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Norwalk Republicans embrace change, seek better outcomes

From left, then-Norwalk Republican Town Committee Chairman Carl Dickens and RTC District D Chairman John Romano wait to greet voters on Election Day, Nov. 3 at the West Rocks poll. (File photo)

NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Republicans, battered badly in the last three municipal elections, are energetically retooling their efforts ahead of an uncertain attempt to unseat Democratic Mayor Harry Rilling and regain a voice in City government.

One major change was involuntary – Carl Dickens has stepped down from the Republican Town Committee leadership role due to health concerns and former State Rep. Fred Wilms is now acting Chairman. Changes to the bylaws were proactive and intentional, with former Board of Education Chairman Mike Lyons drafting the revisions, including a lengthy statement of principles, before moving to South Carolina recently. Isabelle Hargrove has written a game plan and an organization change will allow Republicans to act in a “nimble” way, she said.

“We’ve been hard at work behind the scenes reformulating and restructuring the party itself,” Dickens said. “We want to attract a lot more citizens, who maybe are on the cusp of being either an undeclared or an independent (voter), maybe a soft ‘D,’ but are looking to, if they have more Republican tendencies than they think they have, we want them to know that we would welcome them with open arms.”

“I think Carl did a very good job as Chair of the RTC, and he put in place a number of initiatives. One of them was to update our bylaws, which we approved at our last meeting,” Wilms said. As for candidates, “There’s two possibilities for Mayor,” both of them “well-known personalities in town.” He expects a full slate to be nominated at the July convention, he said.

It’s been downhill for Norwalk Republicans since Rilling unseated four-term incumbent Republican Mayor Richard Moccia in 2013, and even more so since Donald Trump became President in 2016. In 2015, Rilling won his second two-year term as mayor with 62.1 percent of the vote over Republican challenger Kelly Straniti and Democrats took over control of the Common Council, with 11 seats on the 15-member board. In 2017, Rilling topped a four-way contest with 55.42 percent of the vote and Democrats took all the Board of Education seats and almost all of the Council seats, with veteran Doug Hempstead serving his final two years as the lone Republican.

Two years ago, Norwalk Republicans endorsed an independent voter, Lisa Brinton, as their Mayoral candidate, the first time the RTC didn’t field one of their own in the spot. Rilling still took 55.5 percent of the vote, which Brinton characterizes as a gain for her since Democratic candidate Bruce Morris had 6 percent of the vote in 2017, so she figures Rilling lost Democratic support. But the rest of the story was just as bad for Republicans as before: no BoE seats and Tom Keegan as the lone Republican Council member, in the seat formerly held by Hempstead.

Brinton didn’t reply to a Wednesday email asking if she intends to run again. Town Clerk Rick McQuaid, a Republican, said, “Nothing but Crickets about Election 2021 around here,” meaning, no one is talking about it.

State elections haven’t gone well for Norwalk Republicans, either. Wilms lost his seat in 2018 to Democratic newcomer Lucy Dathan and his attempt to get it back last year failed. The District 141 State Representative seat long held by Republican Gail Lavielle, who decided to step down, went to Democrat Stephanie Thomas last fall, so Republicans are down two legislative spots in Norwalk.

Wilms sees hope in the last election, though.

“Unfortunately, the State elections last year were not encouraging to the Republicans around here. Many lost,” he said. “Clearly, there was a significant anti-Trump vote. However, myself, almost all the other candidates all went ahead of the top of the ticket.”

Wilms said he’d gotten 1,100 more votes in District 142 than Trump did.

“So, I found that our message of fiscal responsibility, local control of zoning, local control of schools, standing up for the police, focusing on those local issues, resonated well with voters. Unfortunately for some of the swing voters, their primary focus was the national election and that clouded some of the local votes,” he said.

With President Joe Biden in office, Wilms said he’s hopeful the attention will swing back to state and local issues, “where I believe Republicans, we have a very strong messages.” As proof of that, he pointed to the 2018 virtual tie in the Statehouse, which he said showed “people certainly were attracted to our message.”

 

Changes

Wilms said he isn’t interested in being Norwalk RTC Chairman permanently, though. Lyons was vice chair and Wilms was elected to that post when Lyons and his wife, Liz, who was also an influential Norwalk Republican, moved to Charleston. Wilms said he’d be happy to be the permanent vice chair. An election is upcoming.

Tad Diesel had been RTC corresponding secretary but resigned “a while back,” Dickens said, calling that a “huge loss.” Drew Todd has been elected to the post.

Hargrove, District E Chairwoman, “and her group did a fantastic job of putting together a Republican game plan. Which, to my knowledge, we never really had for the Republican Party,” Dickens said. “And it’s really a great roadmap to where we want to go, what we want to be, what we want to do. And so as we look for candidates, we’re looking for candidates that fit into that program that has been so well put together by Isabelle.”

