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Is Norwalk Democratic Town Committee pulling strings?

Norwalk Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-District D) speaks his mind at a recent council meeting.

By Common Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-District D)

NORWALK, Conn. – A few weeks ago, the Common Council adopted an expenditures cap that could raise property taxes almost four percent. With revenues flat, with pension and benefit costs rising between 15-20 percent, we felt we had no choice if we were truly intent on properly funding education.

This year’s budget debate was strange. Actually, there was no debate at all. Four members of the Democratic caucus voted against the spending cap, but did not explain their votes; in fact, they said nothing during the debate. And the fifth member of that caucus, after a long discourse on the flaws of the budget process and the need for the city to begin Performance Based Budgeting, quietly voted for the cap without commenting on its merits or why he was voting for the results of such a “flawed process.”

Some personal political history might provide a reason why the Democratic caucus members were either silent during the budget discussion or, in the case of one member, tried to have it both ways by critiquing the process while implicitly lauding the result.

My first four years on the Common Council, 1997-2001, happened to be the final four years of the administration of Republican Mayor Frank Esposito. The Republicans had 11-4 majorities in each of those years. We Democrats had an extremely tough time, to put it mildly. I recall coming home from meeting after meeting and telling my wife that we “won all the debates, but lost all the votes.”

In all honesty, we probably did not “win” all the debates, but I can say with certainty that we lost all the serious votes. Then, as now, I always made a point of explaining why I voted one way or the other. I strongly believe all elected officials should constantly explain their actions to their constituents. On more than a few occasions, I have written about my reasons for voting for or against various items.

Looking back on those four years as a member of a small minority, I recall only one vote that I regret making, and it was a doozy: the charter revision that transformed citywide noncompetitive elections to the Board of Education into a combination of district and citywide competitive contests. Although I knew the prevailing method of electing members of the BOE was non-competitive and a disservice to voters, I still voted against the revision.

Why I regret that particular vote is not because I was wrong, but because I “caved in” to the intense pressure from the Democratic Town Committee, which vehemently opposed the charter change. Nonetheless, I felt compelled to conjure up a rather lame rationale for my negative vote: The city was in the midst of hiring a new superintendent, now was not the time to embark on what would clearly be a contentious path. In hindsight, that was nothing more than an attempt to avoid the real issue, which was the non-competitive nature of those elections.

And now back to the debate that never really happened. My guess is that some or all of the Democratic council members are in situation not unlike what happened to me during the charter revision debate.

The crafting of the 2013-14 operating budget is taking place in an unusual context: With local elections approaching, the Democratic Town Committee has been pressing the members of its council caucus to oppose or raise incriminating questions about any issue backed by Republicans and Mayor Richard Moccia. Moreover, that town committee has recently adopted a new kind of nominating procedure that requires candidates to complete an obviously loaded questionnaire that has been aptly characterized as a party loyalty oath. (The questionnaire is attached below.)

These new procedures, by their very nature, will undoubtedly have a subtle chilling effect. Crossing the Democratic party leadership on an issue as important as the city’s operating budget could possibly jeopardize an incumbent’s chance to receive an official nomination. Better to be safe and not say anything, especially if the spending cap is reasonable and especially if it could ultimately enable the BOE to fully fund its budget after all factors, including state aid, are factored in.

Perhaps that’s the reason the Democratic caucus members did not explain their negative votes. Perhaps that’s the reason the Democratic mayoral hopefuls have not weighed in with comments on the recently adopted spending cap. Take it from me, it’s not easy to incur the wrath of the local Democratic leadership.

Bruce Kimmel

NDTC mayoral questionnaire 2013

13 comments

JC March 22, 2013 at 10:15 pm

Interesting or perhaps sad that the address on the questionnaire has the wrong zip code. Rowayton is 06853.

M. Murray March 23, 2013 at 12:26 am

Will all residents get to see the completed questionnaire so we can see how the candidates answered those questions or is it going to be a big secret?

LWitherspoon March 23, 2013 at 10:26 am

Excellent question M. Murray.
Many of the candidates have stated that they will bring a new level of transparency to City government. I’m very much in favor of more transparency. Therefore I challenge all candidates, including Mayor Moccia, to prove to us that your commitment to transparency isn’t just empty rhetoric. Show ALL the voters your answers to the questionnaire. We deserve to know exactly where you stand on each of those questions.

