Jonathan L. Wharton (opinion): Politics an in-person sport

Some watch sports, others attend concerts, but I frequent council meetings. As a state and local government specialist, it’s a must for me to witness and be a part of the process. But I also attend local legislative sessions because they can be interesting and sometimes dramatic. With the pandemic subsiding and government meetings returning to in-person and often online (or hybrid), I thought it was overdue to return to a city hall meeting.

A Bridgeport council meeting was at the top of my list even though I have attended meetings there before and other shoreline municipalities, including New Haven. But New Haven’s alder meetings can be rather dull since officials limit public involvement. Some committee hearings and budgetary workshops can be more engaging, but they’re just not the same as a public speaking session when residents can discuss concerns before a legislative council for several minutes.

Attending these sessions before a council meeting is a must in Bridgeport and a few of my Bridgeport students mentioned I should visit city hall. In fact, a couple of weeks ago they came along with me as well as
Bridgeport Generation Now Votes co-directors
since they recently announced their
election platform.

I purposely arrive to council meetings early to observe and connect with officials, media and residents. Prior to entering Bridgeport’s council chambers, live piano playing greeted me, as politicos rehearsed a variety of songs. I still remember Councilman Ernie Newton belting out spirituals on the keyboard like it was Sunday morning.

My students arrived minutes later and just before the public speaking session started. At first, a few residents carried signs and then many more arrived with signage about former Councilwoman Eneida Martinez. It’s been a
political ordeal about Bridgeport’s East End council seat
since former Councilwoman Wanda Simmons defeated Martinez but stepped down due to health issues in November. Although Martinez has been considered for the council spot,
she faces a lawsuit
over her
permanently closed Keystone social club
Nyair Nixon was shot and killed
in 2020.

In November,
Nixon’s family and friends attended a council meeting
urging councilmembers to not vote for Martinez’s appointment to the council. They returned at this recent council meeting voicing their concerns about Martinez and how councilmembers remain silent on filling the seat.

No surprise, my students and I were stunned at the residents’ tactics including preventing the council to formally begin their legislative session. Over shouts and confrontation, the council suspended business for 30 minutes until Nixon supporters left the chambers.

Interestingly, a couple of mayoral candidates politicked around the council chambers before, during and after the episode. Both John Gomes and Lamond Daniels shook audience members’ hands as Mayor Joe Ganim watched from afar trying to lead the council meeting. A recently appointed councilwoman, the Rev. Sara Smith, also
submitted her resignation letter
concerned about her religious and nonprofit work conflicts.

Ultimately, Bridgeport’s council meetings remain melodramatic, especially during
election season. Since municipal seats are up for reelection this year, it should hardly be surprising that politicos and residents engage in various tactics as mayoral candidates try to out
fundraise one another.

But politics must go on, even towards the end of a pandemic. What better way to attend a council meeting than to do so in-person. I’ll remain an advocate for online hybrid options for public meetings and
I had an opportunity to write about it
with a journalism professor colleague. Partaking in legislative sessions can make the biggest difference and returning to a Bridgeport council meeting reminded me that democracy is not a spectator activity. It requires engagement and attendance, just like on Election Day.

Jonathan L. Wharton is associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

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