New London - There are economic realities in the city, including property taxes and limited funds to support an adequate police force and repair roads and sidewalks. But the issue that stood out at a candidates' debate Tuesday night was racism.
"Does racism and racial privilege exist in New London and what can we do about it?" was one of the questions audience members posed to candidates. Judy Dolphin of the League of Women Voters of Southeastern Connecticut, who moderated the debate at the New London Science & Technology Magnet High School, read the questions aloud to candidates.
For many of the 16 candidates running for seven seats on the City Council, the answer was "yes."
"Yes, there is an issue that we who are middle class and white don't see," said Ronna Stuller, a Green Party candidate for City Council.
"Racism still exists," said Democrat City Councilor Anthony Nolan, who is seeking a second term. The black city police officer said he encounters racism in his job.
"I'm a nice person. I don't care what people say," he said. "Whites say negative things to me. Black say negative things to me."
"Racism exists everywhere in this country," said Keith Robbins, who is running on the Republican ticket. "But we've come a long way in New London." He cited the Elks club, which he said was a "white boys' club" but will soon have a black exalted ruler.
"We have to stop putting labels on each other," Robbins said. "Hey, I'm a bald-headed Irish guy with a Polish mother. But we can all work together."
Republican candidate William Vogel said he sees economic imbalances and education as bigger impediments than racism. Bringing more students from the suburbs into New London schools with the new magnet school plan, he said, could help ease some of the "economic stratification."
But Democratic incumbent Wade Hyslop and Democratic newcomer Erica Richardson, who are both black, chastised Vogel for implying the schools are inferior because the majority of students are racial minorities.
We can't look at our schools as the problem, he said. "Every kid needs an education."
Most of the candidates who addressed the topic of racism - the question was posed to only four candidates, but others chose to add to the discussion - said treating each other with respect is a way to overcome differences.
Michael Tranchida, a Democrat, former city clerk and lifelong resident, said there's been racism in this country "since the Mayflower."
"We're a very blended city. And every day, the city moves forward," he said.
Democratic candidate Efrain Dominguez said kindness to others has to be taught at home and then carried through to schools and into civic life.
"I've been a teacher for 16 years and I treat my class as a family," he said.
Republican candidate Dennis Downing found the simplest way to address the problem. Just say hello, he said. "We have to start somewhere. We're all just people."
Also attending the debate were City Councilor Marie Friess-McSparran, a Democrat running on the Republican ticket; Council President Michael Passero; Carl Lee, a petitioning candidate; Democrat Laura Natusch; and Republicans Michael Doyle, Katelin Teel and Martin T. Olsen.
The city's registered voters have a diverse field of candidates to choose from. Of the seven Democrats, seven Republicans, Green Party candidate and independent petitioning candidate, there are four minorities, four incumbents and five women running for City Council.
The debate was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Southeastern Connecticut, the New London Neighborhood Alliance and New London Parent Advocates.