Stamford Democrats and Republicans each had a choice of nominees Sunday as they voted on who will run in the Feb. 28 special election to fill an open slot in the state House of Representatives.
The decision was more contested in one party than the other for the seat in District 148, which includes parts of the Glenbrook, downtown and Cove neighborhoods.
Democrats say one nominee was preselected and challengers were not welcome. They also question why some of them were asked to leave while party leaders interviewed the two nominees before the vote.
The Republican Party leader, on the other hand, said their vote came with “no contention whatsoever.”
A first for Hispanics
Anabel Figueroa, a 23-year member of the Stamford Board of Representatives who also sits on the Democratic City Committee, won the nomination with four votes from the members who live in the district. Another city representative, Jonathan Jacobson, got three votes.
Figueroa, by all accounts, will be the first Hispanic state representative from District 148 if she wins on Feb. 28.
“I am very happy,” said Figueroa, a unit coordinator at Norwalk Hospital who was a teacher in her native El Salvador before moving to the United States decades ago. “In Hartford I would like to be a member of the Education Committee and work for more resources for all the Stamford students who come from not only Spanish-speaking countries but Poland, Haiti and other places and are struggling to learn English.”
Democratic City Committee member Eva Padilla said she was thrilled to cast a vote for Figueroa.
“This is my dream come true,” Padilla said. “We have been trying for so long to get someone from the Latino community to this level.”
Republican Town Committee Chair Josh Esses said their nominee is Olga Anastos, manager of Curley’s, the little downtown diner surrounded by apartment towers. Two decades ago Curley’s owner Maria Aposporos, Anastos’s aunt, made national headlines for beating city hall in a fight to take the diner by eminent domain and use the land for another high-rise.
Now Anastos, who speaks English, Spanish and Greek, wants to go to Hartford to fight for her neighbors in Stamford, Esses said. Another candidate, Jim Kenny, a hard-working party loyal, was considering running when they learned of Anastos’s interest, Esses said.
He said Republicans decided together “to take it to a vote then shake hands when it was done and go win an election” in District 148, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than three to one, and where the number of unaffiliated voters is significant.
“We’re focusing on every voter,” Esses said. “This is a spectacular opportunity because Olga is a great candidate, and because the Democrats are in disarray.”
That appeared to be the case Sunday.
Democratic City Committee member Megan Cottrell, who also sits on the Board of Representatives, said she tried to contact party leaders about their plans for choosing a nominee – the deadline is Jan. 23 – with little success.
“I didn’t know the timeline. I didn’t know who was running,” Cottrell said. “I felt like it was kept extremely quiet.”
Eventually she learned Jacobson was running, Cottrell said.
“I thought the DCC was teeing up this nomination for Jacobson, and I didn’t want him to run away with it. I felt another person had to be in the mix,” Cottrell said. “I used to be an (English as a Second Language) teacher, and I know that in this district the Hispanic community does not feel heard.”
She also knew that Figueroa escaped civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s and achieved success in Stamford, where she is known for her constituent service on the Board of Representatives, Cottrell said.
I decided to nominate her” during the meeting, Cottrell said.
Not a happy party
Democratic City Committee members met Sunday afternoon in the cafeteria of the Stamford Government Center. Several Democrats on the Board of Representatives along with a few registered Democratic residents were at the meeting, which is allowed under party rules.
But when the screening subcommittee was about to begin interviewing Jacobson and Figueroa, Democrats who don’t sit on the party committee were asked to leave, said one of them, city Rep. Bobby Pavia.
“I thought we as the Democratic Party are supposed to be leaders in transparency,” Pavia said. “What kind of Democratic Party are we if we close a meeting to not only elected officials, but the public?”
City Rep. Nina Sherwood, the Democratic majority leader on the Board of Representatives, was among those asked to leave.
“I’m very disappointed that the leadership of the Democratic City Committee had a choice and they chose to interview, behind closed doors, candidates who will represent the people,” Sherwood said. “What do you gain from kicking people out? It creates distrust.”
Party leaders let them back in after the interviews, just before the vote, Sherwood said.
What happened in private
Figueroa said that, during the interview, members of the party’s screening subcommittee asked whether she would keep her seat on the Stamford Board of Representatives if she is elected to the Connecticut House of Representatives. She pointed out that Terry Adams, a city representative and party committee member, has served as a state representative while holding both other roles.
“At this time I am not considering leaving the Board of Representatives,” Figueroa said she told the subcommittee. “However, if I find someone who will do the same level of constituent service, I will give my seat up.”
Figueroa said they also asked about an ethics complaint stemming from her participation in a 2019 vote on a nominee for police chief. Figueroa’s son is a police officer.
Figueroa said she took part in the highly charged vote on behalf of her constituents because it concerned a nominee who worked at a police department that was under scrutiny for racial discrimination.
That ethics board advised her to not take part in further votes involving the police department, even though ethics boards had given contradicting advice to other officials in similar cases.
When one of the ethics board members on Figueroa’s case came up for reappointment, Figueroa spoke out against it, saying she was concerned about how the board operates. Jacobson then filed an ethics complaint against her, alleging that her opposition to the reappointment was retaliatory.
It was unclear Sunday whether Jacobson will file papers to petition himself onto the Feb. 28 ballot. The deadline is Jan. 23. He did not return an email seeking comment.
City Rep. Sean Boeger, who also was kicked out of Sunday’s meeting, said he will contact the court Monday to ask whether the Democratic City Committee can exclude registered Democrats from proceedings.
The city committee chair, Robin Druckman, told him the state party recently changed the rules to allow subcommittees to meet privately, Boeger said, but that ruling appears to conflict with the rules of the national Democratic Party.
Druckman Sunday did not return an email seeking comment.
Figueroa, Anastos – and perhaps Jacobson – will vie for the District 148 seat long held by Democrat Dan Fox, who resigned early this month. Fox won 68 percent of the vote over Republican Wilm Donath in November.
Gov. Ned Lamont is expected to nominate Fox to be a state Superior Court judge, according to a report published in December by the CT Mirror.
This story has been corrected to better explain the selection procedure for Figueroa and to correct comments by Cottrell