Mike DeRosa, Green Party of Connecticut and Mike Feinstein, Green Party of California
In her third run for First Selectman of Windham (population 24,000) Jean de Smet defied local political experts by winning the town’s top elected office, defeating the three-term incumbent Democrat Michael Paulhus 1637 votes to 1514, with Republican Harry Carboni finishing a distant third with 471.
In Connecticut the office of First Selectman is the chief executive and administrative officer for most towns with the selectmen-town meeting form of government, and in Windham the First Select man is thus responsible for managing the day-to-day operations of the town. Along with the ten members of the Board of Select man, the First Selectman also makes up the Town’s legislative body.
Because of the overly partisan nature of local elections in this highly Democratic town, de Smet (pronounced des May) joined independent dissident Democrats and Republicans in declining to list a party affiliation on the ballot. As a result, they became called the “Bottom Line Slate” because without a party affiliation, their names were all listed on the bottom of the ballot.
In an interview with the Green Party of Connecticut’s state newsletter Green Times, de Smet said her candidacy offered a “positive leadership” that emphasized “hope and working together.” The moving force behind a hugely successful series of inclusive and participatory street festivals in Windham (Willimantic’s 3rd Thursday Street Fests), de Smet’s activism led to rising expectations that the community could take back Windham from the “old boy network” that has run and ruined the town over the decades.
Her campaign emphasized sustainable economic development through supporting existing local businesses and historic preservation, while developing new, entrepreneurial startups, tourism and arts and entertainment in order to revitalize the town’s downtown, which has lost several important businesses over the last decade. She also advocated partnerships with the University of Connecticut and Eastern CT State University (ECSU) and, at her first post-election Board of Selectman meeting, suggested the ECSU’s Institute for Sustainable Energy as a logical place for the development of a “energy efficiency zone” in Windham.
In a town with a per capita income just under $17,000 and about 13% of local families below the poverty line, affordable housing was also a key campaign issue for de Smet. She was critical of the town’s proposed Main Street development project, which she argued followed the usual “gentrification” project approach that puts forward tax breaks to big developers while eliminating affordable housing.
De Smet also opposed the Zoning Board approval of the Cedarwoods project, which moved supportive housing as far as possible outside of the town’s downtown onto previously undeveloped land. After assuming office, she took advantage of a rarely used section of the town’s charter that allows the First Selectman to vote at town board and commission meetings, to provide a protest vote against the project.
Using her power of appointment to Windham’s commissions, advisory boards, and other committees de Smet promised to appoint more grassroots residents in order to build greater citizen participation and promote consensus in local government, including firmly establishing a fully-appointed Town Energy Commission for the first time. Hoping to turn Town Hall into a public service, one of the first things de Smet changed within City Hall after being sworn in was to ensure that the minutes of the Board of Selectman were published on the city’s web site.
A union Master Electrician for 28 years and two-term union officer with IBEW Local 35, de Smet will have to give up her job to assume the full time responsibilities as the town’s Chief Executive. She will have the distinction of being Windham’s last first selectman. At the same time she was elected, Windham’s voters approved a town manager/town council (with a mayor) form of government that will go into effect with the 2009 elections.
De Smet is the only Green among 11 selectman, while local Democrats have seven seats, but thus far they’ve worked with de Smet in her first few months in office.
The pejorative phrase “the quiet corner” has been often applied to northeast Connecticut by neglectful politicians and academics who have failed to address the regions true potential. After the election of Jean de Smet perhaps the northeast corner will be called “the activists’ corner.”