If — as Tip O’Neill said — all politics is local, then Westport was the center of last night’s political universe.
A “meet and mingle” event — co-sponsored by the Westport Moms and Westport Front Porch social media groups — drew several dozen candidates, and many more interested voters, to the Westport Country Playhouse.
The 4 first selectperson candidates (and 2 running mates) spoke. Board of Finance, Board of Ed, Planning and Zoning and Zoning Board of Appeals hopefuls introduced themselves. RTM candidates were there too.
This is a decidedly local election. Aquarion’s water towers, the Cribari/Bridge Street Bridge, Compo Beach, taxes, historic preservation — those and many other issues are on voters’ minds.
We all had a chance to ask questions, get answers, and assess the men and women seeking our votes.
We looked them in the eye, and they looked in ours.
Locally at least, “politics” is not a dirty word.
Author Jane Green — founder of Westport Front Porch — addresses the large Westport Country Playhouse crowd.
Facebook teems with local groups. With names like Westport Moms, Westport & Fairfield Parents and What Up Westport, they’re great places to ask questions, share tips and (virtually) hang out.
But Jane Green was tired of reading about strollers and nursery schools.
So a year and a half ago — hoping to shine a light on local businesses, events and goings-on of interest to an audience broader than just kids’ parents — she started Westport Front Porch.
The front page of Westport Front Porch.
It wasn’t like she had tons of time. She is that Jane Green — an internationally known novelist, TV/radio personality, chef/entertainer — but she was passionate about using social media to create community in her adopted hometown.
Westport Front Porch has over 3,800 members. Most of the posts, Green admits, are “anodyne.” Recent discussion topics included bat removal, orchards and TV installation.
Green monitored comments carefully. She did not want the “discord and drama” so often found online these days.
But moderating comments is time-consuming. Gradually she pulled back. Jerri Graham took over day-to-day operations of the Porch.
In between writing, being a mother, running a household — and appearing on TV — Jane Green finds time to run Westport Front Porch.
As election season approached, some Porchers posted about politicians. Green began monitoring comments closely again.
“It felt fine to have the type of political discussions neighbors might have once had on their front porch,” Green says.
“I thought, let’s open the Porch up. There are real political issues in towns — about traffic, pedestrian safety, water towers. Let’s have those conversations.”
She posted guidelines. Civility topped the list. “Call me Pollyanna,” says Green.
Throughout that first day, Green moderated the comments. She removed some. She tried to keep the group “safe and comfortable.”
That night, Green woke up at 2 a.m. She took a quick look on Facebook.
“It was a nightmare,” she recalls. “Threads had exploded. People were duking it out. Insults were flowing. It was absolutely inappropriate.”
She does not point fingers at any one political party. Supporters of Democratic, Republican, independent — probably Whig and Know-Nothing — candidates fired away.
Green closed the Porch to all political comments.
“I love Westport. I believe in this community,” Green says.
“But in this age, we’re all locked behind technology. We hide behind screens. It’s become too easy to be nasty, in a way we never would be face to face.”
Green adds, “These are contentious times. We’ve forgotten how to communicate politely, and how to connect. But as humans we long for connection.”
She feels badly that Westport Front Porch devolved into a politically toxic site overnight. She is sad that she had to cut off comments about important town issues.
But she has not given up.
Jerri Graham proposed a political meet-and-greet. Now she and Green have partnered with Megan Rutstein and Melissa Post — founders of the Westport Moms group — who had already planned a political candidates event for October 18 (Westport Country Playhouse, 7:30 p.m.).
Politics as it should be, Westport style: Republican First Selectman Jim Marpe and his challenger, Democrat Melissa Kane, enjoyed the “06880” party in July. Two others are running for first selectman: John Suggs and T.J. Eigen. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)
It’s a chance to talk with office-seekers, ask questions — and, presumably, do so in a polite, up-close-and-personal way. First selectman candidates will offer a few words; those for all other offices will be available to mix and mingle.
“Westport is a small town,” Green says. “We’re all friends and neighbors. But I’ve seen friends and neighbors no longer talking to each other.
“I’ll listen to anyone, so long as they talk about what they think is best for the town without blaming or shaming,” she says firmly. “If we come together for the greater good, and are willing to listen, great things can happen.”
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