Corrections 4/26: The original story identified Vinny Mangiacopra as Democratic District D chairman. He is the former chairman. Also, Haraldo Williams was not the only person of color in the room after the others walked out. DTC Chairman Ed Camacho and Eloisa Melendez also remained. We have removed the reference altogether.
NORWALK, Conn. — There was “no mutual respect” in the Common Council Chambers on Thursday night, one member of Norwalk’s Democratic Town Committee said.
The internal DTC rifts were on full display as new bylaws were approved – and with it an expansion to 11 members per district – with Vinny Mangiacopra and David Watts trying to keep the DTC membership at a lower level, first with a compromise of nine per district, then by maintaining the current seven. Having failed in that endeavor, they and other members left in an exodus that was mostly along racial lines, a move that Steve Serassis said was self-defeating.
“In their effort to quell this final vote, they would have probably defeated it because we needed two-thirds. They all left the room so they just shot themselves in the foot,” Serassis said after the meeting ended.
The vote to finally approve the new bylaws was 21 to 0, with one abstention: Diane Lauricella. If all 35 DTC members had been there to vote, the new bylaws would have needed 24 votes to pass. However, there were 32 votes cast on a previous ballot, meaning 21 would be two-thirds.
Former Mayor Alex Knopp, who led the committee to revamp the bylaws, led the meeting. Most of it was spent debating amendments to the proposed bylaw revisions.
During the course of this, Mangiacopra spilled the beans on a well-known secret – the Common Council’s Democratic caucus does not meet together.
The DTC voted in January to increase its membership from seven members per district to 11, a move that generated controversy as the issue was listed as a discussion item and no one had expected a vote before the meeting. The vote on the bylaws would make that final.
Bobby Burgess, there as a proxy for state Rep. Bruce Morris, made the move for a compromise: nine members per district, not 11. Knopp said he needed it in writing; Mangiacopra produced the proposed amendment and Watts walked it to the podium.
Mangiacopra argued that it isn’t time to expand the membership, given the tensions that are splitting the DTC. Watts said New Haven, which is much bigger, has 60 members in its DTC, and that 55 members is too big for Norwalk.
This prompted an amused comment from Donna King – she agreed with Watts, she said.
The DTC has had nine members per district at various points in its past and it has worked, she said, calling for the compromise that would satisfy both sides of the argument.
The move failed, 17 to 13.
Mangiacopra first assailed the accuracy of the minutes from the January meeting, saying the numbers of people voting must be mistaken, then repeated that it’s not time to expand the membership.
“There are some rifts among our party from various different sections of the community for various reasons,” said Mangiacopra, who came in a distant second to Mayor Harry Rilling in a four-way primary during the last election cycle. “Our Democratic caucus here on the Council doesn’t all caucus with one another, we have a majority on the Board of Ed and yet for two years in a row we have had a Republican leading the Board of Education. I am saying this strictly from a party perspective, I am not being critical of anybody in their capacities, I am just saying from a Democratic Party perspective, there’s a lot of things that we have to do in order to clean up our act here as well.”
Better to stand pat with 35 members than get people involved in a mess, he said. “Those things are not going to go away just because we expand from 35 to 55 members,” he said.
The compromise was an opportunity to unite the party, Watts said, calling the defeat “extremely disappointing.”
Mangiacopra and Watts said the people who wanted to keep it at seven members were willing to compromise. Those who favored 11 members were not.
“I am concerned with the leadership of this party right now, I am concerned with a lot of things, but the one thing that we know that we can do is try to work together and come up with a compromise, and that’s how it’s been, the leadership of this party is their way or highway and you see this tonight,” said Watts, District A chairman.
Outright anger broke out when Watts said, “How you doing?” to Serasis, who had come up behind him to wait for a turn at the lectern.
“First time you’ve spoken to me in three months, in public?” Serasis said.
After the meeting, Serasis said, “I thought we had a friendship that went beyond politics, but I may have been mistaken because it may have just centered on politics for David.”
Given his own turn at the lectern, Serasis said, “I find it very contradictory then that we are staying with the number seven when that’s where all the dysfunction lies and that’s exactly why we are having problems.”
The party needs an influx of new energy and new business skills, Nora King said. “Someone who ran for mayor of the city of Norwalk should be fully in support of moving Norwalk forward,” she said. She then mentioned Watts, but Knopp shut that down, as Watts called, “No minority members in your district.”
King found a way around Knopp’s prohibition of talking about other members.
“One of the battles that took place in District A and will continue to take place in the next election is the fact that there are certain people who feel, they want to control the environment and not let new ideas, new people, new energy in there,” King said. “It’s wrong, and it’s inappropriate for the city of Norwalk.”
“The action we are taking tonight will tell us if we can work together as a party in harmony or whether we can work as a party split with each other,” Burgess said. “I don’t see no compromise on the other side at all in the first vote and this vote will probably do the same thing. … We have a mayor running for re-election and we don’t need any splits.”
“I can’t understand for the life of me why folks wouldn’t want to compromise,” Phaedrel “Faye” Bowman said.
Increasing the membership to nine would mean that those who didn’t get onto the committee last time would be able to be on it the next time, Eloisa Melendez said. Jumping it to 11 would mean that new people would be able to get involved, she said.
Rob Frazier said the tension was making him shake.
“What I don’t see in this room is I don’t see respect. That’s mutual respect,” Frazier said. “I think that it’s very important that we step back and we think about how we treat each other. We treat each other badly. We treat each other like a dysfunctional family. … We need to calm down. We need to take a breath, we need to not call each other names, we need to work together.”
“All of the substantive changes seems to address openness and accessibility to the DTC and I think that’s a good thing,” said Doug Stern, who was serving as a proxy for member Kevin Poruban.
Many people who have been part of the DTC for a long time feel slighted, which is sad, he said.
The DTC needs to go on a retreat, Lauricella said. “I think civility needs to get started after tonight,” she said.
“You don’t grow just because more people want to come into the DTC meeting because it’s not going to matter if their mindset isn’t there,” Martha Dumas said, after calling the tension “discouraging” for a new member.
The attempt to keep the DTC at seven members per district was voted down 19-10, with two abstentions. Before the final vote was held, many people walked out, including Mangiacopra, Watts, Dumas, Sharon Stewart, Lynne Moore, Travis Simms, Brenda Penn-Williams and Bowman. Some questioned whether a quorum remained.
The dissatisfied Dems lingered in the hallway outside the Council chambers.
Asked why they had left, Stewart said it was a “protest.”
Serasis said, “They protested in vain because what they did was they didn’t rationally think out the process… By not exercising their democratic duty they got the opposite of what they called for.”
Many people praised the committee that drafted the new bylaws. Diane Lauricella referred to “12 to 15 years of many of us trying to help whatever town committee chair was in place, oftentimes to silence” to update the bylaws.
King sent NoN an email at midnight to laud the effort:
“The Democratic Party had a successful night and we moved forward. The new rules will allow more community involvement, which will bring new business skills, diversity, new ideas and progression for the party. Progression, openness and change are great goals and I feel that the Democratic Party achieved this tonight.
“Galen Wells, former Mayor Alex Knopp, Stuart Wells, Peter Thor and Ed Camacho worked tirelessly at mapping the rules of the Norwalk Democratic Town Committee to our state Democratic rules and always kept in mind the ability for others in our city to get involved. No matter what party you are involved with, this will benefit the city of Norwalk. We need to make our political landscape about issues, less about personalities, and we need to focus on getting things done that progress Norwalk.
“The majority of Democrats as well as the city of Norwalk will benefit from these changes. Progress is good and it helps our city further develop into a top notch city in the Northeast.”