Woog's World: Comparing Westport's political landscape to its national counterpart

On the national scene, politics is in turmoil. Four years of a tear-the-country-apart presidential administration has been followed not by a return to normal, but by ongoing claims that the president was not legitimately elected. Fully 70 percent of Republicans, pollsters say, believe that to be true, despite no shred of supporting evidence. Meanwhile, across the land, state legislators debate — and pass — bills restricting access to the ballot box, on no basis beyond repeated lies.

Razor-thin margins in both houses of Congress — plus arcane rules, gerrymandered districts, and partisan state legislatures mirroring the national scene — helped create a political landscape that resembles a war zone. Neither side trusts the other. No one talks across the aisle. So the gulf widens, rather than narrows.

Hartford is a bit better than Washington. There are divides, for sure — blue versus red, urban versus suburban versus rural, the rest of the state versus Fairfield County — but our legislature is not gridlocked. Action is taken. Things get done. And though only one of Westport’s four representatives, Tony Hwang, is a Republican, he often joins Will Haskell, Jonathan Steinberg and Stephanie Thomas to discuss, advocate for and solve issues affecting this area. (It’s a diverse one, including the city of Norwalk.)

But even state politics can seem like a cage match, compared to Westport. Earlier this month, the Representative Town Meeting passed the town and Board of Education budgets with barely a peep. Our mill rate has stayed remarkably steady for years, without charges that we either spend too much or skimp on essential services. Our Board of Selectmen — two Republicans, one Democrat, in a town in which Democratic voters substantially outnumber Republicans — works harmoniously, with people who seem to genuinely like each other.

What’s going on here?

It was not always this way. In the 1950s, Republicans ran the show. First Selectman Herb Baldwin’s “kitchen cabinet” met upstairs at what was then the Clam Box restaurant (now Shearwater Coffee and Ignazio’s Pizza), where they decided how Westport would run. That helps explains how the town purchased a failing private club called Longshore, and turned it into the first municipally owned “country club” in the country, in just 19 days. That’s right: In less than three weeks, every town board from zoning to finance approved a then-eye-popping $1.925 million purchase.

Old Yankee Republicans responded to changing times. As postwar baby boom families flooded into Westport — changing its makeup dramatically — town fathers appropriated funds for several new schools: Coleytown Elementary and Junior High, Burr Farms and Hillspoint Elementary, Long Lots Junior High. They also approved the move of Staples High School from Riverside Avenue (now Saugatuck Elementary) to a modern campus on North Avenue.

Compromises were made, of course. Construction was done as cheaply as possible. The 2010s mold problem at Coleytown Middle dates back to 1965; $400,000 saved by not burying Staples’ heating pipes deeply enough cost many times that over the next five decades.

The ‘60s and ‘70s were fraught with political disputes. Some mirrored national events. A brutal battle over Project Concern — a program to bring Bridgeport youngsters into the Westport schools — led to a recall campaign against Board of Education chairman Joan Schine. Every year, the school budget came under intense attack. The Taxpayers Party, and its second incarnation, the Tax Watchers, combed through every proposal, line by line. Caricatures were drawn — “greedy” teachers versus “anti-education” residents — and bitter feelings lingered for years.

Even the non-partisan RTM waded into battle. A 17 to 15 vote in 1969 urging President Nixon to withdraw from Vietnam drew national headlines, and a raucous town debate over the role of our governing body, past, present and future.

That future is now. Nationally, politics are white-hot. No issue — from climate change, vaccines and judgeships to transgender athletes, Dr. Seuss and the First Lady’s doctorate — is too big or too small for debate.

Meanwhile, here in Westport, we have not had a knock-down, drag-out fight in years. Sure, we’ve had issues — apartments and affordable housing, for example — and more loom on the horizon (don’t forget the Cribari Bridge!).

But somehow, some way, we get things done. A Democratic town has elected Republican first and second selectmen twice in a row, and may will do so again in November. Democrats control town boards, and — though Planning and Zoning has had some turmoil — generally play well in the sandbox with their Republican colleagues.

Have we done something right to create such comity, in the midst of what is a national black comedy? Have we merely been lucky? Is Westport that different from the rest of the country, and if so, can we teach everyone else how to behave?

I have no idea. But I keep my fingers crossed. It’s nice while it lasts, for sure.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.