There will be no Democrat vs. Democrat confrontation in Stamford’s Feb. 28 special election.
It’s true even though a contested nomination over the weekend has revealed serious questions about party operations.
Jonathan Jacobson, who failed to win his party’s endorsement to run for a District 148 seat in the Connecticut House of Representatives, said Monday he will not petition to get on the ballot.
He will back Anabel Figueroa, who beat him in a 4-3 vote Sunday by Democratic City Committee members from their district. If Figueroa defeats the Republican candidate, she will be the first Latina to represent the 148th.
“The convention selected a Democrat who best represents the community, and I support that,” said Jacobson, an attorney who, like Figueroa, sits on the Stamford Board of Representatives. “I support the Democratic candidate. I’m not going to petition against the Democratic Party.”
But Press Secretary Andrew Miano of the Office of the Secretary of the State said Jacobson registered last week to take out petitions in the Stamford special election. According to state rules, Jacobson would have had to gather signatures amounting to 1 percent of the votes cast in the last election in the 148th District, which is 49 signatures.
Stamford Town Clerk Lyda Ruijter confirmed Monday that the Office of the Secretary of the State contacted her to verify that Jacobson is registered to vote in the district.
“They said he filed paperwork to be a petitioner,” Ruijter said. “I verified his registration on Friday.”
Jacobson said he did apply for petitions.
“I went to the town clerk’s office on Friday. As of Friday I had not received commitments from four delegates, so I needed to be prepared,” Jacobson said.
To get the party’s nomination, Jacobson had to win a majority of the seven Democratic City Committee members from his district.
As far as he knew at the time, he was the only Democrat vying for the House seat, but “my reading of the rules led me to believe that due to abstentions or ‘no’ votes or other procedural mechanisms, a recommendation could be made to not submit a ballot to the Secretary of the State,” Jacobson said.
“I wanted to be in position to petition in the event that no candidate emerged with an endorsement,” he said. “I wanted to be sure the Democrats in my district had someone to oppose the endorsed Republican candidate.”
After Figueroa won the endorsement, “all thought to any potential petitioning ended,” Jacobson said. “Fortunately, that was not necessary.”
Democratic City Committee members have criticized the handling of the nomination by party leaders, saying they worked to ensure that Jacobson had the inside track. Member Megan Cottrell said she thought party leaders were “teeing up this nomination for Jacobson” because the procedure was not transparent. It prompted her to nominate Figueroa at the last minute, Cottrell said.
Jacobson said he doesn’t understand the criticism.
“The issue was a lack of candidates who were recruited or expressed interest. I was the latter. I officially became a candidate on Wednesday,” Jacobson said. As of noon Sunday, two hours before the party committee met, “I was the only candidate who’d applied for consideration,” he said.
Jeff Stella, a city representative and member of the party committee, said people didn’t know who the nominee was until Friday.
“There was a lack of information,” Stella said.
The problem is the nature of special elections, Jacobson said. Gov. Ned Lamont issued a writ of special election on Jan. 13 for three House seats – one in Middletown that opened after Democrat Quentin Williams was killed in a car crash; another in Hartford after Democrat Edwin Vargas Jr. resigned following re-election in November; and a third in Stamford vacated by Democrat Dan Fox, who was elected to his seventh term in November but declined to take the oath of office on Jan. 4. Lamont is expected to nominate Fox for a state Superior Court judgeship.
Jacobson said Lamont gave parties 10 days to make their endorsements, setting the deadline at Jan. 23.
“A lot more time is needed for people interested in running, and for the party to prepare,” Jacobson said. “The idea that I was somehow propped up — I can’t reconcile that with the fact that no other candidates applied.”
Connecticut’s special election system isn’t the only issue, Jacobson said. The Stamford Democratic City Committee has an entrenchment problem, he said.
Party committee members include politicians, appointed officials, and members of the mayoral administration – Board of Education President Jackie Heftman and member Michael Hyman; Board of Finance Chairman Richard Freedman; nine city representatives; Zoning Board Chairman David Stein; Mayor Caroline Simmons’ special assistant, Lauren Meyer; and Simmons’ director of Housing and Community Development, Emily Gordon.
“In a perfect world, there would be a complete divorce between people who serve in public office and people in the party. There are so many appointed boards and commissions that … I don’t think that’s doable. For now the cut-off should be elected positions,” Jacobson said. “I have always felt that individuals who serve on the Democratic City Committee should not serve in any elected office at the same time.”
Stella said Jacobson has it mostly right.
“If he’s questioning the system, he should say let’s get rid of anyone who sits on any board or commission or works for the administration in any capacity,” Stella said. “You want to change it? I agree. Let’s change it. But everybody has to go.”
The party committee now allows for situations in which Democrats seeking elected offices can vote on their own nominations, which has happened multiple times.
On Sunday, for example, Figueroa voted to nominate herself.
“It’s troubling when members vote for themselves, particularly for an elected office that is a salaried position,” Jacobson said.
State representatives earn $40,000 a year.
The system is so entrenched, in fact, that Jacobson’s wife, Lauren Jacobson, sits on the party committee. She recused herself from voting on his nomination Sunday, Jacobson said, and the party seated an alternate for the vote. The alternate cast a ballot for Jacobson.
It “looks better if you say it’s not a directed proxy,” said City Rep. Sean Boeger, who was a party committee member from 2019 to 2021.
“The person who voted Sunday was an alternate but that’s just semantics,” Boeger said. “Committee members from each district choose their alternate and the chair decides if an alternate gets seated for any particular meeting. The chair has the discretion to seat an alternate that can be expected to vote a certain way.”
Boeger said he did not run again for his Democratic Party seat once he was elected to the Board of Representatives in 2021, but the system is so flawed that voting for yourself is how you avoid complete party conformity.
“The reason so many Board of Representatives members sit on the Democratic City Committee is that they will not receive the endorsement of their party if they are not obedient to the faction that’s in power,” Boeger said. “It doesn’t matter how well they serve their constituents. What matters is if they are obedient to whatever leadership is in control. If you do the will of your constituents, which is what I think you should do, and not the will of the leadership, you get blackballed.”
People the party favors for political seats get inside information, he said. Word was out in early December, for example, that Fox would not take the 148th District seat he’d won in November, Boeger said.
“The special election was planned months in advance,” Boeger said. “There’s no primary in a special election, so the person the Democratic City Committee has in mind most likely gets the seat.”
It’s unusual that a challenger succeeds, he said.
“It has nothing to do with exercising the will of the people for the good of the people,” Boeger said.
Figueroa will go up against the Republican Party’s endorsed candidate, Olga Anastos, on Feb. 28. Whoever wins will serve until the next time the seat is up for election in November 2024.
This story has been corrected to reflect the recent pay hike for state legislators