Midterm elections as a rule do not inspire much interest or excitement. The majority of the recent party primary contests in Connecticut adhered to this rule, but two were noticeable exceptions. In both, race or class unexpectedly showed up.
Race was an issue in the three-way Republican contest for lieutenant governor between former GrotonMayor Heather Somers, state Rep. Penny Bacchiochi and former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker. There were two dramatic incidents; the accusation (later retracted) that Walker had made racist comments alluding to Bacchiochi's interracial marriage to a Nigerian and Bacchiochi's firing of a black campaign consultant, Regina V. Ross Roundtree, because of her Facebook post about "white privilege" in reference to candidate Heather Somers. Ms. Roundtree's firing received extensive coverage and discussion on social media.
To some it was shocking and certainly curious that racial bias allegations (later recanted) and the notion of racial privilege emerged prominently in a Republican primary in which the field of candidates was not racially diverse and the percentage of non-white voters in the primary was predictably small. The vote was close, but the final count favored Somers. It is difficult to determine whether the racial drama made a difference, but it sure did come as a surprise.
Class showed up in the closely watched Democratic primary in the 2nd Senatorial district. This was the first district to elect an African American — Boce W. Barlow Jr., a son of Southern black migrants to Connecticut during the era of the migration from south to north — to the Connecticut state Senate. Sen. Eric Coleman's campaign was able to bolster his incumbency advantage to ward off the challenge from his strongest opponent, Shawn Wooden, in what was also a three-way race. The other contender, former Windsor Town Councilman Lenworth Walker, was unable to mount a strong challenge.
Coleman's campaign focused in part on whether he or Wooden, both members of the state's small black professional upper class, could best serve the political and economic interests of the majority non-white, lower- and working-class constituency in Hartford's North End. Coleman's campaign benefited from a characterization of Wooden as the elitist, insensitive to the interests of the district. Wooden's initial support of the Hartford mayor's deal with the New Britain Rock Cats, which included the construction of a new minor league baseball stadium in proximity to the North End, motivated the characterization.
The irony is that both candidates could be characterized as elite because of their accomplishments. This would be lauded in other contexts by the very same North End constituents. Wooden, born and raised in the North End of Hartford, is a successful attorney and partner at the prestigious firm Day Pitney. He attended area schools, Trinity College and New York University law school. Coleman, born in New Haven, attended the private Pomfret School,Columbia University and UConn law school.
Class played a role in this race, but in the end, Coleman won an 11th term not because of the North End constituency, which Wooden carried. Coleman won because of his constituents in the comparatively more affluent parts of his district, Bloomfield and Windsor.
What does this all mean? Race and class add to the complexity of elections. Certainly there are other issues involved in electoral decisions. But in U.S. politics, race and class are like the guests a host should prepare for in case they come to the party, because it is uncertain as to how they will show up and what will happen if they do.
Walton Brown-Foster is a professor at Central Connecticut State University, where she teaches in the Department of Political Science and the African American Studies program.