NORWALK, Conn. — It’s a disgrace that the Norwalk Democratic party has presented an all-white slate of Board of Education candidates, Brenda Penn-Williams said.
“They are running an all-white slate. This is a diverse town for the Board of Education. How dare you run an all-white slate? I am going to make sure the minorities in this town do not vote for that slate,” she said Tuesday.
Penn-Williams, Norwalk Branch NAACP President and former Democratic Town Committee Vice Chairwoman, castigated DTC members Monday in a speech that referenced apartheid. Jalin Sead also spoke about the lack of diversity on the ticket. NancyOnNorwalk was not there but was told by multiple DTC members that Chairman Ed Camacho responded by taking the blame for the lack of diversity on the ticket.
Norwalk Democrats endorsed incumbent BoE member Heidi Keyes, Common Council member Bruce Kimmel, Barbara Meyer-Mitchell and Sarah Lemieux, leaving incumbent African American BoE member Shirley Mosby last in the five-way competition, without the endorsement.
Mosby attempted to force a primary but fell short. She will be on the ballot as a Working Families Party candidate.
Penn-Williams provided the speech she wrote:
“I would like to address the DTC members regarding a situation that has been ongoing and not addressed in this organization. I strongly feel that there are things that have been ignored or even worse certain people think it’s business as usual.
“The definition of apartheid is a system that segregates a group of people according to race and ethnicity. Tonight, I am here to create a platform for honest and open communication among the DTC. Working with various people within the organization has opened not only my eyes but also many others who want to be a part of making Norwalk a city where we all can feel we are a part of the greater good. I would like to think that the leaders of the DTC could be open to positive change. As President Barack Obama said we need ‘Change We Can Believe In’ Unfortunately, there have been too many cases of ‘code language’ being spoken. We speak code so we understand what you are saying.
“In the midst of what is going on in our country, now is the time to come together. I quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., ‘Our lives begin to end when we become silent about things that matter.’ It matters to those of us who are being marginalized in the DTC. We are going to remain and keep our voices heard. So tell me why the current BOE slate doesn’t reflect the diversity that is the one thing the city likes to tout.”
“I addressed the DTC after Brenda made her statement Monday night,” Mayor Harry Rilling said Wednesday in an email. “I stressed the fact we have to have the courage to have these discussions whether they make us comfortable or not. We must address the concerns of all our members. As Democrats, it is incumbent upon us to work together to strengthen our party and to serve ALL people. We must be inclusive and transparent and embrace our diversity. No one should be made to feel they do not have a voice.”
Penn-Williams said Tuesday that Camacho’s comment taking the blame was wrong because, “No, this is how you wanted it, buddy.”
She repeated a story that NoN has heard before, about a meeting two years ago in Rilling’s office.
Camacho met with Penn-Williams, then-Council member David Watts and Rilling, and listed elected officials that he did not want to see re-elected, Penn-Williams said. The list included Mosby, then-BoE member Migdalia Rivas, then-BoE member Rosa Murray, then-Council member Sharon Stewart, Council members Travis Simms and Faye Bowman and Watts, Penn-Williams said, quoting Camacho as saying, “If they are all minorities, so be it.”
“David was sitting right there,” she said.
Asked about Penn-Williams’ comments, Camacho in an email said, “The diversity of our 55 member Democratic Town Committee speaks for itself. I’m proud of the work they did in nominating who they believed to be the best qualified candidates for municipal office. I look forward to our ongoing discussions about how best to represent all constituent communities within our system of self governance.”
“It is wrong for Norwalk to say ‘We are diverse’ and you have the nerve, the Democratic Party, the party for the people, to run an all-white slate. It is wrong,” Penn-Williams said.
“They have been marginalizing Shirley all year. She only has one vote. Why not keep her on there? You’d have your five votes anyway, why not keep her on there?” Penn-Williams said, explaining that she heard Kimmel would not run for the BoE if Mosby was on the Democratic slate.
Kimmel, in an email, said, “My primary concern, which I expressed to the Party leadership several months ago, was that the BOE slate be comprised of candidates willing to work constructively with Superintendent Adamowski, Mayor Rilling, other members of the Board, and parents throughout the city. We are in the midst of turning our school system around; my desire was to run with candidates ready to wholeheartedly support that turn-around. I believe the candidate slate put together by DTC chair Ed Camacho, and which was strongly supported by the Democratic Town Committee, will do an excellent job making our schools models of 21st Century education. Our children and their families deserve nothing less.”
