Justin Farmer’s distinct silhouette, with his square-rimmed glasses and hair sticking out of a large pair of headphones, appeared on campaign signs in Hamden during the fall 2017 election season – political advertisements unlike the countless blue and red starred signs typical of other candidates.
This fresh image showcased one of the new perspectives brought to local politics by young people, among them Southern students Justin Farmer, Tyrell Brown and Tim Bristol.
Farmer, a 23-year old Democrat, is a self-proclaimed activist who ran unopposed for the town’s Legislative Council in the 5th District.
Brown, 20, a Republican, ran in 2017 as an alternate for the Planning and Zoning Commission of Middletown, and is now running for the Connecticut General Assembly in the 100th House District.
Tim Bristol, 31, a political science major also involved in local politics, ran as a Democrat for the Shelton Board of Aldermen in 2017.
The three Southern students have made headlines as young faces in local politics.
Activism through politics
Farmer says being an unconventional candidate for local office allows him the ability to speak to people he can relate with, such as people of color and young people.
Hamden’s 5th District covers Newhallville as well as Whitneyville, the area of Hamden that runs along New Haven’s border. Farmer says that this area has grown a lot over the last 10 years, and with this growth, there has been some emerging issues, like gentrification.
Seeing how gentrification works while growing up on this border made him think about running. Farmer describes his childhood as maneuvering between his home life, in an area he says struggles with crime, drugs and systemic poverty, to going to Hamden for school, in a small town that did not face the same issues.
“I felt a lot of the times I had like this ‘Pleasantville’ type, small-town vibe,” he says, “half of the time going to school [in Hamden] and doing certain things, the other half was where I lived, and that didn’t sit right with me. So, that’s why I ran.”
Farmer says his goal as a councilman and as a member in local government, is to be both smart politically and to also act as a compassionate activist.
One of the most valuable lessons Farmer says he learned about local politics is that you do not have to have a ton of money or connections, and that those things should not limit people wanting to get involved.
Taking classes in the Political Science Department and focusing on local politics gave him the tools to analyze his environment, Farmer says. He plans to incorporate political science in his Interdisciplinary Studies degree.
The headphones on Farmer’s campaign posters are more than a stylistic choice. They reduce noise and function as a deterrent to ambient noises that may distract Farmer and can irritate his Tourette’s syndrome, a neurological disorder that can cause involuntary tics or vocal tics. The signs were designed by Southern alum and friend, Alisha Martindale.
In truth, Farmer said it was not what he wanted. He had imagined some sort of tree with his slogan as “Farmer for Fifth: Planting the seeds of change so we can grow together.” But, he says, people seemed to like his sign anyway.
Transitioning to state politics
After a successful bid for the Middletown Planning and Zoning Commission, senior, business major Tyrell Brown now has his sights set on the the 100th District seat in the Connecticut State House.
“I just heard to myself, ‘run,’ ” says Brown, “and I didn’t really have to think what was there to run for. Fortuitously, I knew that I was supposed to run for the 100.”
The seat is held by State Rep. Matthew Lesser, a Democrat, who held the seat for the last five terms. Lesser’s term expires in November 2018 and he is now running for State Senate. Running for the House was something Brown considered a few years ago, but instead ran in 2017 for alternate in the Planning and Zoning Commission.
Some people asked him while running for the local board if he thought he was too young.
But Brown says, “If that really played a role, we wouldn’t be in this situation we’re in, because we have all these old polished politicians who are really just throwing the state down the drain.”
He anticipates his youth coming up again. But, Brown says if someone has the desire to help people they should just be able to get involved whenever they feel like it.
Aside from his age he thinks his financial planning and business background will provide a fresh take in Hartford, and help the state move in the right direction amid financial crises. After having experience running, he says he thinks he will have more fun this time around and will need to get a new pair of shoes for all the walking he will be doing to canvas for his new campaign.
A changing tide
Students are not the only ones from Southern finding their way on local ballots. Southern faculty also hold elected positions. Jay Moran, Southern’s director of athletics, is the mayor of Manchester.
Moran says although he would hope more good people get involved, sometimes it is not always the case, and he advises students to get involved for the “right reasons.”
“It’s really rewarding, yet can be ugly,” he says of politics.
Moran got involved as a tribute to his community, who supported his family during their darkest days, when his daughter was diagnosed with Hurler syndrome, a rare genetic disorder. Before his daughter’s death, he says the town was able to accommodate her at school, making a big positive impact on his family during the stressful time. Because of this, Moran says he became a huge community advocate in many ways.
“We can all give back,” Moran said.
Some students at Southern choose to give back by getting involved with local campaigns. Southern’s College Republicans push for students to get more involved at the local level, according to Sarah O’Connor, the chapter president. O’Connor, 19, a sophomore, political science major, says she joined during the “crazy” 2016 elections because she felt isolated as a conservative in a generally liberal campus.
During election seasons members work for campaigns, door knock and phone bank for various candidates statewide. Their goals include bridging the gap between national and local issues.
“We really want to get people active in the local politics because it’s the most important politics, especially since we go to a public university,” O’Connor says. “The whole budget crisis going up in Hartford right now will affect us, and tuition will go up if people aren’t aware.”
Young voters are typically a lot more active during presidential elections than in local elections, says O’Connor. She says even though national participation is great, local elections are what really matter.
O’Connor says students can get involved by watching the news, and even if students do not show up to town meetings, it is a good idea to sign up for email lists or become members in their local Republican and Democratic town committees.
Finding a place in local politics
Tim Bristol did just that. Bristol has a track record of going further than town meetings: He actually runs for different local office positions.
He says name recognition is one thing that affected his running for office in Shelton.
“Nobody knows who I am, that’s the major hurdle, even after months and months of campaigning,” he says during his 2017 campaign for Shelton alderman.
Bristol learned how important name recognition really was in 2015, when he ran for mayor in Shelton and did not win. After reflecting on his loss, Bristol made the bulk of his alderman campaign focused on canvassing door-to- door, to talk directly with residents.
Bristol ran as a Democrat the second time around, unlike his first campaign where he had run as an Independent. Party affiliations can help candidates gain recognition, he says, and can have major impact on the turnout of a campaign.
Like Brown, Bristol says another hurdle was his age. In Shelton, most of his opponents are a lot older than him. Bristol says that at times he and other people who are running in Shelton are seen as the new guys who need to earn their keep. This allows some advantage however, as Bristol has used tools he does not think his older opponents use too frequently, such social media and even a GoFundMe during his previous mayoral campaign.
Although he did not win this past November, Bristol says that it will not keep him from running for local elections again. He is going to keep trying to get voters to understand the power of younger people.
Bristol has recently moved to Stratford, Conn. and hopes to join the Democratic Town Committee there. Although Bristol has not made up his mind, he is also interested in possibly running for office in Stratford, or possibly running for the State Senate 21st District seat.
“If you want change, you have to vote for the candidates for change,” Bristol says. “If you want new faces you have to vote for the candidates that are new.”
By Melanie Espinal