After decades in public office, from city council member to state representative to mayor, Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom said his favorite method of campaigning is door knocking.
“Sometimes, while knocking on doors, you discover a need that you wouldn’t have heard about otherwise,” said Nystrom, recalling a meeting with a resident who invited him into his house to see dramatic water damage from flash flooding in Norwich this summer.
In 2017, Nystrom was elected with 57 percent of the vote.
This year, Nystrom is running for a third term in office. The Republican incumbent is facing off against Democrat Mark Bettencourt, who serves as Norwich City Council President Pro Tempore and lost to Nystrom in the 2009 mayoral race.
Nystrom said that he campaigned door to door in his first city council race in 1979, and is now in his nineteenth run for office. This year, he started going door to door in mid-August, with an aim to visit every resident in town, even though a knee replacement makes walking up stairs a bit more of a challenge.
Going door to door in the Nordon Village neighborhood on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, Nystrom said this part of town has a special place in his heart.
“I was a state representative for 18 years representing this side of Norwich, so there was a time when I knew every family here,” Nystrom said.
According to Nystrom, Norwich has lost thousands of longtime residents due to the pandemic, with 4,000 people laid off overnight at the casinos alone, and many families have chosen to move elsewhere.
Nystrom also faces language barriers with many who open their doors, a result of changing population demographics with many Asian immigrants moving to town to work in the casinos, he said. According to the United States Census Bureau, Norwich’s Asian-born population has increased by more than 60 percent in the last five years.
A few residents who opened the door to Nystrom did not speak English, and he handed them campaign materials and continued on to the next house.
“The voter is the customer, so when they don’t speak English, I’m the one deficient, because I’m not able to communicate with them,” Nystrom said. “I’ve thought about getting campaign materials in other languages, but there are dozens of different languages spoken at home in Norwich, and I wouldn’t want to leave anybody out.”
While Nystrom said most of the conversations tend to relate to what’s happening in town, some voters are curious about his perspective on national issues. One resident asked him if, as a Republican, he thought last November’s election was stolen.
“I said, no, the election is over, and he lost,” Nystrom said. “I’ve lost two elections, and when you lose, you pick yourself up and get out of office. I don’t think national issues should matter in local elections, but how I felt about the election results mattered to her.”
Mark Adams, who is running for Norwich City Council and knocked on doors alongside Nystrom, said he’s constantly impressed with how close Nystrom is to so many families in town.
“He remembers past conversations, and kids’ names, and who lives in what house,” Adams said. “It’s overwhelming how in touch he is with the people of this city.”
Some conversations are not even particularly related to his work as mayor, serving more as opportunities for old friends to catch up.
Stopping by the home of resident Jan Stewart, Nystrom stood at the door for twenty minutes, asking about her husband’s recent hospital stay, her grandson’s autism, and her upcoming 65th wedding anniversary.
The two discussed food drives and other initiatives taking place at the local level. Stewart shared that as she can no longer drive, she has relied on transportation services from the senior center and has been less able to participate in community events.
“I just haven’t been able to do as much as I used to, but that’s okay, I’ll let Peter and the younger generation take over,” Stewart said.
“Thank you for calling me young!” quipped Nystrom.
Nystrom said he worked closely with Stewart when she served as senior citizen director while he was in the state legislature.
“There are hundreds of families that I consider extended family in this town,” Nystrom said. “They’ve stood by me for decades.”