Two years ago, my son—a student at Lyme-Old Lyme Schools—attended a regional wrestling tournament, where he witnessed a remarkable act of ethical behavior. One of the matches featured two giants from rival high schools. Not long into their spirited contest, those colossal opponents collided in an unplanned way. They sent each other to the ground in pain. The breathless silence of alarm seized the crowd. Time ceased, uncannily, before the coaches and medical personnel could race to attend the injuries of the fallen. But in those frightening seconds of unease when so many bad decisions could have been made, the two young competitors mustered the mettle, composure, and respect for each other to share a fist bump in solidarity.
I ask that you keep that image in mind as you continue reading on.
In a series of letters to the editor of CT Examiner, I have made known my abiding concern about the escalating erosion of democracy in Lyme and the lack of viable and honest elections. Rather than reiterate the case here, I would request that readers examine those letters for a detailed explanation of the issue. The summary is that in five election cycles since 2015 and including the 2023 election, there has been only one competitive election in town for the Select Board, held in 2017. In the four other elections, the Select Board members chose 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 actively supported this anti-democratic process through cross-endorsements or by not running candidates and accordingly arranging uncontested races.
Predictably, this undemocratic practice has now spread to other boards. In the 2023 election, the Lyme DTC and RTC predetermined all board memberships, so that voters had no choice on the ballot. The only contest in town was for the Region 18 Board of Education.
Despite my numerous attempts to engage them in writing, the members of the Select Board have avoided any debate or discussion about this problem in public forums. The closest they came was an interview in this newspaper conducted by the daughter of the DTC Nominating Committee chair, and two interviews in The Day in October and November of last year. In the latter, John Kiker (the current Second Selectman and DTC chair) continued a talking point that David Lahm (the current First Selectman and now former RTC chair) and Steve Mattson (the former First Selectman and former DTC chair) introduced in LymeLine that such lack of elections is the “reality of life in a small town”—that is, presumably, a place in which few people run for office or volunteer for public service.
I will reserve commentary about the sheer falsity of that claim with an offer to provide copious data about political activism in small towns. Here, I would only note that honest elections require us to be honest about elections. And I would add that people generally do not become involved in civic affairs if they are made to toe a line that benefits only a handful of residents, including and especially the expectation for “polite cooperation” previously demanded by the DTC and RTC.
I say “previously,” because there is finally a sign of hope. On January 9th, the Lyme RTC held a caucus, the result of which was a revitalization of a rapidly declining membership, including with several new members. I want to express tremendous gratitude to all of them who stepped up at this precarious time. And I do so as a lifelong registered Democrat, a far-Left progressive, and a democratic socialist.
I am hopeful that a rejuvenated RTC may signal the return of competitive elections in Lyme—the very lifeblood of a healthy democracy. I am also hopeful because as a proponent of pluralistic democratic society, I believe strongly in the need for an allegiance with each other that encourages and protects differences of opinion and dissent. A robust democracy predicated on oppositional political perspectives not only assists each side reconcile with their blind spots, but it guarantees accountability in elected officials through checks and balances, a need for compromise, and opportunities to correct failures (or abuses) at the next election. In other words, legitimate democratic contests are the antidote both to a “polite cooperation” or an agreement that only benefits the few and to political combat and its rapacious reliance upon vilification, demonization, and misinformation.
The problem is that in our current political climate (and due to too many factors to unpack here), it is nearly impossible to achieve such democratic culture at the national and state levels, or even within larger municipalities. But such principled engagement—in which we regard politically disagreeing others as opponents but not enemies, rivals but not villains, and all as fellow human beings—is precisely the promise of small towns. It pains me to see Lyme fail the virtue of respectful competition.
I know there will be readers of this newspaper who will respond that Lyme is well governed. That is not the issue here. There are many places in the world that are “well governed” without a hint of democratic practices, the most important of which are viable and honest elections.
That said, let me also offer something I have not previously afforded: praise for First Selectman David Lahm, who finally stepped down from RTC chair. Whether a formal conflict of interest or not, it is highly questionable to have the governing representatives of the town—that is, the Select Board—also be chairs of the town committees, whose important job is to recruit partisan candidates to run for office. I hope that Mr. Kiker follows Mr. Lahm’s example and recognizes the wisdom of keeping those two positions separate, even as it would entail his yielding power to capable others.
Although I am arguing for regular contests to enjoy the genuine benefits of disagreement, I also know that as we cascade into the 2024 presidential election, we will all hear the siren song to side solely with our side—and to see all political opponents as the threat who must be conquered for there to be peace. I want to call attention to that profoundly unjust treatment of competitors, which we unfortunately caught a glimpse of in Lyme’s sole election last year.
To be clear, I am not trying to rehash 2023. I am expressing my concern, two years before the next municipal cycle, that if routine elections return to Lyme they not deteriorate into untoward negative campaigning and disinformation. Again, the democratic promise of small towns lies in their “thick networks”—the notion that the very person about whom you write a letter to the editor will be in line at the check-out in front of you the next day. Or behind you at the school pick-up, waiting for their kids whom they love with equal fervor as you do yours. Or rushing out of their homes to help you when the car accident erupts on their street. So let’s call a spade a spade: We failed in Lyme to uphold the obligation of community in the last election. But we can get it right in the future. We can model the democracy in town that we want to see thrive everywhere.
To do so requires a simple responsibility from the single most important civic role a person can undertake, that of citizen. As citizens, we must hold our own parties accountable to the democratic values we profess to uphold. And we must insist upon viable and honest elections, especially so in places where we can readily secure their fruition and success, namely in a small town.
That brings me back to those two teenagers—the future when we are all gone. Each of them entered the ring desirous of a victory for themselves and for their team. Each opposed the other and competed with a full commitment to win. But each also played within the rules and norms of a well-established contest, without deception or deceit. And when they both fell down together, each stopped before the collision went too far. And then each summoned the strength to show fidelity to a greater bond.
My son will never know their names. But in what I hope will be a very long and happy life, he will also never forget the good he saw arise that day.
Will he and all our children be able to say the same of the democracy we will leave to them in Lyme?
Editor’s Note: This is the opinion of Stephen Olbrys Gencarella of Lyme, Conn.