When New Haveners like Ann Robinson produced a 20,000-plus victory margin Tuesday to elect Connecticut’s next governor, they weren’t thinking as much about Ned Lamont. They were thinking about Donald Trump.
And in Robinson’s case, about Greenville, N.C.
Robinson remembered that the first time she ever voted, back in 1954 in Greenville, she had to take a literacy test before she could cast her ballot.
Over six decades later, the 84-year-old Dixwell resident joined a New Haven blue wave and proudly voted for this year’s slate of Democratic Party candidates in Tuesday’s mid-term election.
Final tallies were still not available mid-Wednesday for New Haven’s vote. But based on results reported from the polling places by dozens of New Haven Independent volunteers, the city gave Democrat Lamont well more than a 20,500-vote margin over Republican Bob Stefanowski. That was by far the largest victory margin in any Connecticut community. It was also thousands of votes more than the Elm City produced for Lamont’s predecessor, Dannel P. Malloy, in the two elections he won with the help of New Haven’s Democrats more than any other group. From Newhallville’s 20th Ward to East Rock’s 10th, the party piled up more votes than in the successful last gubernatorial election four years ago.
A day spent with voters like Robinson and with vote-pullers like Varick Memorial AME Zion Church pastor Kelcy Steele made it clear that they were on a mission.
They voted not necessarily because they love this slate of Democratic candidates, headed by a Greenwich businessman and a former secretary of the state from Middletown, but because of their commitment to their right to vote, and because of their disgust and fear of Republican President Donald Trump’s divisive politics.
When Steele came to Robinson’s Newhallville door on his rounds Tuesday morning, she had already voted. The way he’d hoped.
Robinson explained Tuesday that her party-line vote came not necessarily from enthusiasm for Lamont or for his running mate, Susan Bysiewicz. Instead, her contribution to what she hoped would be a “Blue Wave” in Connecticut and beyond came from the civic imperative to exercise a right that so many African-Americans of her generation fought tirelessly to secure, to rebuke Republican Party efforts to suppress minority votes, and to strip this country’s political discourse of some of its most vile and violent rhetoric.
“I absolutely want the Democrats to win,” she said from her Dixwell Avenue house’s living room after she had returned from voting on Tuesday morning. “Because we very much need more love, more civility, more consideration, more holding onto and preservation of our democratic way of life.”
“We Can’t Sleep This Time”
Hours before he met up with Robinson for a brief voting rights history lesson and a respite from the rain, Steele helped rally the city’s Democratic Party base at a 9 a.m. get-out-the-vote rally at Trinity Temple Church of God at 285 Dixwell Ave.
The rally, organized by the local labor union UNITE HERE and the affiliated labor advocacy group New Haven Rising, brought out around 100 predominantly black New Haveners to pair up and get out the vote for Lamont and Bysiewicz in Dixwell and Newhallville.
Steele, who heads one of the city’s largest congregations at Varick Memorial AME Zion Church on Dixwell Avenue, has worked closely with UNITE HERE and New Haven Rising over the past few months in support for the Lamont campaign.
“How many of you are feeling a blue wave today?” Steele asked the crowd in Trinity’s sanctuary.
He then offered a prayer for the candidates and the canvassers.
“We thank you that you have allowed us to be beneficiaries of this civic duty,” he said. “We have the obligation to let the people know that we take for granted voting. God, we ask you even now to move upon our minds and cause us to realize the seriousness of the matter. That people died, they were beaten, they were bitten, they were dehydrated, they were put in prison, they were shot, just for the right to vote. And here we are, we are activists, we are organizers, we are hitting the streets, letting them know that our voice is our vote.”
New Haven State Rep. Toni Walker then told the vote pullers that New Haven had to do its part to prevent a repeat of Republican wins at state and national levels in 2016.
“I know two years ago, we kind of slept the election,” she said. “We can’t sleep this time.”
UNITE HERE organizer Stephanie Greenlea asked the attendees to shout out reasons why they had shown up to get out the vote, and why they believed that this year’s election is critical for Democratic turnout.