Penn-Williams said she heard comments about Mosby’s track record.
“They all have a track record. What kind of track record?” she said.
That Mosby’s “track record” includes an allegation of racial discrimination on the Board of Education is well known, but some insiders also mention her tendency to abstain on important issues:
- Mosby abstained on both the 2015-16 capital and operating budgets, declining after the Jan. 7, 2015 meeting to explain that to NoN. She was absent from the Jan. 12, 2016 BoE meeting in which both budgets were voted on. She abstained on the 2017-18 capital budget, after a battle to postpone the vote to allow more time to discuss the plan to build new schools. Also abstaining in that vote were Yvel Crevecoeur, Artie Kassimis and Sherelle Harris.
- Mosby abstained on the 2017-18 operating budget, saying, “I am not going to vote no on it because basically we need to have the operating budget but I cannot support a 10.1 percent (increase) either.”
- Mosby abstained on the 2016-19 Strategic Operating Plan (SOP), along with Kassimis and Crevecoeur. In March 2016, she abstained on the school calendar, the first two-year calendar, and in March 2015 she abstained on a $20,000 budget transfer to fund the long-awaited After the Bell program at the South Norwalk Community Center.
- Mosby abstained on the Bring Your Own Device policy in October 2015, saying, “I am not going to vote no against this because I think we should definitely go with some kind of technology, but I think that I am going to abstain when we go to a vote. That way it will give us the opportunity to go back and have a conversation.”
Mosby did not respond to a Tuesday email from NoN, asking about this and other issues.
Sead said Wednesday that he learned while knocking on doors for Mosby that people feel if you don’t go along with the establishment you’ll be ousted.
“That’s what people feel about Shirley,” he said, disputing what he said is her reputation as a troublemaker.
“Even with the DTC, there is a feeling that it is controlled by a certain group of people, that it’s not inclusive to the community being represented,” he said.
Sead said he asked Camacho about minority candidates at a District A meeting in March. He provided the meeting’s minutes, which said:
“Ed said for the At-Large BOE, Dems should come up with 4 candidates we can all agree can speak for all of us. That is what we should be doing as Dems….We need to strategize the 4 seats opening up and get a diverse section of the city represented. We should be looking 4 to 6 years ahead and groom people. Ed said we do plan ahead and put effort and thought into it. Jalin said if that’s the case, it’s not being done transparently. After the 2/6/17 DTC meeting a DTC member wrote on social media that everything they talked about wasn’t true.
“Ed said it might be wise for the DTC to form a Nominating Committee to get a better cross-section.”
Asked about this, Camacho said, “We have the responsibility to nominate the best possible candidates. With that is the responsibility to recruit and cultivate the best possible people. We all share that responsibility.”
Sead said he wants to make sure that this isn’t about Mosby. He is troubled by the lack of diversity, he said.
“I know there was a big push to recruit women,” Sead said. “I think we could do a little bit better with finding some Latinos or African Americans.”
He didn’t help to recruit candidates because he was really conflicted about whether he’d run for the Council, he said.
A lack of diversity is a serious problem for the national Democratic Party and while Norwalk has been lucky to hold onto a Democratic majority in government it’s “like a canary singing in the mine, we need to listen to it,” he said.
“It’s really about all minority groups having a voice. I want to make sure we cultivate diversity so we don’t have a problem.
Norwalk Democrats have one African American at Large Common Council candidate, Greg Burnett. Penn-Williams said she is a “very good friend” of Burnett but he is a “token.”
“They wanted to make it look not that bad so they asked Greg. It’s wrong. The Common Council and the BoE should reflect the town. They should have more diverse people. Yes, Faye and Travis are running but they are trying to knock them out. C’mon stop it,” Penn-Williams said.
NancyOnNorwalk was not able to get in touch with Burnett on Wednesday. He is Board of Estimate and Taxation chairman and a former BoE member, with a long history of community service in Norwalk.
Simms and Bowman are facing a District B primary from Manny Langella and Hector Correra.
“Less than half the population of South Norwalk identifies as white and approximately 23% as African American. Half the population is Hispanic or Latino,” the 2016 South Norwalk Transit Oriented Development (TOD) plan states.
Penn-Williams said she did not attempt to recruit candidates for office.
“I hear there’s plenty,” she said. “There are a lot of people in there that they could have ran. They had their little pool that they wanted to run. They were not trying to find any.”