It might seem unfair to the citizens of this worn-out jewel of New England's industrial past, but come Nov. 7, Waterbury voters could well determine the future conduct, not only of the Democratic Party, but of the war in Iraq.
Like it or not, Waterbury is emblematic of one side of the angry divide among Democrats all over the country -- anti-war versus pro-war; reformers versus regulars; upper-middle class versus blue collar. And if I'm right that the trailing insurgent and anti-war Democrat Ned Lamont will close the gap in his bitter contest with incumbent Sen. Joseph Lieberman between now and election day, the regular-party resistance to Lamont in the one-time "Brass City" will have much to do with the outcome.
As I toured Waterbury the other week, all the contradictions that afflict the former "popular" party -- the ones that have reduced it to a minority in Congress -- were in striking evidence. So too was the decay that has reduced huge sections of urban America from self-confident industrial health to a status you might call "just getting by."
As in dozens of mid-sized cities in the Northeast, Waterbury's magnificent civic edifices (including a replica of Siena's Torre del Mangia and a beautiful park) belie its dramatic decline as a wealthy manufacturing center. "Free trade" (as in low tariffs and cheap foreign labor) finally killed the brass and metal-plating businesses in the 1980s and the city, along with many of its beleaguered residents, exhibit the scars. I could find only one surviving brass plant, the Ansonia Copper and Brass tube-making operation on Bank Street, which employs all of 30 people, mostly to fill orders from the Navy.
At its height, brass employed 50,000 people in the Naugatuck Valley. Which is why it was fitting for the affable, roly-poly mayor of Waterbury, Michael Jarjura, to greet me in an office inside the Chase Building, former headquarters of one of the "big three" brass companies. The lovely Cass Gilbert-designed City Hall across Grand Street is in sorry disrepair, still open but awaiting a vote on a bond issue to fix it.
Jarjura is famously pro-Joe, one of a few name Democrats in the state to ignore Lamont's upset win in the Democratic primary and openly support Lieberman's now "independent" candidacy. I asked him why, when Joe was so closely identified with Bush's catastrophic Iraq policy (three people from Waterbury have died in Iraq), and had voted for every important piece of free-trade legislation that came along during the Clinton administration.
The mayor turned vague and talked about how Lieberman "hasn't really drifted too far from his Democratic principles," such as defending Social Security and opposing tax cuts for the wealthy. When I pressed Jarjura on Iraq and trade, he insisted, "you have to look at the total package," not just specific issues.
The total package includes "loyalty to a friend" -- Jarjura worked for Lieberman when Joe was the state's attorney general -- who "helped me with my political career." But the content is more complex than mere friendship. Without brass, Waterbury's leading employer has become Waterbury, which explains a lot about local politics. Jarjura told me the city employs 3,000 people -- after that come the two major hospitals at about 2,000 apiece.
Which makes Waterbury unhealthily reliant on the state and federal governments for survival, which in turn makes patronage politics central in deciding whom you back if you're the local party leader. Simply put, Jarjura believes that Lieberman, with 18 years in the Senate and lots of friends in the Bush White House, can deliver money to Waterbury faster and in bigger quantities than a freshman senator named Lamont, who owes Jarjura nothing. Indeed, the city is appealing the Federal Emergency Management Agency's denial of $2.75 million for flood-damaged roads (the city apparently tried to sneak in ordinary street repairs).
Jarjura was careful not to say anything so raw to a reporter. And he readily acknowledged the damage that "free trade" and Iraq have done to his city and state. Nevertheless he's "sticking with Joe," as the campaign signs proclaim. In the Democratic primary in August, Waterbury went about two to one for Lieberman. In this city of 110,000, with its roughly 24,000 registered Democrats, 7,000 Republicans and 19,500 "unaffiliateds," such a result bodes ill for Lamont in the general election. With the state and national Republican Party's abandonment of its official nominee, Alan Schlesinger, in favor of Lieberman, a minority of Democrats in places like Waterbury hold the balance of power.