Bruce Kimmel March 23, 2013 at 10:34 am

Oldtimer, that is a very good question. I am a registered Democrat, have been for many years. I am also a member of the Common Council; elected to that body in spite of the machinations, vicious infighting, and overall lack of help (for any candidates) from the local Democratic Party in the 2011 elections. None of which was a surprise. As a council member, my primary obligation is to the people of the city; people who elected me to govern, not play partisan games. I feel I can better represent their interests and move the city forward as a member of the Republican caucus; membership in that caucus has enabled me to be a more effective council member. They have no problem with my political affiliation; they respect the diversity of thought that adds another dimension to the discussions. Hope that answers your question.

LWitherspoon March 23, 2013 at 10:42 am

@Bruce Kimmel
Thank you for your service to Norwalk. We need more like you on Council – more council members who put the interests of the Citizens of Norwalk ahead of the interests of their respective political party committees. I wish you would run for Mayor.

Joe Norwalk March 23, 2013 at 11:16 am

I appreciate you being up front about why you make your decisions and I agree that the Democrats, being a diverse party, have a difficult time not being dysfunctional. But you are completely delusional if you believe the Republican party in Norwalk “respect the diversity of thought” you bring. They see you as a “chump” that just adds more strength to their tenuous majority. A number of Republican council members, present and recently past, have complained how they are told in no uncertain terms how to vote by the mayor and are not allowed to present their views in public when they disagree with him. A number of them aren’t going to run again as a result. Instead of working to fix the Democratic Party in Norwalk, you just walk away and join the other side. Wow, that’s real leadership! Sometimes doing the right thing won’t result in accolades and recognition. Trying to fix the Democratic Party from within is a difficult and non-rewarding job and I can see how that wouldn’t stroke your ego and support your delusion. I think most of your decisions regarding policies on the council are good ones and well though out, but I wouldn’t vote for you again because I don’t respect you any longer.

BARIN March 23, 2013 at 12:56 pm

Bruce, the Republicans also like the fact that they can use your flip flop against the Democratic Party for personal gain.
You should be strong and go back to caucus with Dems and still be effective, if the Dems have a problem with it make your concerns public.
The appearance of switching affiliations by caucusing with Repubs is all the voters will see, and it is a disservice to you, since in my opinion you truly DO care.
Go back and take that bitter pill from your fellow Dems, regardless of getting hammered in Dem caucus.

Bruce Kimmel March 23, 2013 at 2:46 pm

Barin, thank you for the thoughtful comments. I have made my concerns to the Democratic organization for a number of years, mostly privately but also publicly when the occasion called for some public explanation. Nothing seems to change; in fact, in my opinion it has gotten worse. The vilification of those with honest differences, the personal agendas and factionalism, the fighting, the race baiting. After fifteen years, I decided I had had enough and spent the first year of this council term in no caucus; and then I joined the other party’s caucus. Unlike many many others who just walked away from the local party and politics, I decided to try another way of remaining politically engaged. Who knows what will happen.

D(ysfunctional)TC March 23, 2013 at 8:21 pm

The current DTC is so far off the reservation of what the average Norwalk citizen is concerned about that it makes sense for it to fall apart so that it can be reborn stronger. Maybe this starts to happen under a Mayor Rilling? The Republicans also do not have to play their A game with a weak DTC which hurts the city too. We need a strong two party system. Hopefully Bruce and other’s moves will help them strengthen their party and in turn the Rs and in turn the city’s future.

EveT March 25, 2013 at 8:35 am

What does D(ysfunctional)TC’s comment mean: “The current DTC is so far off the reservation of what the average Norwalk citizen is concerned about”? What I see in the DTC is concern about developers creating holes in the ground and not finishing their projects, businesses quitting, crime, and wanting to restore Norwalk to a place we can be proud of. How is this “off the reservation”?

D(ysfunctional)TC March 25, 2013 at 1:04 pm

EveT, if the DTC were functional they would control the council right now and could do everything you are fooled into thinking they care about. There are 4 former Democrats that now caucus with Republicans. Surely you must be able to see this for yourself? Instead they care about their power first and screw the citizens. It is time for a big rehaul here and the city will be better off for it once it happens. Right now the current crop have given us one-sided representation. That isn’t good regardless of party. We need to put Norwalk first.

your daddy March 25, 2013 at 1:48 pm

D(ysfunctional)TC seems to be right on, but Mayor Rilling? That would take the cake. Maybe if he had taken the job in RI a couple of years ago and created a compelling record he could’ve run on up there!

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