My view of Afghanistan today from 32,000 feet.

                                   Column By John Murray

    Afghanistan, Selma, Waterbury….

   Thoughts are weaving and swirling inside my skull, and I’m beginning to sweat. I think about war and skirmishes and people standing up to power and demanding change. I see Afghanistan, I hear Selma, and I’m headed back to Waterbury to continue pushing for change in municipal government.

    I’m onboard a Turkish Airlines flight from Bangkok to Istanbul, and peer down upon a vast landscape of snow and mountains 32,000 feet above Afghanistan. The view is mesmerizing, haunting, heart breaking.

    I think about American blood and treasure lost in these mountains fighting Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. I wonder where the war began, and where the war ended in this vast wilderness. I’m coming home after a five-week exploration of Thailand, and my thoughts are of family and friends, and unfinished journalism projects.

    Earlier this morning I lay in a hotel bed in Bangkok and listened to President Barack Obama deliver a brilliant speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama. It was the event that directly led to President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Voting Act in 1965, a piece of legislation that Waterbury is currently wrestling with as it draws district lines for implementing aldermen by district in November. Although a strange collision inside my head, Afghanistan, Selma and Waterbury are all linked by the word democracy, and our ongoing struggle to get it right.

   Locally, a moment of truth has arrived in the process of electing aldermen by district, but at the moment implementation efforts are clouded by legal threats, charges of racism, and an old school political ploy by the daily newspaper in town to sock the initiative in the eye, and send the entire process back to square one.

   The people of Waterbury overwhelmingly voted last November for an historic change in city government. This was democracy in action. The people lined up at the polling place and peacefully demanded change. Electing aldermen by district wrestles power away from the political parties and returns it to the neighborhoods, where voters can hold their district representatives accountable. This is good government.

   Few political insiders thought the ballot initiative had a chance of passing in November, and the Republican-American newspaper tried to nuke the concept with misinformation and a bombastic editorial. But the voters of Waterbury gave aldermen by district the thumbs up by more than 2000 votes. Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary described the event as “one of the most historic votes in Waterbury history.”

   Pure democracy, it’s what our soldiers have fought and died protecting for the past 240 years.

   In the days following the vote O’Leary said, “the people have spoken and we’re going to give them exactly what they asked for. This is our legacy and we are going to do this right.”

It’s time for Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary to protect his legacy and make sure aldermen by district is in place for the next municipal election.

   Three months after speaking those words the O’Leary legacy is on the line as the process bogs down in rhetoric, and political gamesmanship by the Republican-American. The daily newspaper has suggested on its editorial page that the city consider holding a referendum before the next municipal election to recall alderman by district.

   That’s bullshit. The paper misfired last November with an aggressive effort to torpedo aldermen by district, attempted to inflame the process before it got started in December, and is now trying to push the reset button.

   Here is my suggestion – it’s time for Neil O’Leary to clamp his hands around the process and shove it across the finish line. It’s the mayor’s legacy on the line, not the shrill editorial writers at the Rep-Am newspaper. After O’Leary kick-started the process in November and December by overseeing the creation of an eight-member District Commission, and the hiring of an expert demographer and outside legal counsel, the mayor has intentionally remained out of the fray. He said he wanted the process to be apolitical to avoid any appearance of favoritism to incumbents.

   While O’Leary’s low-key strategy is commendable, what’s needed now is leadership to make sure the people’s will is honored.

   Any talk of a referendum to recall aldermen by district can justifiably be perceived as a “Hail Mary” attempt to keep municipal government status quo. News flash – the referendum was held last November – it’s called an election, and the people’s will should be respected.

   If the historic vote is hurled back into a referendum, the O’Leary legacy will be stained. In effect the Republican-American newspaper is suggesting that Neil O’Leary pick up a 15-pound salmon and slap it across the face of 9000 voters. For democracy to work, our elected officials have to follow the will of the people. Mayor O’Leary is a forceful man with no shortage of leadership chops. Waterbury needs the mayor to do the right thing, right now.  Words spoken by the mayor in November ring loudly in my ears, “My legacy is on the line.”

   Yes it is. And Mayor O’Leary should protect the fine legacy he is building by flexing his considerable political muscle to ensure aldermen by district is implemented for the November election. It is the right thing to do. It’s democracy, it’s what we do in America.

   So where is the process now?

