Rather than ‘Polite Cooperation,’ a Genuine Commitment to Pluralistic, Democratic Society in Lyme

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To the Editor:

Now that the fog of municipal elections has cleared and the holidays passed, citizens and elected officials in Lyme have ample time to reflect upon the continued erosion of democracy in town and to decide whether to save it.

As a reminder, Lyme has not seen a competitive election for the Select Board since November 7, 2017. As I write these lines, that is 2250 days. You read that correctly: 2250 days without a competitive election for the leadership of the town! Instead, the members of the Select Board have chosen their successors through mid-term retirements, self-promotions, and appointments of people who were not formally elected to the Board. The Lyme DTC and RTC have been actively involved in this undemocratic process since 2015, especially though cross-endorsements of candidates and uncontested races. The result is that citizens do not choose their leaders in Lyme; the leaders choose themselves.

Take Kristina White (D), the Executive Director of the Lyme Land Trust. First Selectman David Lahm (R) and Second Selectman John Kiker (D) appointed her Third Selectwoman in 2022. Like them, she kept the position without a challenger in the 2023 election, albeit as a petitioning candidate, given state election rules that prohibit two Democrats from running against each other. In other words, White came to and remains on the Select Board without securing a single vote in an actual contest.

This egregious anti-democratic behavior has spread to the other boards in town. Last year, all board memberships were predetermined by the DTC and RTC in agreement. The only contested election was for a seat on the Region 18 Board of Education.

Yet despite this deliberate deterioration of democratic norms, each member of the Select Board justified and celebrated the practice in two interviews published in The Day on October 30 and November 9, respectively. It is those comments that I draw attention to now in the hopes of initiating a serious discussion of what will happen to democracy in Lyme.

For his part, John Kiker played an old tune like a broken record, contending that the lack of competition is “a reflection of the reality of life in a small town.” That is patently untrue, as ample small towns throughout Connecticut and even Lyme’s own history demonstrate. I would be happy to show him data, but that would necessitate Mr. Kiker engaging in public rather than avoiding me, so I will not hold my breath.

Kristina White opted for a more peculiar reaction, namely to boast. “I believe that the fact that there are uncontested races for positions in government is because the people of Lyme are pleased with the way it is being run,” she surmised, without providing any means to judge whether the vast majority of voters are satisfied, and seemingly unaware that it is the purpose of town committees to recruit candidates.

To put her “race” in perspective, Lyme has 1931 registered voters. Mr. Lahm kept First Selectman with 543 votes (28% of eligible voters) and Mr. Kiker kept Second with 562 votes (29%); that is, neither succeeded in culling even a third of the possible votes in town. Ms. White, for her part, kept Third with 178 votes—a mere 9% of the eligible voters in Lyme. Nine percent! My classes enroll more students than that every semester. One would think humility rather than hubris to be the appropriate response to such an impoverished endorsement, but denial is a powerful drug.

David Lahm’s case is arguably the most fascinating. In the October interview, his sole example of a vibrant democracy was a town meeting held in 2021—2021!—attended by 12% of the voting population. In November, he asserted that “democracy is alive and well” in Lyme simply because a rough third of those eligible came out to vote, albeit for uncontested races with one exception. In other words, his evidence was that the state held an Election Day. It’s an odd logic, indeed.

But let’s return to Lahm’s “victory.” He won First Selectman with nineteen votes fewer than Kiker won Second. How can Lahm earnestly represent the town knowing he did not win the majority of votes for leadership? And how could he ever challenge the will of his Democratic overseers on the Select Board? Perhaps we should refer to him, then, with an asterisk: David Lahm, First Selectman*.

This disparity in vote totals reveals precisely why the DTC and RTC need to manipulate elections to achieve the arrangements they wish to occur. Thanks to an engineered outcome, what is now clearly a Democratic town does not have a Democratic leader. But even more problematic, the arrangement in place guarantees that accountability falls by the wayside for both parties, as there are no checks and balances without loyal opposition.

If the Town of Lyme website is accurate, since the election Lahm has resigned both as chairman of the RTC and from the RTC itself. Kiker remains DTC chairman. The RTC currently lists only seven members (out of 458 registered Republicans in town), no chairperson, and the same person serving as secretary and treasurer. It is a sad state of affairs for a once proud party. Lahm may excuse this situation by “demographics being destiny,” as he said in The Day regarding the Republican loss on the Board of Education, but the key takeaway is that he will not assume responsibility for a failed job that was his to do.

The collapse of the Republican party in Lyme matters because it will hasten the erosion of democracy in town. I lament this loss, even as a progressive of strong convictions. As I have repeatedly argued in letters in this newspaper, my most ardent concern is for a robust democratic—small d—society and the flourishing of its values and ideals and practices, the most important of which are viable and honest elections. Viable, as in legitimate competitions in which voters have choices. Honest, as in truthful debate and an exchange of ideas rather than acerbically misleading or negative campaigns.

But viable and honest elections also require trust in those with whom we differ and disagree. And sadly, Lyme is caught up in the same gravitational pull of political divisiveness and separatism that threatens to rend asunder our national experiment in unity. Accordingly, I understand why certain people would prefer “polite cooperation” between the DTC and RTC in Lyme in order to avoid ugly electoral conflict. There is, however, another option besides acquiescence to or vilification of political opponents.

It is a genuine commitment to pluralistic, democratic society.

Its aspirational model is best borrowed from sports: opposing teams compete to win within a set of established rules and norms, yet nevertheless show respect for each other before, during, and after the contest. And the routine opportunity to foster a healthy democracy is precisely the promise of small towns. It is a shame that Lyme is failing to lead in this important endeavor.

There is an urgency for the restoration of democratic culture in Lyme, just as there is everywhere. Democracy, like all arts, requires practice. Solidarity warrants rehearsals. And given what might befall our nation in the aftermath of the 2024 election, we all need now to practice safeguarding democratic institutions and maintaining respect for differing political opinions and beliefs before it is too late.

Or let me try it another way. Many in Lyme readily proclaim their concern for the natural environment and dedicate time to its protection. But the democratic ecosystem is also rapidly eroding. It needs attention and care or it too will perish with untold consequences for those who live in its embrace. And each day that passes with neglect makes it more unlikely to survive.

2250 days and counting …