The National Conference of Mayors held their winter meeting here in Washington last week, and some of them were actually Republicans. But they were so few and far between that it was hard to find them, so this blogger staked out after their caucus meeting - the Republican Mayors and Local Officials (RMLO) - a subcaucus of the National Conference of Mayors - to track a few of them down and chat about the unique challenges that face a Republican mayor in an urban environment.

I caught up with a trio of Nutmeg State mayors, all elected to partisan offices, with the word “Republican” next to their name on the ballot in strongly Democratic-performing small industrial cities. (Some “Republican” mayors are elected in non-partisan elections, and therefore voters can suspend their disbelief and “forget” that they are voting for the GOP. All local elections in Connecticut are partisan, so these three mayors had to address their the Republican affiliation head on.)

First, Michael Pavia of Stamford, walked out. Pavia was elected to replace the Democrat who won a tight gubernatorial race in 2010, Gov. Dan Malloy. He was joined in a few minutes by Mayor Richard Moccia of Norwalk. Mid-conversation, they summoned their colleague, Mayor Jason McCoy of Vernon, a suburb of New Haven.

All three mayors were elected in towns with a significant Republican voter registration disadvantage. Considering the results of 2010, when Republicans went all out to try to retain the governor’s mansion and win back seats in Congress and still came up short, winning as Republicans in urban Connecticut is all the more impressive.

While they did have some explaining to do voters wary of Republicans generally, they said not being tied to the dominant party’s machinery could be liberating. Pavia of Stamford said being a Republican freed his hands to “take new initiatives” to “overcome problems” that might not have been feasible if he were part of the Democratic Party.  And, yes, going up against a bigger political force could be daunting, but as Moccia of Norwalk was quick to point out, sometimes figures in his own party could be pose more of an obstacle to governing than disgruntled Democrats.

Stamford and Norwalk are small industrial cities, so unions can be a factor. Moccia noted that in Connecticut unions tend to exercise their political muscle in national and statewide elections. If one of them made a move that particularly antagonized a specific union, that local could probably muster the political machine to take them out, but that is rarely the unions’ political focus.

As Republicans, they are not as indebted to union support for their election, although Republican mayors do enjoy some union local endorsements. Just as Pavia enjoys not being tied to the Democratic Party, this fact opens up options for governing that a union-backed Democrat might not have at their disposal. And with even the scion of a liberal icon like Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York gaining in public opinion for taking on unions, it is not a detriment to the electoral appeal of Republican mayors next door, in Connecticut.

Mayor McCoy told of how he works with and around what otherwise might be intransigent union demands in budget talks.  His city, Vernon, can trigger a citywide referendum to confirm its budget agreements.  McCoy has this tool: he can remind unions that their more extravagant budgetary demands simply can’t pass with Vernon’s citywide electorate.

These mayors also govern smaller cities that are not as heavy with minority voters as are most larger Northeastern cities who would almost never consider voting for a Republican, though both Pavia and Moccia were quick to brag about heavily minority precincts and wards in their burghs where they ran strong or won.

Even though Connecticut Republicans failed to win back any seats in Congress, when asked what a Republican take over of the U.S. House had in store for GOP mayors, Moccia said he was encouraged that the current crop of GOP leaders will be more “responsible and responsive;” more responsive to concerns of Northeastern Republicans, and more responsible, because previous Republican leaders had written off the whole region.  

If national Republicans are “more responsible and responsive” to Republican mayors like Moccia, Pavia and McCoy, they may be able to win back the ground they have lost in recent decades in the industrial Northeast.

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