So, while North Branford and New Haven are quite close to each other geographically, their political systems are very different, though they are alike in one crucial aspect: they each have partisan elections. The vast majority of municipalities in the U.S. (though not in Connecticut) have non-partisan elections. This is illustrative of local politics nationwide; there is simply no consistency. The American states may differ wildly in terms of economics, demographics, culture, etc. but every state has a directly elected Governor, and every American state other than Nebraska has a two-chamber state legislature whose members are elected in partisan elections. There is simply a lot of diversity in how local government functions across the United States; a diversity that makes local government fascinating for the student of politics.