“Indeed, I chaired our planning ad-hoc committee at the beginning of the year and we formulated a comprehensive plan for the NRTC which was approved by our membership during our March meeting,” Hargrove said in an email. “An essential part of this plan is a new committee structure that will allow for small groups to work on different initiatives in more nimble and actionable ways.  We have a lot of work to do to rebuild our party in Norwalk. This plan is our road map to reaching residents more effectively so they can get to know us and what we stand for better and see if our values and vision for Norwalk align.”

“Previously, we had only been organized along geographic districts,” Wilms said. “…Now we are putting in place functional chairs. And so, you know, I think organizationally, we’re going to be in a stronger position.”

Changing the bylaws was “no easy task” for Lyons, Dickens said.

The statement of principles, which also comes with the title “Common Sense for Common Good,”  is entirely new:

We believe in American exceptionalism.

We believe American exceptionalism results from the protections provided by our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

We believe the United States of America is unlike any other nation on earth.

We believe America is exceptional because of our historic role — first as refuge, then as defender, and now as exemplar of liberty for the world to see.

We affirm — as did the Declaration of Independence: that all are created equal, endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

We believe in the United States Constitution as our founding document.

We believe the Constitution was written not as a flexible document, but as our enduring covenant.

We believe the genius of our constitutional system – limited government with enumerated powers, separate and equal branches of government, federalism, and the rights of the people – must be preserved uncompromised for future generations.

We believe our Founders should be revered for their vision, their courage, and their accomplishments, and not denigrated or erased due to their human imperfections.

We believe political freedom and economic freedom are indivisible.

We believe free market capitalism has produced more wealth, created more jobs, fed more children, and lifted more people out of poverty than any of the myriad government programs, subsidies, or redistribution efforts.

When political freedom and economic freedom are separated — both are in peril; when united, they are invincible.

We strongly support freedom of speech and oppose efforts to censor dissent.

As Connecticut and Norwalk citizens, we believe the principles set forth above are as applicable to state and local government as to the national government – and that smaller government, lower taxation and regulation, and supporting a robust private sector are critical to the success of both.  We also believe that state and local government must always support just law enforcement, because without it chaos results, with the loss of our fundamental rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

This statement of principles is optimistic because the American people – and the people of Norwalk – are optimistic.”

 

 

In another change, under purposes and objectives, instead of saying “To promote the welfare and growth of the Republican Party,”  it states “To promote the welfare and growth of individuals committed to the ideals of the Republican Party.”

And districts can now appoint auxiliary members, who cannot vote but can participate in discussions, at the discretion of the Chair. The new bylaws specify the new Committees developed in the game plan, for outreach, communications and campaigns.

“We’re working hard,” Dickens said. “We’re looking for the right people, the right candidates that can join the party, join the fray, so to speak, and dedicate themselves to becoming a candidate that would run for, you know, the Republicans principles and particularly what the Republican Party is here in Norwalk.”

“Norwalk desperately needs Republicans to find their voice again and help steer our city in a better direction,” Hargrove said. “Under one-party dominance, Norwalkers are not being heard and decisions with long-term impact on our city are being bulldozed over us. We need to restore respectful dialog between city hall and Norwalk residents and that can only be achieved through a stronger voice from the opposition party.”

Updated, 11 p.m.: More information in photo caption.

19 comments

Andrew M May 6, 2021 at 8:06 am

I’m excited to see what Fred will do as Chair of the RTC. In my years of knowing and campaigning with him I’ve always found him to be a fair, and knowledgeable person. I think he can really help steer the party back in the right direction. Good luck Fred!

Norwalk Native May 6, 2021 at 9:21 am

To the Norwalk Republican party: please get your act together.

Nothing could be more important to the residents of Norwalk than to remove mayors Laoise and Rilling from their lifetime appointments. Nothing could be more important than ending their tyrannical war against local taxpayers and in favor of Corporate developers and Teachers Union’s interests.

Thank you

BAS May 6, 2021 at 9:35 am

To the gentleman on the right – wearing that hat is the equivalent of wearing a Woke clothing article. It’s not very appealing to moderates who are trying to attract.

PIBERMAN May 6, 2021 at 11:09 am

When is the last time our local GOP posted a position paper/major comment on City issues in our local newspapers ? Looks as if they’re still “incognito”.

piberman May 6, 2021 at 11:12 am

When is the last time our local GOP has posted a position paper/comment on a local issue in our newspapers ?

Barbara Meyer-Mitchell May 6, 2021 at 12:27 pm

Good luck to the RTC as they work to land on the right messaging for their organization. It would seem that distancing themselves from the Trump legacy would be a good start.

Readers should know that Fred Wilms was Chair of the Board of Estimate and Taxation from 2006 to 2013, a period in which the mill rate was lowered substantially, severely under resourcing the schools. With the RTC’s endorsement of private markets, how would that philosophy play out for our Public Schools?

Bryan Kerschner May 6, 2021 at 2:48 pm

Trump 2020 hat, new shiny jingoistic principle statement. Doesn’t look to me like the town Republican Party learned anything from the last elections. This might look good to the RTC, but I’m pretty sure you just turned off any moderate you’re trying to appeal to.

Peter Franz May 6, 2021 at 3:17 pm

So Republicans believe the Constitution is a fixed, not flexible document?