   The Board of Aldermen is expected to vote Monday night, March 9th, on one of two draft plans that advanced out of the District Commission at the end of January. The first plan was crafted by Dr. Peter Morrison, a national expert on demographics with decades of experience drawing district lines and protecting his work in court. Morrison was hired by the city to create five voting districts, which after the November municipal election, will be represented by three aldermen each.

   When Morrison appeared before the District Commission in early December, the first 30 minutes of his presentation were focused on the 1965 Voter Registration Act, and how his work would be affected by federal law protecting black and Hispanic populations (both of which had been screwed over for decades).

   Morrison said any attempt to water down the voting power of either federally protected minority group could result in lawsuits, and millions of dollars in litigation fees if the district lines were challenged. Morrison began his work by closely examining census data and researching where minorities lived in Waterbury (which also happened to be the neighborhoods in the city with just one of the 15 aldermen). His first draft plan presented to the District Commission in early January reflected his work on crafting two inner city districts that maximized voting power for the black and Hispanic populations, and paid scant attention to the other three districts as he needed feedback from the public and the District Commission to better understand Waterbury’s neighborhoods.

   Morrison told the Waterbury Observer the day before he presented his first draft that his plan was still very raw, but he was confident that his work on the two inner city districts would stand up to any court challenge. By the time Morrison arrived in Waterbury to unveil his rough draft, there was a lynch mob waiting for him. His quick attempt to draw temporary district lines in the three outlying districts appeared to favor three powerful Democrat aldermen in Bunker Hill, and carved up historically intact neighborhoods like a crazed Halloween pumpkin. Two days before unveiling the map at the District Commission, the map was posted on the city website, and the Republican-American newspaper wrote an inflammatory article about an attempt to protect incumbent democrats. WATR radio exploded with angry callers and by the time Morrison arrived in Waterbury the hornets were swirling, and he was unaware he had whacked a hornet’s nest.

   The public uncoiled a boatload of anger and frustration on Dr. Morrison, and he calmly sat in aldermanic chambers for two hours and listened to Waterbury residents dump on him, and implored him to keep neighborhoods intact as much as possible. There were dozens of speakers; black, white and Hispanic, but the only individual who spoke in favor of the map as drawn was Jimmie Griffin, an activist in the African-American community. Griffin liked the fact that one of the inner city districts gave the local black community the maximum influence that Dr. Morrison could create. Griffin showed little interest in the fact that Bunker Hill neighborhood was cleaved in two and had been merged with portions of the East End. His lone focus was on obtaining the maximum voting influence for the black community.

   State Representative Larry Butler, who is African-American, was more interested in neighborhoods and not confusing voters by shifting district lines. Butler suggested Dr. Morrison draw up a new map based off the five state representative districts created in 2000. “This can be very simple,” Butler said, “ we already had five districts in place and the voters are familiar with this.”

   Butler’s idea gained traction during the meeting and speaker after speaker asked Morrison to draw up a new map using what they referred to as the “Butler Plan.” Morrison agreed, and said he had heard the public and the District Commissioners loud and clear – they wanted neighborhoods kept intact, and they wanted the plan to be as close to the Butler Plan as possible.

Dr. Peter Morrison, right, talks with Jimmie Griffin, left, and State Rep. Larry Butler, middle.

   When Morrison returned with his second map at the next District Commission meeting, his effort received a warmer response. He had kept almost all the neighborhoods intact, but had been forced to include Bouley Manor in the Downtown District  to keep the percentage of black voters as high as possible.

   Morrison explained that in keeping the neighborhoods intact the voting strength of both the black and Hispanic voters had been slightly diluted, but that the plan was defensible in court, and said he believed Waterbury wouldn’t have any legal issues with it. More than a two dozen speakers spoke at the second District Commission meeting, and the only real concern was that Bouley Manor should somehow be restored in the East End. Several leaders in the black community spoke in favor of the new plan, or the Butler Plan, and seemed unconcerned about the minor dilution of black voter strength in the downtown district. Everyone in the room was united behind the concept of neighborhoods in Waterbury, except Jimmie Griffin, who resisted any dilution of black voter influence, and said a lawsuit would be filed if the maximum percentage was not part of the final plan.

