Democrats swept to victories Tuesday in Waterbury, New Britain, Middletown and Milford as well-organized candidates pounded away on local issues and got their voters to the polls in the state’s big cities.
In Middletown, Democrat Dan Drew defeated incumbent Republican Sebastian Giuliano in an upset in a city that has been embroiled recently in the politics of the police department.
In New Britain, state Rep. Timothy O’Brien, a Democrat, defeated Republican Mark Bernacki for mayor after veteran Republican Tim Stewart decided not to seek re-election.
Three prominent Democratic mayors — Pedro Segarra of Hartford, John DeStefano of New Haven and Bill Finch of Bridgeport — all won re-election Tuesday night.
In a bare-knuckle Waterbury slugfest, former police chief Neil M. O’Leary defeated longtime Mayor Michael Jarjura in a bitter election that was not as close as expected. In a city known for its rough-and-tumble politics, the Jarjura-O’Leary race turned into a mudfest of charges, countercharges and accusations.
One of the key factors in the race was the switch by Jarjura, a longtime Democrat, to the Republican Party after it became clear that he would not get the Democratic nomination.
“There’s an inherent danger in switching parties in a local race like this,’’ said Democrat Duby McDowell, who supported O’Leary. “People who had worked on Jarjura’s campaigns are now working for O’Leary. They’re Democrats.’’
Less than 25 minutes after the polls closed, journalists and O’Leary supporters started reporting an O’Leary victory. By 8:40 p.m., Jarjura had arrived at O’Leary’s headquarters and was congratulating him.
O’Leary had gained wide recognition as a crime fighter in the city, and he was thrust into the spotlight when he contradicted statements by then-state Senate Republican leader Louis DeLuca regarding alleged abuse of DeLuca’s granddaughter. O’Leary maintained that DeLuca had never reported abuse to him, despite DeLuca’s public statements that he had.
In his race for the city’s top job, O’Leary obtained key endorsements from Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the Waterbury Republican-American, the city’s best-known newspaper. Malloy arrived at O’Leary’s headquarters for the celebration that included Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy of Cheshire, and House Speaker Christopher Donovan of Meriden, who is running in 2012 for Murphy’s seat in Congress.
Malloy’s senior adviser, Roy Occhiogrosso, said Malloy had worked for a series of victorious candidates.
“The governor campaigned for them, worked for them,’’ Occhiogrosso said. “It’s a good night for Democrats and a good night for Governor Malloy. Give Governor Malloy the credit he deserves.’’
A key problem for Jarjura was that he clearly ruffled some feathers in his hometown last year when he ran at various times for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and, finally, state comptroller. That gave voters the impression he wanted to be anything but the mayor of Waterbury. He disputed that notion as he shook hands with voters Tuesday outside a polling place.
“At the end of the day, people know the hard work I’ve done for the city of Waterbury,’’ Jarjura said.
His opponents “couldn’t refute the record of 10 balanced budgets and restoring the city’s finances,’’ he said. “There’s no aspect of this city that has not been improved.’’
After serving as mayor for the past 10 years and winning five elections to the state legislature before that, Jarjura said the latest campaign was “one of the ugliest’’ of his career. He noted that Waterbury’s unemployment rate of 14 percent is “still obviously unacceptable,’’ but he said it was an improvement from the 16 percent rate one year ago.
Outside of Waterbury, Jarjura was known largely as the colorful mayor who lost a Democratic primary in 2005 and then won an improbable write-in campaign by handing out a huge number of pencils. With no line on the ballot, he still pulled off the victory — a rare feat in politics.
The third candidate in the three-way race was Lawrence DePillo, a well-known independent in the city who was running for mayor for the fifth time. DePillo ran unsuccessfully in 1999 against Republican Phil Giordano, who went to prison following sex charges with minors.
Democrat Ben Blake won in Milford in a three-way race as the party captured the mayor’s office for the first time in two decades after the Republican incumbent declined to seek re-election. Democrats also scored solid victories in New London, Manchester, Chester, and Southbury. They also did well in Weston, Bethel and Fairfield – three places where Republicans have traditional strength.
In Hartford, Segarra essentially won the race months ago when his chief opponent, Shawn Wooden, stepped out of the campaign after Malloy — one of Hartford’s newest residents who now lives in the governor’s mansion — intervened. Instead, Wooden ran for the city council and paved the way for Segarra’s victory. Segarra, 52, took over at city hall after Mayor Eddie Perez was found guilty of five felony counts following a long-running corruption investigation regarding improvements to his home near the University of Hartford.
In New Haven, longtime mayor DeStefano won in a race that was closer than expected with about 55 percent of the vote - after previously winning a crowded primary in September. DeStefano, 56, has served as New Haven’s mayor since January 1994 and is a former gubernatorial candidate who lost to Republican M. Jodi Rell in 2006.
In Bridgeport, former state senator and multi-term mayor Finch was headed toward victory in a three-way race in the general election after pulling off a primary victory earlier this year. Democrats have a major advantage over Republicans with a 10-1 voter registration ratio, which has allowed Democrats to control the mayor’s office for the past two decades. The last Republican to hold the office was Mary Moran, who won a surprising victory in 1989 and served one term before losing in 1991 to Democrat Joseph Ganim, who later went to federal prison on corruption charges. Finch, 55, defeated Republican Rick Torres, who had been endorsed by U.S. Senate candidate Linda McMahon, who clearly ranks among the best-known Republicans in Fairfield County. Independent Jeff Kohut came in third.
In Shelton, veteran Republican Mayor Mark Lauretti won in a solid victory, despite a federal corruption case in the community. A Shelton developer, James Botti, was sentenced to six years in prison in the federal corruption case, but Lauretti was never charged in the case.
Around the state, officials were concerned that voter turnout would be low in towns hit the hardest by the pre-Halloween storm. In Simsbury, many homeowners still did not have power throughout the day on Tuesday, and polling places were consolidated to a single site at the Henry James Memorial School near the center of town. Longtime incumbent Mary Glassman, a Democrat, won re-election.
Statewide, officials were seeing relatively “normal turnout’’ for an off-year, municipal election, meaning that overall turnout could be 30 percent, said Av Harris, a spokesman for Secretary of the State Denise Merrill. But he stressed that turnout would vary widely from town to town, depending on the intensity of the races.