Update 1 p.m.: Copy edit, additional information.
NORWALK, Conn. – Opinions vary regarding Tuesday’s Democratic domination of Norwalk electoral victories.
While Democratic Town Committee Chairman Ed Camacho said that Democrats won nearly every seat available because of, “Excellent candidates and hard work,” others cited a variety of reasons, including a weak top of the Republican ticket combined with a strong independent mayoral candidate, positive opinions about the direction the city is headed in under Democratic Mayor Harry Rilling and a backlash against President Donald Trump.
“I think that people are pretty happy with the way things are going. I think that Harry had some pretty strong coattails this time,” Assistant to the Mayor Laoise King said Wednesday.
Council incumbent Doug Hempstead is the lone Republican winner Tuesday, but that’s not certain yet.
There will be a recount Monday of District D’s results with the second-place finisher, Hempstead, less than 20 votes ahead of Democratic newcomer William Pappa, Democratic Registrar Stuart Wells said Wednesday.
A recount “rarely changes more than a couple because the tabulator is pretty good,” Wells said.
“District D is supposed to be a Republican stronghold and if we can get newcomers doing that well – Pappa is a good guy but he’s a complete unknown, obviously a new guy, and if he had Doug on the ropes – to me the big story is how come Republicans didn’t turn it out that much at all? Was there something overall?” Wells said.
Hempstead on Saturday said that Lisa Brinton Thomson’s independent mayoral candidacy could change the results up and down the process.
On Wednesday, he returned to that theme.
“It’s funny, I had discussions a week and half ago, it could be 15-0,” he said, referring to a Democratic sweep of Council seats. “Some people couldn’t figure it out.”
“I would assume most of her votes would be Democratic votes, they are probably protest votes,” he said, of his pre-election analysis.
Protest Democrat votes, people who don’t normally vote, would probably mean more Democratic Council votes, he said, offering some analysis of Tuesday’s results.
Usually, a mayor will win with 500 more votes than the top at-large Council candidate, he said, pointing out that this time, Barbara Smyth, a newcomer Democrat, is only four votes behind Rilling.
“Usually, there’s a drop off,” Hempstead said. “… I think most of the Lisa votes, if they voted for Council or Board of Ed, that’s where they went.”
Another tell – Town Clerk Rick McQuaid, who was endorsed by both parties, got 8,244 votes on the Democratic line and 4,545 votes on the Republican line, according to Wells’ Tuesday figures.
The about-4,500 Republican votes are the Republican base, Hempstead said. Republican mayoral candidate Andy Conroy “just didn’t even come close to getting half of the base vote,” with his 2,201 votes, Hempstead said.
“I’m going to give credit where credit is due: I guess people are happy with the way things are going,” Hempstead said, commenting that Rilling’s win is “not a landslide, but it’s certainly a mandate. He got over 55 percent of the vote in a four-way race, that’s pretty impressive. Hats off to them.”
He’s very disappointed that some of the Republican candidates didn’t win, especially District D rep Shannon O’Toole Giandurco, he said, pointing out that O’Toole Giandurco is a millennial who has worked hard for the district.
District D Council member-elect George Tsiranides, who was endorsed by Democrats, is “very affable, we get along,” Hempstead said.
Tsiranides was listed as a Republican when he was appointed to the Planning Commission in August 2016. He’s never been registered as a Democrat, Wells said Thursday.
Hempstead said that in his many years on the Council, he’s never been the sole member of a party.
At least there will be no discussions over who gets to be minority leader, no internal fighting about committees – technically, he’ll have to be on all of them, he said.
“Obviously, I can’t meet a schedule commitment of that type,” Hempstead said, commenting that he won’t need to use the caucus room, he can just sit in a car and talk to himself.
“Maybe he should switch parties,” King said. “We like Doug, we’d take him.”
“I think the Republican Party underperformed. It’s nice they give me a lot of credit,” Brinton Thomson said, expressing an opinion that Conroy was a weak candidate, not a strong presence for the top of the Republican ticket.
The state Democratic machine got behind Rilling, with late-inning robo calls from U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-Greenwich), she said.
“I think there were a lot of things at play,” she said. “The Democrats were nervous, so they rushed to get the vote out. There was not a strong candidate at the top of the (Republican) ticket. I think Republicans stayed home. I think it came from all over the place, disaffected Democrats, unaffiliateds. … I think Harry was nervous. I don’t think he had to invoke the state response in his last bid for reelection.”
“Everyone has their own take on it, and when we get to look at the results I think we’ll know better,” she said.
“I am very pleased with the message that we sent. It’s up to Harry and the Council now, they pretty much control everything. Sometimes that can be a poison chalice,” Brinton Thomson said.
A mid-September poll
The Rilling campaign did a poll in mid-September, King said, echoing comments Rilling made to NancyOnNorwalk before the election.
“It was pretty right on,” King said. “I am pretty impressed.”
