From Canvass to Campaign

Since the Great Recession erupted, the Republican Party has wrested trifecta control over the majority of state governments in the country. This rightward power shift is not limited to the heartland. In Connecticut, the Democratic supermajorities that used to dominate both legislative chambers have been reduced to a razor-thin margin in the House and an even tie with the GOP in the Senate, while popular support for the outgoing Democratic governor has hit rock bottom. This dramatic political change has occurred during a long budgetary crisis. While Republicans seek to eliminate public-sector union rights, many Democrats remain in thrall to austerity and refuse to confront the real crisis afflicting Connecticut: Our state consistently ranks not only among the most affluent in the country but also among the most unequal.

What can democratic socialists do to change this situation? Like many budding chapters, Central Connecticut DSA was born during the membership surge after the 2016 presidential election. Early on, we recognized the need to articulate an alternative vision that challenged the prevailing neoliberal consensus. This means advocacy for robust unionism, public investment, wealth redistribution, and racial and gender equity.

One of our first major efforts was an issue-based canvassing project through the Working Families Party. (Connecticut is one of the few states with fusion voting, which allows candidates to receive cross-endorsement from multiple parties.) DSA members and our allies collected 500 signatures on a petition demanding that state legislators reject spending cuts and public worker layoffs and instead tax the rich. Although politicians and the media typically dismissed or denounced this agenda, local residents endorsed it overwhelmingly.

Support for our agenda was especially strong in Wallingford, a working-class town with high union density that voted for Barack Obama in two presidential elections before giving the edge to Donald Trump and Republican State Representative Craig Fishbein. In his first term, Fishbein has distinguished himself as one of the most reactionary lawmakers in Connecticut. He has sponsored legislation undermining unions and restricting abortion access. This past spring he was one of just four representatives to vote against a pay equity bill and the lone opponent to a bill reversing the police procedure that mandated the arrest of victims in domestic violence incidents along with their aggressors.

As a result of our positive discussions with residents in the district, we decided to challenge Fishbein. Two of our members, Charles Decker and Justin Farmer, had just been elected to municipal council positions in the region. Now we aim for state office. In February, DSAer Dan Fontaine, who resides with his family in Fishbein’s district, launched his campaign.

Fontaine’s campaign for the 90th House District expects to receive Democratic and WFP endorsements and has already generated remarkable energy. We have continued to refine our agenda by asking for support from voters using a survey to discuss core issues, including progressive tax reform, paid family and medical leave, a $15-per-hour minimum wage, and tuition-free state college. Fontaine has received hundreds of small donations from residents on their own doorsteps, thereby qualifying handily for public financing. We are also constructing a labor committee composed of numerous activist unions in an effort to involve a diversity of rank-and-file members from across the area.

Although our short-term goal for this effort remains the defeat of an incumbent with a shameful record, we hope to create a local political organization that is built to last. With a candidate and core campaign team consisting almost entirely of DSA members, this project offers the opportunity to vastly improve individual skills and chapter capacity—not to mention a chance to recruit new members. We are developing and honing relations with unions and community organizations for the first time. Most important, we are strategically mobilizing thousands of residents to advance a program for equality and justice. ϖ