“Make a change!” someone shouted.
“Bring truth back to our country!”
Click on the Facebook Live video to watch the full Trinity Temple pep rally.
“We’re Gonna Win This Today”
Wearing clear plastic ponchos over red-white-and-blue Ned Lamont T-shirts, the canvassers paired off to hit their respective turfs, instructed to make sure that voters on their lists hit the polls before 8 p.m. today.
Steele then donned a checkered newsboy cap, hopped in his Mercedes, turned on a steady stream of gospel music, and drove to four nearby polling locations to check in on voter turnout thus far.
At Lincoln-Bassett School in Newhallville, he learned that 517 votes had been cast by 10 a.m. He said UNITE HERE’s end-of-day goal for the District 20 polling place was 1,165. (Final machine number: 1,184.)
As he exited the elementary school polling place, he was pulled into a big hug by an elderly woman on her way to cast her vote.
“Your my niece’s favorite,” the woman said with a smile.
“We’re gonna win this today,” Steele said, flashing a thumbs up.
At District 21’s polling place at King Robinson Inter-District Magnet School at 150 Fournier Street, Steele learned that 195 votes had been cast by 10 a.m.
At District 22’s polling place at Wexler-Grant School at 55 Foote St., Steele found that 425 votes had been cast thus far.
He also found longtime Varick deaconess Laura Mason, who didn’t let him leave without taking a slice of homemade coconut cake.
And at District 19’s polling place at Celentano School at 400 Canner St., Steele learned that 509 votes had been cast by 10 a.m.
“You look familiar,” he said with a smile to Jaidyn Gambrell, sitting outside with her hood up alongside a table full of Democratic Party campaign literature.
Gambrell said that that’s because she’s a regular at Varick: she and her aunt attend the 11:30 a.m. Sunday services. (Varick, which turned 200 this year, hosts three separate hour-long services every Sunday morning.)
“The numbers are looking good,” he told Hill Alder and Lamont campaign staffer Dave Reyes over the phone as he drove back to his church on Dixwell Avenue.
Oprah Said It
After a brief pit stop in Varick’s basement meeting area, Steele talked with vote pullers and church regulars not just about the election, but about Varick’s weekly Bible study and about tips for losing weight and managing diabetes. Steele and UNITE HERE vote puller Myles White did some get-out-the-vote door knocking on Dixwell Avenue between Munson Street and Argyle Street.
After three unanswered house visits, Steele and White finally got a response from Robinson and her son George. They were invited in to the Robinson’s living room, where they rested their feet and got an enthusiastic civics lesson from the octogenarian voter.
Robinson told Steele and White that she was born in North Carolina in 1934, that her father was known as the “old man of the Civil Rights movement” by Greenville contemporaries, and that she had proudly voted at 8 a.m. that morning to uphold her family’s legacy of fighting for voting rights for African Americans.
“I vote because, as Oprah said in Georgia, there are so many of my ancestors who paid a very dear price to have a right to vote,” she said.
She said that she still remembers a time when African Americans were lynched in this country. She said that she has “seen Jim Crow.” She and her contemporaries, she said, have long seen the right to vote as a way out of this country’s long history of segregation, discrimination, and racial violence against African Americans.
“I love democracy,” she said. “I want us to be free.” She said that exercising her right to vote “touches the core of my soul.”
Steele thanked her with a warm handshake and an invitation to the speak at his church sometime soon about her history fighting for and living through the Civil Rights movement.
“Voting is your voice,” he said. “Our ancestors paid a lot for it.”
Trump On The Ballot
As voters left the Wexler-Grant polling place on Tuesday afternoon, the history and vulnerability of civil rights and voting rights weren’t the only topics on their minds.
Front and center was also Number 45, President Donald Trump.
“To vote against Trump,” Florestine Taylor said when asked why she had come to the polls on Tuesday. “He’s disgusting. He’s taken this country to an all-time low. He’s doing everything he can to undo what Obama accomplished.” She said that Trump’s $1.5 trillion tax cut helped the super rich and not working people.