Is that before African Americans were freed and women were no longer prevented from voting, or after?

Asking for a friend.

No seriously, this whole article is comedy gold. “Landing on the right messaging”?? Yes, maybe begin by not embracing a politician known for abject racism, and leading a revolt on our Capitol. Here’s a Pro Tip: That kinda goes against all the other fluffy language about “freedom” and “the creator.”

John C, Romano May 6, 2021 at 7:00 pm

BAS, The picture of me “the GENTLEMAN on the right” was taken on election day. around my neck was a card which included our candidates who were running for state office. On my head,yes a TRUMP hat who I supported to continue being our President. I do not apologize for supporting him. But do support and pray for our sitting President. Things in Norwalk are very lopsided, council and BOE. The citizens of Norwalk deserve a more balanced city Gov. Lets hope for that balance in November.

Bob Schumann May 7, 2021 at 2:05 am

“On my head, yes a TRUMP hat who I supported to continue being our President. I do not apologize for supporting him. . . .

“The citizens of Norwalk deserve a more balanced city Gov.”

If Norwalk does, your judgement, considering who you think should be president and your party who concurs with you, are not suitable to be that balance, Mr. Romano.

Ct. V May 7, 2021 at 8:37 am

One party is doing a mediocre job running Norwalk. The other is passing laws to disenfranchise voters because Donald Trump can’t admit he lost and the entire party won’t tell him he’s wrong so we are putting Democracy at risk.

Not a great choice but I think I will choose the party who is in favor of Democracy. When the Republicans have a platform other than owning the libs and making it harder to vote I will look again.

John Levin May 7, 2021 at 8:57 am

I believe one party rule is inherently harmful because alternative ideas and opposing views never receive meaningful consideration and status quo avoids scrutiny. The local republican party serves as the loyal opposition by default, but struggles to present an effective and appealing alternative in a diverse city like Norwalk. I suspect this story is repeated in many towns throughout the state and nation. Reality: the brand has been severely damaged and recovery needs to be either a salvage and repair or a complete rebuild. This will be extremely difficult.

Fred Wilms May 7, 2021 at 9:24 am

Nancy – we appreciate your extensive coverage of ongoing events at the RTC.

Peter – we do not use the word “fixed” in relation to the Constitution. Respectfully that is your word. As we all know, the Constitution has within it the mechanism for amendments for social progress, such as for abolishing slavery or giving women the right to vote.

Barbara – I am not sure what you mean about lowering the mill rate given the State MBR for education spending. Also not sure about your linkage between free markets and the public schools since we have had both for ages.

Bryan Meek May 7, 2021 at 10:06 am

Yes Barbara, let’s look at Fred’s record a little closer.

2014 CAFR pdf page 140 seems to show the school budget going up every single year except during the 2008 financial crisis where the school budget was flat, like enrollment, while the city budget was cut 6%.

https://www.norwalkct.org/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/8735

Fast forward to today where the school budget is flat, with exploding enrollment and special needs, while the city is getting a 6% increase.

Why do you still carry these people’s water after being put aside?

John Fitzpatrick May 7, 2021 at 1:27 pm

A vigorous opposition party is essential to democracy, and the Republicans have an opportunity to excise the cancer of Trumpism. The proposed “principles,” however, are worrisome. Does American exceptionalism signify an inability to learn from possibly more successful solutions elsewhere? Does an inflexible Constitution preclude the possibility of reform? Flexibility is precisely what let us end slavery and enfranchise women. Why shouldn’t we reform outdated firearms regulation? The benefits of free-market capitalism are manifest, but does the party leadership not recognize the danger lurking amid the vast inequality that it has spawned? Some aspects of this declaration are not “optimistic” at all. They show a fear of moving forward.

John Miller May 7, 2021 at 4:19 pm

Mr. Franz: Below is a link to the US Constitution. Check out the 13th and 19th Amendments. Read it. You might learn something about how changes are made to the Constitution. Also, the president who issued the Emancipation Proclamation was a Republican.

https://www.annenbergclassroom.org/constitution/

Below is a link to a history of the Jim Crow laws. I think you will find that most of them were enacted by Democrats, not Republicans.

https://www.history.com/topics/early-20th-century-us/jim-crow-laws

Here’s another tidbit. One of the longest filibusters in the history of the US Senate was orchestrated by Democratic Senators Robert Byrd and Richard Russell in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

https://www.senate.gov/about/powers-procedures/filibusters-cloture/civil-rights-filibuster-ended.htm

BTW: In 1964, LBJ said that he wouldn’t send American boys to fight an Asian boys war but more than 2.7 million American boys ended up in Vietnam and 58,272 didn’t make it back.

Maybe you think that’s comedy gold. I don’t.

Eric Niederer May 9, 2021 at 5:22 pm

Did the RTC really mean to use the word “exceptionalism?” Not Exceptional? Was there a political scientist, or someone who knows/understands what that word means, who looked at this draft before it was adopted and published? Just want to know if the use of that word was intended by this political party for this political statement of principles. Thanks.

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