NORWALK, Conn. – The election of Norwalk Attorney Edwin Camacho to lead the Democratic Town Committee has been greeted with mixed reactions in a city where the Democratic Party has been plagued with problems for several years.
Camacho was chosen to chair the party by a single vote on the third ballot at the DTC’s March 10 meeting. The vote stunned sitting vice chairwoman Brenda Penn-Williams, who was also nominated for the top job, and her supporters, and resulted in several members of the DTC’s black contingent walking out of the meeting.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, there were bitter feelings expressed by some Penn-Williams backers, and concerns voiced about a sitting member of the Norwalk Board of Estimate and Taxation chairing a political party. Still others praised the choice of Camacho as just what the Democrats needed to focus the party on working together to make the city a better place through achieving Democratic goals, and to rebuild respect for a party that has been marked by infighting, alleged grandstanding and public misbehavior, highlighted by last summer’s Brawl at City Hall, when a verbal confrontation involving two older party members and then-chairwoman Amanda Brown escalated and resulted in Brown punching 84-year-old Bill Krummel in the eye.
Other, more recent public upheavals have included accusations of a tainted District A delegation election, an invalidated District B election and the removal of Common Council minority Leader John Igneri (D-District E) just four months into his tenure and his replacement by District B’s Travis Simms.
Camacho said he had not been planning to run for chairman until a few weeks before the meeting.
“I think there was a feeling from some people that Brenda didn’t have the votes,” he said. “There was a feeling by the same people that, on the other hand, I had the votes. Originally I had expressed an interest in possibly being vice chair or holding some other position in the organization.”
When it was suggested that he would have the support, Camacho took up the challenge.
“I didn’t want to dissuade people,” he said. “I mean, someone has to be chair.”
The lawyer’s lack of experience with inside party politics was one of the issues his opponents raised after the election, as was his honesty – he admitted his inexperience in his speech that night, and talked about how busy he is.
Being DTC chairman isn’t making his load any lighter.
“I’m finding that it’s quite a bit of work,” he said.
Camacho said he has reached out for advice to prior DTC chairs and party leaders including Galen Wells, Donna King and Alex Knopp “to get a sense of what needs to be done at this point.”
DTC chief backed Rilling from the start
Camacho said he backed Rilling for mayor from the time Rilling entered the race, a fact that some people seized upon to question whether the mayor might have engineered the DTC race.
“I thought we needed a Democratic mayor in this town, and I thought Harry Rilling was electable. I think everyone agrees that he had done a fantastic job as chief of the Police Department, and I thought he was the candidate to beat in the Democratic Party. I thought it was the person who was ready to become mayor and was electable.”
His instinct proved correct. Rilling beat four-term incumbent Republican Richard Moccia by some 1,500 votes after winning a four-way primary for the nomination with former Town Clerk Andy Garfunkel who lost to Moccia by about 800 votes to years earlier; Common Councilman Matt Miklave; and District D Chairman Vinny Mangiacopra.
Mangiacopra had strong support in the black community and was seen by many as the best hope to bring a breath of fresh air to City Hall until Rilling announced his candidacy. Rilling, who had been politically unenrolled for years as part of the police department leadership, was seen by some in the party as a Johnny-come-lately and an opportunist. That angered the hard-liners backing other candidates – and the candidates themselves – and the hard feelings have carried over past the election.
Camacho’s ties to Rilling – who appointed him to the BET – have fueled some of the resentment.
“I think initially (Rilling) had indicated to me that I should get involved in the DTC, which I did,” he said. “Then Bobby Burgess was helpful.” Burgess, though, “was backing Brenda,” he said, “so I feel that this really ought not to be what it appears to be at the moment, about race. And I don’t think it is when you consider that Bobby was the one” who encouraged his involvement.
Now, though, in addition to taking over leadership of a party that is in the majority of registered voters but has trouble winning elections, Camacho must find a way to soothe the wounds from the elections – both Rilling’s and his own.
“I’m reaching out to people individually,” he said. “I really think that those conversations need to be had sooner rather than later because the longer a rift continues without some effort to heal the rift, perception becomes reality at some point. So I’m reaching out to people on an individual basis just to get their thinking on it. At some point, I’ll meet with enough people that I think everyone will hopefully understand where I am coming from and that we need to just get together as a party and move beyond this.”
As part of that outreach, he attended the recent District C meeting – Penn-Williams’ district.
“That was fine,” he said. “I was well received.”
Camacho said he has always liked Penn-Williams. “I have only spoken with her on maybe a handful of occasions. … She has always been pleasant and gracious.”
Politics a messy business
With all the upheaval, Camacho, who has long been involved in community service, said he is finding politics is “a lot messier than I expected.”
“I think that some people get into politics for what is, in my view, the right reason. Some people get into politics for reasons that are more personal and less about policy and people. So I am finding that seems to be the case in Norwalk more than I expected,” he said.
“On the other hand, I am an attorney. As an attorney, I do battle every day in court with my fellow attorneys, with my adversaries, and sometimes quite aggressively,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s not personal. It’s work. We’re advocating on behalf of other people and we are zealous in that and we must be. So lawyers, I think, have a different perspective on these battles.
