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.”
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.