“He is a racist,” she said.
As for the Democrats on the ballot, she said that she somewhat begrudgingly voted for Ned Lamont, even though she supported Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim in the primary and was intrigued by the candidacy of unaffiliated gubernatorial contender Oz Griebel. The latter’s latest poll numbers, she said, were just too low for her to justify voting for a third-party candidate who likely wouldn’t win.
She said that the three most important issues to her are wealth disparity, climate change, and mass incarceration. She said she doesn’t see Republicans at the local, state, or national level doing anything to address those three concerns.
“I don’t feel like the person in the White House represents us well,” said Crystal Gooding.
Standing by her side, Brauna Gorin said that she came to the polls on Tuesday for one word: “Change.”
Plus, she said, she hopes that electing Democrats will “get us back to a dialogue.” She said she likes New Jersey U.S. Sen. Cory Booker and Connecticut U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, but shrugged at the Democratic candidates for governor and lieutenant governor.
Yale junior and Naugatuck native Alexis Coney said that the first election that she could participate in was in 2016, when Trump defeated former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and became president.
In the intervening two years, she said, she has been inspired by the swell of political activism among students, women, immigrants, and other sections of the Democratic base.
“It’s kind of inspiring seeing your peers advocate for a blue wave,” she said.
Outside Conte/West Hills School at 511 Chapel St. in Wooster Square, David Stuckey said that he voted for Ned Lamont because he likes the Democratic candidate’s economic platform, and because Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski doesn’t give him a “secure feeling.”
He said he was particularly enthusiastic to vote in this mid-term election.
“I think this is an election everyone should vote in,” he said. “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
Cherissse Simmons also said that she cast her vote for Lamont on Tuesday, not necessarily because of her love for the candidate, but because of her fear of what Stefanowski would do if elected governor.
“He’s a Democrat,” she said about Lamont. “He’s for the people. I vote for anyone that’s for the people and not Republican. And the other guy, he’s trying to take away Social Security, food stamps, housing, stuff like that, that the poor people can’t afford.”
Robert Storr, who teaches painting and sculpture at Yale, articulated his support for Lamont more succinctly.
When asked why he voted Democratic, Storr replied: “Mr. Trump.”
“His racism,” he said about why the current president motivated him to vote. “His immigration policy, his taxation and the fact that he’s a straight out liar. He’s trying to break this country up.”
Many voters leaving Lincoln-Bassett School were similarly motivated to hit the polls because of deep-seated concerns about the Republican president.
“We’ve got a president who doesn’t care about anybody,” said Carl Harris, a 72-year-old retired school security guard and Navy veteran who moved from North Carolina to New Haven in the 1960s.
“I’ve never seen a president like Trump.”
He said that he grew up attending racially segregated schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and that the thinly veiled racism of the current administration and of Republicans throughout the country brings him right back to the Jim Crow South of the 1940s and 1950s.
“Don’t bring something back that’s gonna remind me of that,” he said.
“We need a new president,” agreed Lee Granger, a Newhallville machinist. “We’re serious. We need change.”
Granger said that, even though Trump is not technically on the ballot, he hopes that high Democratic turnout on Tuesday will send a clear message to the administration that the American people will not tolerate his divisiveness.
First Time Out
State mental health counselor Peter Cox and his mother, Dolores Caul, hit the polls together for the first time on Tuesday.
“The dividedness of this country,” Cox said about why the mother-son pair came out to the polling place together. “We have to bring this country together.”
Julia McFadden said she voted on Tuesday “for better hope.”
And Monica Ellis, a retired Board of Education (BOE) accountant, said she voted for Lamont as “the lesser of two evils.”
But, she said, even though she is not enamored with either of the two candidates for governor, she felt it her civic duty to exercise her right to vote.
“People died,” she said. “A lot of stuff took place for me to be able to vote.”
Molly Montgomery contributed to this report.