The poll said:
- Harry Rilling, 41 percent
- Andy Conroy, 17 percent
- Lisa Brinton Thomson, 15 percent
- Bruce Morris, 2 percent
- Undecided, 25 percent
“We were figuring that at least half of the 25 percent would go toward Harry and that’s what happened,” King said. “We weren’t too worried.”
It would be very difficult for Conroy and Brinton Thomson to make up 15 percent, she said.
National politics might have played into the Democratic almost-sweep, as what both Conroy and Brinton Thomson were doing was reminiscent of the way President Donald Trump acts, she said, citing misleading information and negativity.
“I think there are so many positive things happening in Norwalk,” King said. “It’s one of the only cities in the state that people are moving into, one of the only cities where investors are investing money to build housing. It’s a fantastic place. I think what was really clear is there’s no appetite for change, people are happy with the way things are going. I mean, there’s always going to be a small group of unhappy people. When you have people that are just always negative… that is not a good way to lead, it’s not what people want to hear.”
Rilling’s promise to ‘do right’
It might have been a reaction to national politics, Rilling said Tuesday, but, “The Democrats have the values that are supportive of the community like Norwalk. We have such diversity. People who are living in poverty. People who are struggling to find jobs. We have people that are living in shelters. They recognize the fact the Democrats care for them and that we want to help them.”
“I think we have started a whole new kind of Democratic platform,” Rilling said. “We don’t want to increase taxes unless there was a necessary reason for doing that. We have kept taxes historically low by being very frugal in the past four years. We were able to navigate the very challenging waters of the state budget crisis – we are not going have to send out a supplemental tax bill. People recognize the fact that we’ve had to make some very challenging and tough decisions, and they respect that. The decisions we make a not always going to be popular but they are necessary and we are going to make sure we do that.”
Again, with 14 Democratic Council members, “We are going to be held accountable because we have no excuses if something doesn’t go right. So we want to make sure we do right by the city,” he said.
Smyth – inspired by Trump
Carlos Moreno, Interim State Director of Connecticut Working Families Party, linked the state-wide success of Working Families Party candidates to “resistance to Trumpism at the local level.”
In Norwalk, 17 of 18 WFP-endorsed candidates won.
Moreno, in an emailed statement, said:
“The night was quickly defined by a trend of first-time progressive candidates, energized and motivated to come out against a hostile, right-wing political climate, running and winning. The results are dramatic, with 18 towns across the state flipping from red to blue. It’s clear that voters want change, and the results are a testament to the will for progressive ideas and alternatives to anti-worker austerity and Trump-era cruelty.”
“Since Trump’s election, progressives have known that defeating Trump’s politics of division would begin from the ground up in local elections. That came to fruition last night. We are excited to see so many first time candidates who won local elections from Norwalk to Willimantic and in between.”
“I cannot comment with certainty at how candidates ran in other towns, but our local Republican candidates ran on their own merits, as proven advocates for Norwalk families and local business interests,” Conroy campaign chairman Rick Joslyn said in an email. “They campaigned with respect and integrity, and I have not heard anything differently from their opponents. It would be a shame and a disservice to Norwalk’s future to make this past election about anything other than the issues that impact people here locally.”
Smyth, the top-vote getting Council candidate, has said she was inspired to run for office by the Woman’s March in January.
In a Wednesday email, she confirmed that she is a a first time progressive candidate, as described by Moreno.
“I agree with this characterization of what happened in Norwalk last night. I think people are angry and scared about what is happening in Washington and have come to realize that shoring up our local government with progressive candidates is the best protection we have.
“I knew I would feel honored to be elected, but I find myself moved to have received the highest number of at large votes. Although I’m still absorbing this, I can contribute it to several factors. Yes, there is a wave of voters who want change and a fresh perspective. Many want more women in government.
“At the root of it all, though, my party believed in me, my students and their families believed in me, and my fellow NHS band parents believed in me. My voters have trusted me with their kids for years and I think they trust me to serve Norwalk and all of our citizens. They know I care.”
More from Wells
Democratic District E incumbents Tom Livingston and John Igneri were worried about Republican challenger Ernie DesRochers because “McCarthy and that crowd” tend to do well at Fox Run Elementary Schools, Wells said.
Unofficial results obtained by the Democratic Party on Tuesday showed that Livingston and Igneri had easily won the vote at Fox Run, more than 200 votes ahead of DesRochers.
“As soon as I saw that I said, ‘It’s going to be a sad night for Republicans,’ because if they can’t do better up there in an area where they have traditionally done well, then they have problems,” Wells said.
Democrats were pretty confident Rilling would win because Morris wasn’t eroding Democratic votes away from him, and, “Clearly Lisa and Andy were fighting for a lot of the same voters, so that was going to make both of their roads very tough,” Wells said.
If Republicans had consolidated behind Brinton Thomson, if she caught on and if Morris was doing better, then conceivably it could have gone another way but, “I didn’t think it was going to happen,” Wells said. “When you only have half the party members as the Democrats to begin with, it’s a sure way to lose. It’s the math.”