When the Stamford Democratic Party chair this month threw Democratic city representatives out of a meeting, it was like dropping a rock in a pond.
The effects are rippling.
The incident has one of the representatives, Sean Boeger, researching the rules of the Democratic National Committee, which supersede the rules of the Connecticut Democratic Party, which supersede the rules of the Stamford Democratic City Committee.
Did the state party, Boeger wants to know, break national party rules when it changed its bylaws to allow city committees to bar Democrats from meetings because they don’t sit on the city committee?
It will take a while to figure it out, Boeger said. He ultimately may seek from a court a writ of mandamus – an order issued to an organization to do what it is obligated to do.
“First you have to exhaust all mediation,” said Boeger, a Stamford police officer, former union president, and former member of the Democratic City Committee. “I have to bring it to the state, and if they are not willing to reconsider, I have to complain to the national party. At that point I will have exhausted all means and I can file for mandamus, though I don’t know yet whether that would be in state court or federal court.”
It’s a lot of trouble, but good government is at stake, Boeger said.
Public, not public
About a year ago the state Democratic Party changed a portion of the rules that used to say that “all meetings of Democratic town committees, subcommittees and all other Democratic Party committees shall be open to the public.”
Now the rules say “committees, subcommittees and other sub-groups of town committees” don’t have to meet in public.
Boeger is raising questions after a Jan. 22 meeting at which Democratic Party Chair Robin Druckman asked him and other Democratic city representatives, along with a couple of Democratic residents, to leave while party members interviewed Anabel Figueroa and Jonathan Jacobson, who were seeking endorsement to run in the Feb. 28 special election for a vacant seat in the state House of Representatives.
“It’s a step toward exclusion, which is the first ingredient for corruption to start,” Boeger said. “Corruption can’t survive in the sunlight – there has to be some lack of transparency keeping things from the public view.”
The system needs watching in places such as Stamford, where one party dominates, he said.
“In this special election there is a 3-1 ratio of Democrats to Republicans, so when the Democratic Party endorses a candidate, the party is, in effect, choosing the person who will get Dan Fox’s seat,” Boeger said.
Fox, who represented District 148 for a dozen years, won reelection with 68 percent of the vote in November but did not take the oath of office this month, reportedly because Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont is considering him for a state Superior Court judgeship.
“The vast majority of people, if they have a political affiliation, fill in the bubble for the ‘D’ or the ‘R’ on the ballot,” Boeger said. “In that atmosphere, the Democratic City Committee ends up handpicking who goes into the state Legislature in this special election.”
The rule is ‘wrong’
It’s all the more reason for the party to open its operations to as many people as possible, Boeger said. There’s another factor, he said.
“This is taking place in Fairfield County, and that’s significant, particularly in the Stamford area, because it has the strongest concentration of political power in the state,” Boeger said.
That is the case, said Kevin Reynolds, the attorney for state Democrats. The rule change happened after he got phone calls from Democrats in Stamford, and elsewhere, Reynolds said.
They wanted to attend party subcommittee meetings where discussions might include strategy, finances and other subjects that should remain private, Reynolds said.
“I said if it’s a subcommittee, it’s not open to the public. They said, ‘But the rule says it is.’ I said, ‘The state party rule is wrong,’” Reynolds said. “It was poorly written; that’s why it was fixed.”
The Democrats’ national charter says all meetings of official party bodies are open to the public. State parties must comply, but whoever wrote the state rule about meetings didn’t understand the meaning of “official,” Reynolds said.
“It was a blatant misreading of the Democratic National Committee charter,” he said.
Subcommittees gather information and report back to the full committee, which is the body that takes official action such as votes and endorsements, Reynolds said. Subcommittee meetings – including the Stamford one where party members were interviewing two candidates – are not official and should be open only to party committee members, he said.
“If a subcommittee is screening candidates, there could be a wing of the party that supports a person and a wing that doesn’t. Or a candidate could answer a question inartfully and that ends up creating problems in November,” Reynolds said. “If somebody thinks that registering as a Democrat ought to give you the right to be in any meeting of the Democratic Party, they don’t understand how parties work. Parties have to be strategic, and you can’t do that publicly.”
What others do
Patty McQueen, a spokesperson for the state Democratic Party, issued a statement from party chair, Nancy DiNardo, who said the Stamford city committee conducted the Jan. 22 meeting properly under national and state party rules.
McQueen said state party rules are taken up at every state convention, and “the change was made to clarify ongoing practice.”
Boeger said that’s not what he found when he researched other state Democratic Party rules.
“About half a dozen states don’t mention anything about who can attend meetings and who can’t, but the rest say meetings are open to all members of the party – and some say straight-up that they’re open to the public.”
Massachusetts is one, said Joe Sherlock, executive director of that state’s Democratic Party.
“All meetings of our party committees must be public,” Sherlock said.
The Massachusetts charter says all meetings of all party committees, except workshop or drafting committees, at all levels are public unless members authorize a private “executive session” by a two-thirds vote.
In Connecticut, Democratic city committee chairs in Norwalk, Bridgeport and New Haven did not return requests for comment on meeting policies. But bylaws for town committees, posted online, do not reflect the state party’s rule change.
The bylaws of the Democratic Party of the City of Norwalk read, “Pursuant to state party rules … all meetings of the Town and City Committee shall be open to the public.”
All meetings of the Wilton Democratic Town Committee “shall be open to all enrolled members of the Wilton Democratic Party,” its bylaws state.
A party with wings
According to the bylines of the Greenwich Democratic Town Committee, “meetings shall be open to the public, except that on a vote by the majority of those present and voting portions of such meetings may be held in executive session if confidentiality is required.”
Greenwich Democratic Town Committee Chair Joe Angland said the old rule was not good for the party.
“If you were having a meeting to discuss your tactics for an election, or what your candidate should say in a debate, Republicans could come,” Angland said. “You wouldn’t want it to be known that you think it would be effective in a debate to put a certain question to the Republicans. That clearly defeats the purpose.”
Greenwich has worked out a balance by inviting registered Democrats to become associate members of the party committee, he said.
“Any Democrat can be an associate just by asking,” Angland said. “Associates can attend meetings but they can’t vote.”
The town committee has 100 members, and there are 200 to 300 associate members, Angland said.
Boeger said sensitive topics can be discussed during a meeting in executive session, but access is necessary in Stamford because the city party has a reform wing.
“Reform is for transparency and accountability – are you using your vote so your party stays in power, or because it’s the best thing for the people you represent?” Boeger said.
Figueroa, 61, a unit supervisor at Norwalk Hospital and a member of the Stamford Board of Representatives, won the party endorsement over Jacobson, an attorney and fellow city representative.
Because Democrats dominate in District 148, which includes sections of downtown, Glenbrook and the Cove, Figueroa is expected to defeat the Republican nominee, Olga Anastos, manager of downtown landmark Curley’s Diner. A Republican has not held the House seat in District 148 for 40 years.