Worse for Lamont, he can't even trust certain elected Democrats who say they're supporting him. "There are some [mayors] that . . . may show up and do a few things [for Lamont] but their heart may not be in it," Jarjura said. "But I'm not going to disclose their names." Surely not.
My quick trip around town found nothing to suggest much hope for Lamont. In the heavily Italian Town Plot neigborhood, the residents seemed less pro-Joe than pro mind your own business. At Aventura, a deli on America Street, I extracted only one survey answer. Joe Heneghan, a 53-year-old mechanic and two-time Bush voter, said he supported Lieberman for his "consistency."
"I don't know what Lamont brings to the table," he said. "He hasn't come up with a good plan to get out of Iraq."
But Heneghan, as his Irish name suggested, was new to Town Plot. The counter clerk, a true local, said she wasn't voting at all. "I'm just trying to survive in this country," she told me, before her very annoyed boss interrupted to tell me how busy she was.
Over in the black section of the North End, closer to downtown, the residents were much more talkative -- partly due to the festive, alcohol-fueled ambiance. Near a game of horseshoes in a grimy, beat-up park named for Martin Luther King Jr., Howard Roscoe III had no difficulty stating his intention to vote Lamont. For Roscoe, 50, the issue was clear: "My brothers and sisters are getting killed in Iraq; what does Bush think he's doing?"
However, my most telling encounters took place later that evening, uphill in the countrified reaches of the far North End. Mayor Jarjura had praised his constituents as "independent thinkers and independent doers" but that's not quite how I would describe the people who attended the Waterbury Democrat Town Committee dinner. The setting at the Villa Rosa Pontelandolfo Community Club was the party's $50-a-plate Annual Recognition Dinner. Except for Jarjura's Lebanese name, this was pure Italian-Democratic clubhouse politics, with some Irish thrown in for balance. Waterbury's shame is its recent string of corrupt politicians, from Mayor Joseph Santopietro in 1991 to another native son, former Gov. John Rowland, so an event to honor five unconvicted former office holders was, in its way, remarkable.
The 180 guests at the Ponte Club were mostly pro-Lieberman -- these were organization Democrats who had spent their lives paying political dues and playing ball with City Hall. One of my table-mates, a lawyer named Antony Casagrande, explained to me why he was backing Lieberman: "Seniority," he said with a big smile.
And the order of speakers told you everything you needed to know about party politics and the status of newcomers and anti-war reformers. On the program, 11th in line, at the very bottom of the list after 75th District State Rep. David Aldorando, came "Ned Lamont, Candidate for U.S. Senate." Not even "Democratic Party Nominee" Ned Lamont.
Lamont deserved credit just for showing up. There was no press but me (the Cold War-frozen Waterbury Republican-American refers to Lamont as "Red Ned" and ignored his presence), and the amateur politician from Greenwich gave a mercifully short and polite speech after the powers-that-be moved him up to sixth in the line-up. In spite of his patrician background and wealth, Lamont recalls a bit of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, especially in his voice, and I don't think the tepid applause was entirely cold.
Later, Lamont dutifully made the rounds of the pasta-laden tables, which wasn't so easy given the overt hostility of some in attendance. This anti-Lamont sentiment was neatly summed up by another of my table-mates, who said he objected to Lamont's "cut and run, left-wing (expletive)."
But not everyone was so tough in this very tough crowd. I had noticed a sympathetic-looking woman, Patti Delage, snapping pictures of Lamont with her father, the former tax collector and state Sen. Donald M. Rinaldi, who was one of the honorees. We started chatting and I asked an awkward question: Whom was Delage voting for in the Senate race?
She looked genuinely taken aback. "I don't know," was her reply. Well, how did Delage feel about Iraq? Would it influence her vote?
"I hate the war," she said, suddenly passionate. "Does that mean I should vote for Lamont?"
John R. MacArthur, a monthly contributor, is publisher of Harper's Magazine. This is an extra, pre-election column.
© 2006, Published by The Providence Journal Co.