(No one. There are only two candidates.)
NORWALK, Conn. — It was unusual to the point of not having happened in current memory: District C had a primary.
Now comes the even more improbable follow-up, a run-off for second place. Common Council member John Kydes (D-District C) – a lifelong Norwalker – is in a fight for his reelection, tied with newcomer Tyler Fairbairn, Community Development Administrator for Greenwich, who didn’t live here when Kydes began his first term on the Council in 2013.
And Democrats are buzzing about another unusual twist: if not for “bullet voting,” Kydes’ running mate Jennifer McAllister would have come in second, they say. There would be no runoff and Kydes would be out.
Round two of the district’s electoral follies is scheduled for Oct. 5 at the same two voting locations: Marvin Elementary School and Nathan Hale Middle school. It’s an “adjourned primary” and is only open to voters who were registered Democrat on the date of primary phase I, Norwalk Democratic Registrar Stuart Wells said.
The winner will run with primary victor Jenn McMurrer against Republican candidate Read Auerbach, Third Taxing District treasurer and another Norwalk lifer, and independent candidate Scott Goodwin, who has lived in Norwalk for 15 years.
Lifelong residents generally have a leg up in elections. McMurrer also didn’t live here when Kydes set out on his Council career. McAllister has been a Norwalk resident for 15 years.
The District C Democratic primary may have its origins in an unusual announcement in April: Kydes, Council Majority Leader, said he was running for Mayor in two years, ahead of being reelected this fall or even endorsed by the Democratic Town Committee for the post.
By elevating himself to a Mayoral candidate Kydes heightened the scrutiny he’s subject to for the duration of that campaign. In addition, his actions as a Council member can be viewed as being more important, given that he’s not just one of a pack of 15, he’s potentially someone who will wield more power.
Upset that Kydes led the Council to cut an additional $1 million from the Board of Education’s budget request in February, Fairbairn and Jenn McMurrer decided to run against him. They say Kydes didn’t answer their emails on the topic.
Rebuffed by the Democratic Town Committee, McMurrer and Fairbairn secured enough signatures to force a primary, even if door knocking in a pandemic was a challenge.
District C DTC member Brenda Penn-Williams objects to the upstarts.
“I just don’t think it’s fair for people to come and start running for these primaries and running to be a candidate when they don’t even come to the district meetings. And I just don’t think that’s right. Yes, you can do it. But I don’t think it’s right,” she said at last week’s DTC meeting.
In 2015, Penn-Williams supported Rhonda Teel and Jalin Sead for District A Common Council over incumbents Council member Eloisa Melendez and Steve Serasis. At the time, then-District A Council member David Watts said Teel’s candidacy was scraped together the afternoon of the DTC nominating meeting. Teel was a newcomer.
Penn-Williams could not cast votes for Teel and Sead, as a District C member, but spoke up in their favor at multiple DTC meetings. She also sat outside a District A poll on primary day, opposite Melendez.
Serasis and Melendez, now Democratic Town Committee Chairwoman, won that primary. Sead has since unsuccessfully challenged Penn-Williams twice for the NAACP Presidency.
Last week, NancyOnNorwalk asked Penn-Williams why she is supporting Kydes.
“When my husband passed away, John was right here for me,” she said. So was Mayor Harry Rilling. Both of them called her weekly, and, “I don’t care if people don’t like Harry… I don’t have anything to do with that. I know what they did for me.”
She said she’s lived in District C for 25-30 years and she doesn’t remember there ever being a primary there.
Norwalk Democrats have a public process for candidate nominations, though few pay attention to it. Anyone can attend a district committee meeting and once you attend enough of them, you can vote. The committee discusses issues and when there’s an election approaching, votes to recommend candidates to the larger body, the DTC, and then the DTC votes to endorse them. In recent years, the practice is for the DTC to honor the district committee’s wishes; in addition, there’s overlap, as the DTC district members can also attend the committee’s get-togethers and vote there.
You get onto the DTC via an election in January, and, again, there’s little interest. Typically, far less than 100 people cast ballots in a district vote for DTC members. It is however more difficult to develop a power base as the DTC changed its rules in 2015 to expand its membership from 35 to 55, allowing 11 members per district instead of seven.
