Dems need to foster unity

Both sides must learn from history, bury the hatchet in wake of a heated primary

New Milford Democrats made it clear in Tuesday's town committee primary they want to change the direction of the party, which has struggled at the polls for the past decade.

Only 14 percent of the nearly 4,300 Democrats in town showed up for a runoff election between two slates of candidates -- the old guard team that went down to defeat in the Jan. 9 party caucus and the insurgent group that emerged victorious at the caucus after being nominated from the floor.

But those 600 Democrats left no doubt how they felt, as they swept all 35 members of the Democrats for Change slate onto the town committee.

Congratulations are in order for "change" leaders like prime mover Andrew Grossman and top vote-getters Peter Mullen, Mary Jane Lundgren, Walter Bayer and Bob Coppola, as well as the rest of the slate.

They worked hard, and they deserve credit for having made their case to fellow party members.

But now comes the hard part.

Now the Democratic Party needs to prove it is relevant again. It needs to show renewed vitality, a more energetic base and new ideas that will appeal to the broad spectrum of New Milford voters.

Now the Democratic Party needs to hold six-term incumbent Republican Mayor Pat Murphy and the GOP-dominated town boards and commissions accountable and keep them at the top of their games in a responsible and constructive manner, as is the job of the "out" party in American politics.

Now the Democrats need to restore a viable two-party system in New Milford, which would prove advantageous to the voters and to the future of the community.

The first order of business is for the Dems to come together under one big tent as an inclusive, unified party.

There has been no love lost between the two factions of the party for a long time, and both sides need to bury the hatchet if the new town committee is going to stand any chance of improving Democratic fortunes.

Longtime town committee chairman John Lillis, the face of the local Democratic Party for three decades, and the newcomer Grossman both waved the olive branch in the wake of Tuesday's primary.

But Lillis and his fellow ousted colleagues will need to swallow their pride and put party first, and Grossman and his teammates have to show some humility, sincerely reach out to the members of the losing slate and find a way to include them and utilize their talents and experience.

If the two sides do not do that, the local Democratic Party is doomed to continued second-class status.

Democratic leaders need to look no further than their own town to learn a lesson in lack of party unity.

Back in 2003, after Democratic Mayor Bob Gambino failed to win a primary runoff against Shelly Pruss, he chose to run as a write-in candidate in what became a three-way race ultimately won by Murphy.

Gambino and others then formed the New Milford First Party, which sapped strength from the Dems and contributed to the demise of the party over the past decade.

In a town where nearly half the voters are unaffilated, a little over 25 percent are Republicans and just under a quarter are Democrats, the Dems need to be as unified as possible.

A lesson can also be learned from Danbury Democrats, who in eerily similar circumstances in 2001 saw their party -- long dominant in the city -- unravel.

A heated mayoral primary race between party-endorsed Chris Setaro and challenger Tom Arconti split the party, hurt Setaro's chances in the November election and allowed Republican Mark Boughton to capture City Hall by a mere 138 votes.

The Danbury Democratic Party has yet to recover, and despite having 4,000 more registered voters than the GOP, the Dems haven't come close in a mayoral race since then.

To be fair, Pat Murphy and Mark Boughton have both been good mayors, and they have both deserved their re-elections.

But the splintering of the Democratic Party in New Milford in '03 and in Danbury in '01 has made it a lot easier for them to become longtime mayors.

If New Milford's new Democratic leaders hope to restore a viable two-party system in town, they need to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors -- and not repeat them.