“I think a lot of these misunderstandings or a lot of these arguments that go well beyond the argument itself, I think it’s because people don’t really fully embrace the notion that we are all in this together. Our interests may diverge and at times conflict but they don’t necessarily, in the grand scheme of things that we are all trying to move in the one direction.”
Camacho addressed the notion that his presence on the BET set up a conflict of interest with his role as DTC chairman.
“I have asked around,” he said. “My understanding … I was told that the last time a party chair was on the BET it was a Republican. I haven’t had time to check it. I think that Mayor Knopp, when he was mayor, there was someone on zoning, I believe it was Galen Wells. The mayor took the position that, because it was a quasi-judicial agency where decisions were made of somewhat legal import that it would be better to have someone that is not so political as a chairperson of a party.
“But in terms of the BET, I don’t see it as an issue,” he continued. “Number one, neither of the parties come before the BET requesting appropriations or seeking approval for money from the city. From what I understand, no more than three members can be of one political party. So it presupposes that someone is of one political party or another and of course there are unaffiliateds as well. So in part I was selected, I believe, because I am a Democrat. I am no more or less a Democrat now that I am chair, in my heart or in my head, now that I am chair of the party, than I was before.”
In fact, while Moccia was mayor, Fred Wilms was corresponding secretary of the Republican Town Committee while serving as chairman of the BET.
From Harlem to Norwalk, via Albany
Camacho took a long and circuitous route from New York City to Norwalk, where he has lived since 1987. He was born and raised in the Upper West Side, in Harlem, 125th street and Broadway, in the projects, and attended public elementary school and public middle school before heading to prep school in Manhattan.
“I enjoyed being able to walk everywhere,” he said. “In the suburbs you get in your car to go around every corner, to get a carton of milk. In New York City you can walk blocks and blocks and blocks to get to your destination and it doesn’t seem like much of a big deal.”
Camacho earned his undergraduate degree from Amherst College in Massachusetts, then got his law degree at Indiana University School of Law in Bloomington, Ind. Early in his career, he was staff counsel with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., a civil rights litigation firm in New York City, and Phoenix Legal Services, Phoenix, Ariz.
Camacho eventually found himself in another New York city – the capital.
“I was working in Albany, N.Y.,” he said. “I was an administrative law judge for the New York State Division of Parole. I was actually in their legal department, in counsel’s office, and then I met my wife, who was attending Albany medical college at the time in the PA program. She’s a physicians’ assistant.
“She is from Greenwich originally but her mother and father moved to Norwalk in the mid-‘80s,” he said. “So she was through with PA school and she got her first job in Connecticut, in Danbury. I decided to switch positions with a woman who was an administrative law judge for the Division of Parole. She wanted to go back to Albany, where she was from, and I wanted to be closer to New York City, where I’m from. So we switched positions. I became an ALJ, she went to counsel’s office and we moved to Norwalk.”
Nothing in Camacho’s early background could have predicted his success, he said. “My two parents are from Puerto Rico. My father never went to school, never had the privilege. Never learned how to read and write. My father was born in 1900 in Puerto Rico – he was 60 when I was born. My mother was much younger. My mother completed second grade in Puerto Rico, but she taught herself how to read and write. Three of her children have gone to college; two are teachers and one is a lawyer. And we were raised in the projects in New York City, in Harlem. It’s been quite a journey for her to see us succeed.”
His children had a much different experience growing up.
“Our kids were both slated to attend elementary school in Rowayton,” he said. “We put my oldest kid’s name in the lottery for Columbus School because we wanted our children to have as diverse an experience as possible. They went to Columbus School. It was a great thing for them, I think.”
One of his kids is a mathematician now, and the other is a jazz musician.
“My oldest kid went to UConn and majored in statistics, got his master’s in math and actuarial sciences. He is in Portland, Maine, working as an actuary,” he said. “My youngest is a junior at SUNY Purchase majoring in jazz performance.”
Growing the party
With his children grown and beginning their careers, Camacho is turning his attention to a different kind of nurturing.
“I would like to first of all to get past this point” with the DTC, he said. “I would like the party to become more unified. I would like to not go simply from election to election, but to be more proactive in the middle. I’d like to get the party machinery energized and interested in doing things locally. I was thinking about hosting house parties so we can all get to know each other. Each invite 10 people and get more and more people interested in the party and involved. I think that if we have these house parties, the DTC members can get to know each other and actually like each other, and enjoy being around each other, but we can also each bring a handful of people to these events and get other people involved and interested.”
The DTC chairman said the problem is more than just personalities.
“We are competing in the political arena for a voice,” he said. “I think there is this concern that one group is trying to displace another group. It’s a wider issue. I think we need to sit down and have this discussion. Not just we as a party, but I think maybe the city needs to have this discussion because there are misperceptions about people’s motivations. It’s not all distillable to race or for that matter economics. I think people are much more complex than that, and I think we have to give each other more credit than that.”
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