So a candidate needs six DTC votes to be endorsed as an in-district candidate. Kydes and his wife are DTC members; he is also chairman of the district committee. Penn-Williams is a member, as is Kydes’ 2019 running mate, George Theodoridis, a Kydes recruit who has said nothing publicly as a Council member beyond acknowledging that he’s present at meetings.
Beyond those four votes, the remaining DTC District C members are State Rep. Stephanie Thomas, Jennifer Balliett, Linda Langston, Pam Parkington, Beth Siegelbaum, Johnnie Mae Weldon and McAllister.
So McMurrer and Fairbairn forced a primary, resulting in a tie for second place. Wells had predicted about 200 voters would turn out; instead, 392 ballots were cast.
The recount didn’t change the vote totals but it did reveal a pattern. There were 26 ballots that only had one oval marked off, meaning only one candidate got a vote.
The single vote ballot tally was:
- John Kydes 21
- Jennifer McAllister 2
- Tyler Fairbairn 2
- Jenn McMurrer 1
“Bullet voting, also known as single-shot voting and plump voting, is a voting tactic, usually in multiple-winner elections, where a voter is entitled to vote for more than one candidate, but instead votes for only one candidate.
“A voter might do this either because it is easier than evaluating all the candidates, or as a form of tactical voting. This tactic can be used to maximize the chance that the voter’s favourite candidate will be elected, while increasing the risk that other favoured candidates will lose. A group of voters using this tactic consistently has a better chance for one favourite candidate to be elected.”
While it’s possible that some voters simply didn’t want to vote for anyone but Kydes or voted only for the familiar name, multiple Norwalk Democrats suspect that Kydes told people to vote only for him and not his running mate, McAllister. They’re angry.
Kydes denied the allegation. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.
McAllister’s name was next to Kydes, on the top line of the ballot. She didn’t respond to an email asking for comment.
The tally in the primary, confirmed in last week’s recount, was:
- McMurrer 208
- Kydes 188
- Fairbairn 188
- McAllister 175
If McAllister had 14 more votes, she’d be in second place.
It’s not the first time Kydes has been accused of not supporting a running mate. John Metsopoulos, a 2015 District C Democratic Council candidate, said recently that when he was going door-to-door in that campaign he heard voters say, in Greek, that Kydes had told them not to vote for him. He also had some tell him that directly and he heard Kydes tell voters that.
Asked Tuesday about the allegation of bullet voting in this year’s primary, Metsopoulos said, “Of course it is true, he did that to me in the election.”
Fairbairn said, “I’m familiar with bullet voting as a strategy, but have no idea if that was a deliberate part of Mr. Kydes’ campaign. Jenn McMurrer and I are a team and are asking all of our supporters to vote for us together.”
McMurrer said, “If Mr. Kydes turned his back on his own running mate I think it’s appalling. And I feel badly that it turned out the way it did for Jennifer McAllister. I have a lot of respect for her and no one should be treated this way, especially by a teammate.”
If you’re thinking you could compare the ballot counts to previous primaries to see if the single-vote ballots are unusual, that’s not possible, according to Wells.
“Basically, there is nothing comparable. State/Federal primaries are single opening offices. The only thing that would be comparable would be another In-District Common Council primary.
“The 2017 primary in District A was a one-against-two primary and it would not be remarkable for the candidate without a running mate to get a lot of bullet ballot votes – and I don’t have the breakdown in any event.
“The 2015 District A and B primaries were two against two, but there were additional races in both cases. Someone may have voted only for candidates in the other races, which would result in two blanks recorded in the Common Council primary – and again I don’t have the breakdown.”
What happens if there’s a tie in next week’s runoff?
“We actually draw lots or flip a coin,” Norwalk Democratic Registrar Stuart Wells said.
There may be a recount in any event because with such a low-turnout election, the margin is unlikely to be wide enough, he added. That would happen quickly because ballots need to be printed for the Nov. 2 election.
Bryan Meek, a Republican, has said that the City charter requires a runoff to be held the Tuesday after a recount.
“I haven’t looked at the city charter. We follow state election laws. There are things in the charter that don’t match that, this wouldn’t be a first,” Wells said.
Plus, it would be impossible to hold a runoff that quickly, Wells said. You have to print ballots and obviously, registrars didn’t know if the results would change until the recount, which was only three days ahead of when Meek suggested the runoff should be.
Information added, 2:05 p.m.