   When the District Commission voted in late January on what plan to send to the Board of Aldermen they deadlocked 4-4. Half the commission voted for Dr. Morrison’s second plan that was based off Larry Butler’s suggestions, and the other half of the commission voted for Larry Butler’s plan. The difference between the two plans was that Butler’s kept neighborhoods more intact, but had slightly less minority voter influence in both the black and Hispanic districts. Dr. Morrison strongly warned the District Commission that if they ignored his plan they would be opening the city to a legal challenge.

   After the deadlock Mayor O’Leary made a public statement that if the Board of Aldermen ignored the Morrison Plan, and approved the Butler Plan, he would veto the legislation. O’Leary said it was imperative the city heed Morrison‘s warnings about a possible lawsuit, that win or lose, could cost the city millions of dollars.

   The only person talking about lawsuits is Jimmie Griffin, and he has been slinging racist allegations against O’Leary and the City of Waterbury for several years. Griffin was one of a small group of men that formed the Coalition For Better Government in January 1994 that called for the election of aldermen by district. Griffin has been an outspoken leader for two decades in a crusade to change the way Waterbury elects its aldermen, but during those 20 years Jimmie Griffin has morphed into a polarizing individual who has lost most of his supporters.

Jimmie Griffin deserves a lot of credit for igniting the conversation about aldermen by district, but in the past 20 years the conversation has shifted, and Griffin has not changed his approach.

   Griffin’s calls for the Justice Department to investigate Waterbury government have gone unheeded for 20 years. Griffin has called Waterbury the “most racist city in America”, and repeatedly uses words like “plantation”, “house nigger” and “field nigger” when describing Waterbury, and members of the local black community. Griffin has been the president of the local NAACP, and the chairman of the NAACP in Connecticut, but his lifetime NAACP membership has been suspended for several years. Griffin said his suspension was unjustified and all he did was criticize members of the NAACP on social media.

   Griffin’s efforts to elect aldermen by district in Waterbury failed year after year because his message was based on race. He talked about systemic racism in Waterbury and how the black community had been excluded from power. Although Griffin made some good points, it wasn’t until the alderman by district concept was presented as empowering every neighborhood in the city that it gained traction. Griffin was not the front man for the movement last year, and was in Arizona peering into the Grand Canyon when Waterbury finally passed the initiative in November.

    Griffin wanted to be on the District Commission, and when he was not selected he began hurling insults at O’Leary and the process on social media. He wrote letters and demanded to know what process was used to select the eight commissioners. He said the process was fixed, and again called Waterbury “the most racist city in America”, and filed a complaint with the Freedom of Information Commission when the O’Leary administration ignored his requests for paperwork.

   During a recent public hearing held by the Board of Aldermen about electing aldermen by district, Griffin criticized both plans being considered by the board. Griffin said neither plan gave black voters the maximum voting power that Dr. Morrison’s rough draft did, and he threatened legal action. Several other speakers got up to address the board, spoke from notes, and all said the same thing – they wanted maximum voting influence for the black community.

   Griffin wants the process sent back to the District Commission and a new map drawn that would provide the black community maximum influence.

   I have always liked Jimmie Griffin, but have not always agreed with the words he uses to promote change. His style is agitation, and it can be damaging and divisive. I agree with Jimmie that blacks and Hispanics have been victims of the political process in Waterbury, but from my observations it’s been more about power and control than racism. While listening to President Obama in Selma earlier this morning I was struck by his use of the word “we”. Obama was trying to bring people closer together, to continue the healing process, to make the country stronger.

   And that’s what I hope is allowed to happen in Waterbury. I’ve heard black, white and Hispanics all talking about shared neighborhood concerns, and a shared vision for the city. This issue is not about race, it’s about accountability and empowering the people of Waterbury. All the people.

   So that’s where we are in the process, and the stage is set for the Board of Aldermen to take action tomorrow night. What are they going to do? I’m not sure, but the board is filled with decent, hard working individuals who I hope do the following…..

   1) Ignore Jimmie Griffin’s threats of legal action and do what’s best for all of Waterbury. Jimmie does not speak for the black community, most of whom are more interested in preserving neighborhood identity than gaining one or two percentage points of influence in the downtown district.

   2) Ignore any suggestion of referendum and move forward with the swift implementation of electing aldermen by district in November

   3) Vote 15-0 in favor of Dr. Morrison’s plan that gives the city the legal footing to implement aldermen by district immediately, and successfully defend any legal challenge

   As my flight zooms towards Istanbul I conclude this essay with three words that I believe are inescapably linked together with the concept of democracy.

   Afghanistan, Selma, Waterbury.