In the discourse around accomplished alumni of Wesleyan, Ben Florsheim ’14 is rarely left out of the conversation. Elected as Mayor of Middletown in 2019 at the age of 27, he ran a strong grassroots campaign with the support of the Wesleyan Democrats, which bolstered his margin of victory—he beat his opponent 443 to 77 votes at the Wesleyan polling site. He is described as “the youngest mayor in Middletown’s history, and Connecticut’s first Democratic millennial mayor” by Wesleyan’s own magazine.
Alicia Hernandez Strong ’18, if successful in her bid as a progressive challenger to become the next Mayor of New Britain this year, would become the first mayor of color to serve there and would match Florsheim’s achievement as the youngest mayor in her city’s history. Beyond Strong’s identity as an Afro-Puerto Rican woman, a key difference between Strong and Florsheim is that Strong is a Connecticut born-and-raised, working class candidate. While Florsheim hails from Utah and was able to kickstart his campaign with over $50,000 of his own money, Strong is from New Britain and is relying on small-dollar donations to fuel a movement-building campaign for even more ambitious progress. While Florsheim campaigned on establishing a civilian review board, Strong goes further; she calls for scaling back the New Britain police budget and putting the money towards underfunded public schools.
Another key difference between the two is that Florsheim has history and experience working “in the system” as a politician, having left his job as aide to Senator Chris Murphy to run for mayor and having served in Wesleyan Democrats leadership as a student. Strong, on the other hand, comes from a decidedly outsider background. Co-founding the grassroots New Britain Racial Justice Coalition last year, she has helped lead campaigns against the current administration to take down a Christopher Columbus statue, establish a civilian review board, and provide more funding to public education. Her qualifications are also bolstered by her tenure as the youngest person nationally to be named the executive director of the Connecticut chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Consequently, Strong was chosen to speak at the Connecticut Women’s March in Hartford in January 2019.
This article’s point is not to discern whether Strong or Florsheim is the better candidate. But as we seek to center people of color and especially women of color in the work of social justice, we must see past their surface differences and contextualize them in the factors enabling their relative and potential successes. Wesleyan has historically admitted few working class, Connecticut born-and-raised students, which is no doubt related to the lack of active recruiting and advertising even in its surrounding towns. We should interrogate the fact that more white people than people of color have passed through Wesleyan to become successful politicians. More of them have been from across the country than from Wesleyan’s neighboring towns and communities, and many have earned supportive fan bases in the Wesleyan student body along the way. Understanding this context means that we owe it to Strong—and hopefully many who will follow in her footsteps—to boldly support local, progressive, and working class alumnae of color for office.
View Alicia’s website and platform here.
Donate to Alicia’s campaign here.
Sign up to volunteer with the campaign here.
Bryan Chong is a member of the Class of 2021, was a volunteer on Ben Florsheim’s mayoral campaign, and is a current volunteer for Alicia Hernandez Strong’s mayoral campaign. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Emily McEvoy is a member of the Class of 2022, a Middletown resident, and a coordinator for WesNEAT, the student group partner of the local grassroots nonprofit, the North End Action Team. She can be reached at email@example.com.