As published in the Record Journal Saturday November 10, 2012
By Laurie Rich Salerno
WALLINGFORD - Democrat Mary Mushinsky is poised to tie for longest-serving state representative in the records of the Connecticut State Library.
If she completes the two-year term in the 85th District that she was elected to Tuesday, she will have served in the house for 34 years — as long as Richard O. Belden, a Republican who represented Shelton from 1975 until his death in 2007 at age 73. The library’s database goes back to 1849 for House members.
“I don’t go looking that stuff up, but I know I’ve been there a long time,” Mushinsky, 60, said last week after being told about the record.
“It’s interesting; I never would’ve thought it — I didn’t get into politics intentionally,” said Mushinsky, a former activist who one day decided she might make more of an impact as a legislator.
Apparently a town of steady habits, Wallingford has a couple more high profile, longtime incumbents in 28 year state Rep. Mary Fritz, 74, a fellow Democrat who also won re-election in her 90th District this week, and Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr., 64, the Republican who has been in power for 31 years and is the second-longest serving mayor in the state now in the role. Prospect’s Mayor Bob Chatfield, who was first elected in 1978, is the only mayor now in office who has served longer.
The analysts and those involved in town politics who were interviewed say they don’t think the interest in reelecting incumbents necessarily has to do with the community; rather, it’s the strength of the candidates themselves.
“If they do a good job, and people like the job they’re doing, they’ll get re-elected,” said Republican Town Chairman Bob Prentice, whose two Republican candidates, Greg Bachand and Guy Darter, were beaten Tuesday by Mushinsky and Fritz. “Most people like what the two Marys are doing. I don’t always agree with what they do — but I’ve only got one vote.”
His counterpart, Democratic Town Chairman Vincent Avallone, credited Fritz and Mushinsky’s repeated wins to their hard work in office.
“They’re just what representatives should be. They’re in touch with their constituents, they return phone calls — they help to solve problems and they’re sincere,” he said. About Dickinson and the Republican majority on the Town Council, he said, “It’s been very hard to defeat the mayor — he has a coattail effect.” But Avallone said he believes his party is strengthening in local elections.
Sacred Heart University government and politics professor Gary Rose, who lives in Cheshire, said incumbents often have an advantage on Election Day.
“Once these people get in office ... and they have their staffs up in Hartford, they know who all the voters are,” Rose said. “They are almost like little machines. They really are part of the community — they know exactly how to work the community.”
Though there’s an inherent advantage, Rose, too, credits the work and attitude of individual politicians with their own career longevity. As for why these politicians, despite their success, would not seek higher office, he said these people tend to believe the adage that all politics is local and would like to stay where they are.
“The people that run for higher office tend to be of a different type of ilk — more money, higher aspirations,” Rose said, whereas long-term incumbents find themselves with seniority and clout in the legislature. “It’s a gamble when you start to do that.”
Fritz said she never sought to move up because she liked the close contact with her constituents as a state representative and wanted to be around for her family.
“It’s because I really like what I do — and because it’s a (population) of about 22,000. I’m not that far removed from them. And at the same time, we raised six children ...” Fritz said.
Mushinsky, who has two sons with her husband, Martin J. Waters, said she has been asked, but the timing to run for a higher role was never right for her family.
“If you lose ... and you don’t have something else lined up and you’re not independently wealthy — and I’m not — it’s a big gamble,” Mushinsky said. “I think that what I work at now is what I’m good at.”
As for new blood bringing fresh ideas, something Bachand hammered away at in his campaign, the incumbents interviewed said their years of experience were invaluable.
“Experience is important. Government is becoming ever more complex, experience does play a role,” Dickinson said. “Having a feel for what’s needed, what the laws provide, what changes in law may be having an effect.”