On Nov. 5, the night of the Middletown mayoral election, the Hartford Courant announced that Democratic insurgent Ben Florsheim ’14 had defeated the three term Republican mayor Seb Giuliano. In the article, Giuliano’s campaign manager Nick Fazzino, was quoted saying that Wesleyan students had handed Florsheim the victory.
“It was Wesleyan,” Fazzino said to the Courant. “Otherwise, it would have been much closer. The Democrats got the kids out to vote.”
According to the Courant, the vote in District 9, which includes the Wesleyan campus, was 443 for Florsheim and 77 for Giuliano. Florsheim won the election by over 700 votes—throwing the validity of Giuliano’s claim into question, though Wesleyan students did contribute to the Florsheim campaign via volunteer work.
Because election data from the Office of the Secretary of State in Connecticut shows that the votes cast in Fayerweather did not sway the election in Florsheim’s favor, Wesleyan Democrats accused Fazzino and Giuliano’s campaign of trying to delegitimize Florsheim’s victory. Furthermore, the attribution of the election results to University students capped off weeks of discussions on campus and in the greater Middletown community about the legitimacy of Wesleyan students voting in municipal elections.
“I mean, initially the controversy was provoked by the Giuliano campaign putting out that it’s all the Wesleyan Democrats’ fault for the Republican mayoral candidate not winning, which is not true,” Maya Gomberg ’22, Board Member and Events Director of Wesleyan Democrats, said. “We did not push Ben Florsheim over the edge to his win—we made it a wider margin of victory—but we didn’t actually change the results whatsoever. So, just to get that out there, that’s just factually incorrect.”
Those who oppose students voting in Middletown’s elections—be they Republicans in town or left-leaning students on campus—argue that because Wesleyan students only live in the Middletown community for four years, they don’t have significant social investment in or understanding of the town’s needs and thus shouldn’t be telling residents how to conduct their local politics.
“The Wesleyan vote impacted it heavily, and it has in the past,” Fazzino said to The Argus two weeks after the election. “No disrespect to Wesleyan, no disrespect to the students, but when you come to this town, you impact a local election for citizens of this town who pay taxes and have to live here and have been here for all their lives, like myself.”
For Fazzino, the fact that Middletown residents pay taxes to the city while students don’t is the main reason why he believes it’s unfair for students to vote.
“My taxes—like a lot of other residents’—have been going up under Mayor Dan Drew, who also was carried by the Wesleyan vote,” Fazzino said. “It’s frustrating when you can’t do anything about it because of the impact on the elections that students have, as they basically dictate who is going to be the mayor…. I think this reflects the outcome of the voter turnout. I hear people say, ‘Oh, I’m not going to go vote because students decide who’s going to get elected so why does my vote matter?’”
Fazzino, however, explained that he would feel differently if Middletown Republicans were given the same chances to reach out to conservative-leaning students on campus, an advantage he believes is afforded to Democrats due to the historically liberal leanings of the University.
“If I can’t reach out to any Republican student groups or the University and get any kind of response, don’t tell me they can’t meet with me to help us get involved with organizing students,” Fazzino said. “Let us get involved, it’s only fair that way.”
Students, however, have responded to many of these arguments by commenting on their stake in the community, particularly regarding public services and the development of Main Street.
“On a more practical scale, Wesleyan students do have a stake in what goes on in Middletown,” WesDems member Bryan Chong ’21 said. “I think maybe—two of the examples I’m about to raise were not specific issues in this campaign—but stuff like who’s the Chief of Police and how the law is enforced in Middletown definitely has an effect on Wesleyan students. Stuff like public services, and the Middlesex Hospital, again, has to do with how the city allocates its budget.”
“Also, the development of the riverfront, in addition to the development of Main Street,” Gomberg added. “Main Street is enormously impacted by the way that the Mayor’s Office and the Common Council interact. And while I wish that we interacted more with the North End than other parts of Middletown, we interact most with Main Street, and that is still something that is very much impacted. Additionally, street cleaning, and all these totally normal things that we take for granted are very much impacted by the budget that the mayor gets to put forward. And that is also obviously impacted by the Common Council, both of which we would have to vote for.”
Other proponents of Wesleyan students voting have also pushed back against the suggestion that students should not participate in elections because of their transience in the community. Professor of Biology, Neuroscience, and Behavior and Chair of the Middletown Planning and Zoning Commission Stephen Devoto was active in the Florsheim campaign and is actively involved in Middletown politics.
“It’s preposterous that a certain type of resident in the town shouldn’t vote,” Devoto said. “It seems to be based on an assumption about people not living here or a certain group not caring enough about the city or don’t deserve to vote for some reason—both of which I think [are] false. If we said we have to know if you’re going to be living here in five years, how would we possibly go about that? Would it be to go knock on senior homes to ensure they will be living here and if not, say [they] can’t vote? Would it be go to the homes of residents here who live in Florida in winter, and say, ‘Sorry, you can’t vote here?’”
Devoto also highlighted that students should vote based on their knowledge of local issues, rather than solely in line with their partisan leanings. While Devoto, who also runs the Middletown Eye blog, campaigned for Florsheim this campaign, he penned an op-ed in The Argus around the time of the 2012 election urging students not to vote just Democratic because he viewed Giuliano as a more progressive candidate than his challenger Dan Drew.
“I do think it’s important for students to be aware of what the local issues are, and not just blindly vote Democrat because of how they feel about national politics,” Devoto said. “There are times when the Republican is more progressive than the Democrat, or a better fit for the town. So students should be informed, but it’s preposterous to say students shouldn’t vote because they aren’t here long enough or don’t own property. Some of the language of that—about property owners—[is] barely a step beyond only white people should vote, like poll taxes that we had in the Jim Crow era.”
Luke Goldstein can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kaye Dyja can be contacted at email@example.com.