An unexpected and lively debate filled PAC 002 Tuesday evening when a talk delivered by two local candidates attracted the attention of local political figures, including Republican incumbent Mayor Sebastian Giuliano, who claimed he was not invited.
The scheduled speakers were two Democrats: Dan Drew, who is running for mayor of Middletown, and Visiting Assistant Professor of Government Mike Williams, a candidate for the fifth Congressional District of Connecticut.
Giuliano and the other surprise attendees challenged the speakers and turned what was intended to be a brief lecture and discussion into a debate that extended the event to nearly two hours.
The event was sponsored by Democracy Matters, a national non-partisan organization focused on reforming campaign finance and maintaining political accountability. Drew and Williams came to discuss the role of funding in both local and national political campaigns.
Drew opened the talk with an anecdote about one of his own experiences with finance fraud when he investigated the campaign contributions of a county sheriff.
“I ended up writing a newspaper article that went to print a couple of weeks before the election,” Drew said. “It blew up into a major controversy because it was very clear that this sheriff was funneling money inappropriately through a business and his campaign committee.”
Drew proposed a solution for campaign corruption in which candidates have access to funds provided by the public.
“Access to a public financing system would eliminate that incentive,” Drew said. “It makes the system healthier, and it makes the process of democracy much healthier.”
Williams took over for the second half of the lecture. He discussed a number of influences on his congressional race, including the complexity of financing laws in Connecticut in comparison to other states. Williams stressed that equal opportunity is vital for democracy to function.
“The system is ingrained to support those who have the most establishment in the system,” Williams said. “It is not ingrained to promote a difference of opinion.”
Williams expressed the importance of citizens’ participation in both local and national politics. In response, President of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Middletown Local 466 Jeff Daniels voiced his concern that even when citizens seek to be educated on politics, comprehensible information is hard to find, inaccessible, or deceitful altogether.
“[Politicians] don’t tell the truth about what’s going on out there,” he said. “[They] don’t do the things that should be done.”
Williams responded that many citizens only pay attention to the political perspectives they already support.
“You tune in to people who believe in your views,” he said. “We focus so much more on what divides us today than what unites us.”
Throughout his talk, Williams stressed his conviction that big money damages political campaigns.
“I think the amount of money in the system is really detrimental to staying in the race,” he said.
Giuliano countered this by recounting a recent local election in which several of the candidates had considerable wealth and still lost the race.
Although the event was intended to be nonpartisan, several of the Republican attendees expressed frustration that the speakers were both Democrats. They questioned Drew in a manner that resembled a political debate.
The speakers upheld the University policy to refrain from campaigning at this event on campus. One attendee asked Drew what makes him the best candidate for mayor, which he declined to answer. Nonetheless, partisan tensions lingered throughout the evening.
Despite heated discussion, the talk ended amicably, and attendees from across the political spectrum mingled together. After the event, members from both parties, including the Mayor, gathered at Dunkin’ Donuts on South Main Street.
Anwar Batte ’13 said that he found the event enlightening.
“I learned a lot about the way people think things should work on the local level,” he said. “[I also learned] how that translates to people’s participation in government on a higher level.”
President of the Wesleyan chapter of Democracy Matters Olivia Horton ’14, organized the event [full disclosure: Horton is News Editor for The Argus]. Horton admitted that although she had not advertised to members of the Middletown community, she was pleased with their contributions to the evening.
“I’m very glad that they were here,” she said. “I think they contributed a lot to the general discussion, and I’m glad we got a variety of viewpoints to bounce around ideas.”
Horton went on to say that the political dialogue on campus would benefit from a more diverse range of considerations.
“We need to encourage bipartisan discussion as much as possible,” she said. “Both sides need to communicate and cooperate if there’s ever going to be change.”