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Four reasons Mayor Connelly didn’t win re-election

11.11.18 02:55 PM – Andy McDonald
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In Tuesday’s mayoral election, Bruce Fraley emerged as Berea’s fifth chief executive, followed in the tally by incumbent Mayor Steve Connelly and businessman Charles Arnold. Here are four possible reasons why Connelly didn’t win re-election.

1. Fraley’s Campaign

It was, in a word, relentless. When Steve Connelly defeated Clifford Kerby for the mayor’s post in 2002, Kerby ran a clean and energetic, 90-day re-election campaign. But Connelly, by virtue of his community involvement, had been campaigning for the job for years. He was attending meetings, getting out among the people, and kicking around new ideas. So it was with Bruce Fraley in 2018. It seems Fraley knew where he wanted to go since he took office in 2016. He stayed focused and took every possible opportunity to engage prospective voters and to appear "mayoral" in addressing the Berea City Council. Fraley’s campaign was reminiscent of Connelly’s first run at mayor, though he augmented it with tried and true political tools, such as signs and ads, and tossed in some new ones in the form of social media. It proved to be a winning combination.

2. Connelly’s non-political style didn’t work in a very political year.

Prior to 2018, Connelly fended off three tough challenges: his rematch with Clifford Kerby in 2006, and his battles against Mary Eipert 2010 and Paul Reynolds in 2014. For Connelly, all three of those campaigns were mostly without the benefit of newspaper ads or yard signs. In 2018, he even managed to outpoll Charles Arnold despite the fact that Arnold ran what had to be a very expensive media campaign. Why, in the face of so much advertising, did Connelly stick with his usual strategy? I’ve always attributed Connelly’s campaign style to a personal belief that citizens knew him and trusted him; if they thought he was doing a good enough job, word of mouth would be enough. Three out of four times, he was right.

3. Connelly’s damn-the-torpedoes approach to social justice issues cost him votes.

Connelly shouldered a lot of personal attacks in the months leading up to the 2018 election on everything from his choice of attire to the way he walked his dog. They called Connelly stubborn, but what they’ll never be able to call him is timid. On the issue of a fairness ordinance, Connelly could have played it safe. He could have made some vague statements on the need for everyone to get along, then let the cause go down in flames without political cost to him. That was never Connelly’s style. The same goes for his insistence that the city not contribute taxpayer funds to events where the confederate flag is sold or displayed. In taking on tough subjects, Connelly made people angry, and some never forgave him. For other local activists, Steve Connelly became symbolic of liberal national views they felt threatened their beliefs and culture. In any case, I’ll always suspect Connelly felt that burden came with the mantle of leadership, and to him, some causes were more important than political self-preservation. That bold approach had a cost. No incumbent candidate in the City of Berea was ever so vilified in print and social media as Connelly.

4. Sometimes people just want change for change’s sake.

Connelly was the last holdout of three very popular Madison County leaders who have since been turned out of office, including Madison County Judge Executive Kent Clark and Richmond Mayor Connie Lawson. Like Connelly, both of those leaders had a record of making positive and long-lasting changes to their respective communities. But voters wanted change then, and so it was again in the Berea mayoral race of 2018. Fraley played the "new alternative" angle well. As a council incumbent, he was an insider, but as a relative newcomer, he could still represent change.

Before leaving office, I asked Mayor Kerby how he thought Connelly would fare as Berea mayor. Kerby had been voted out despite laying the foundation for what Vi Farmer called Berea’s Golden Age. He fought for the airport, he worked to establish the Kentucky Artisan Center at Berea, and he was leaving his city with a balanced budget and money in the bank. Kerby shrugged. “Steve can handle it,” he said.

Now that Mayor Connelly prepares to leave, he can rightly claim to have helped forge that Golden Age, having expanded parks, modernized industrial park infrastructure, building shared use paths, leaving a trail of balanced budgets and clean audits, sparking a revitalized arts community, securing a possible chance to build Berea's water resources for the next half century, and the legacy of Berea gaining control of its energy and resources by buying and upgrading its electric, water and sewer utilities. It’s all good work, but the voters have the final say. And they say it’s time for someone else. So, like Kerby, Connelly wished Berea Mayor-Elect Bruce Fraley well. No bitterness. Just wishing luck to the next man up.

That’s democracy, but like the clean race Arnold, Connelly and Fraley ran, it's also very Berean.

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