STAMFORD — In a difficult, emotional meeting, members of the Stamford Board of Representatives Monday learned that one of their longtime colleagues is gravely ill.
Democrat Susan Nabel of District 20 resigned Friday, citing health concerns, but many representatives said they did not understand the seriousness of her situation until Monday. Representatives speaking on camera during the virtual meeting paused to wipe tears or compose themselves.
Nabel, a representative for more than 12 years, is noted for her thoughtful deliberation, and her respectfulness of her colleagues and board rules, particularly during the years she was clerk and helped keep proceedings on an even keel.
News of her dire health situation was followed Monday by a fraught debate over who, exactly, she intended to fill her seat.
Some representatives received a letter from the Rev. Tommie Jackson, who said Nabel, his friend of many years, asked him to take her place on the board. Jackson told the Connecticut Examiner he was happy for the chance to become the first Black person to represent District 20, a mostly white, wealthy North Stamford neighborhood.
But the board received another letter, dictated by Nabel to her daughter. It named North Stamford Democrat Carl Weinberg as her successor. Nabel’s daughter, Hannah Lake, appeared on camera during the virtual board meeting to verify that the letter reflects her mother’s wishes.
The conflict centers around a Board of Representatives custom that allows resigning members to name their replacements. But the custom is not always followed; political parties are known to interfere if they do not agree with an outgoing representative’s choice.
That is what happened this time, Jackson said after the 40-member board voted to seat Weinberg. Thirty-six members attended the meeting, with 22 backing Weinberg and 15 abstaining.
Jackson said he believes Democratic Party members pushed Nabel to go with a candidate they think will deliver a more reliable party-line vote on the board, which has a large faction of reform Democrats.
‘We don’t want him’
“I was not thinking of running for public office; Susan came to me in February,” Jackson said after the meeting. “She said, ‘Here’s what’s going on in my life. I am going to be leaving the Board of Representatives. I think you would make an ideal replacement for me – you’ve been involved in the community; the community knows you.’
“I said, ‘Let me pray about it and discuss it with my family,’ which I did,” Jackson said.
Around March 7 he called Nabel back to say he was accepting her offer, Jackson said. The following day, Jackson said, he got a call from city Rep. Eric Morson, the board’s deputy majority leader and party loyalist. Morson said he wanted to set up a talk with the two of them, Nabel, and Nabel’s fellow District 20 representative, Ashley Ley, Jackson said. The four met on March 12, Jackson said.
“Susan got on the phone with us and said, ‘Tommie Jackson is my choice,’” Jackson said. “On March 14 Eric called me and said, ‘We are submitting a letter to (Board of Representatives) President Jeff Curtis on March 18 letting him know.’”
But the date came and went without a letter, Jackson said. So he called Robin Druckman, president of Stamford’s Democratic City Committee.
“She never returned my call,” Jackson said.
He then spoke to Morson, Jackson said.
“He told me he took this to the DCC and said, ‘This is who Susan wants,’ and they said, ‘No, no; we don’t want him.’ I said who is ‘we?’ Eric said it was the two DCC members from the 20th District, Jackie Heftman and Ros Nesin,’” Jackson said. “It seemed like a gang-up against me.”
Heftman did not respond to an emailed request for comment Tuesday, and Nesin did not return a phone message.
‘Startling’ and ‘hurtful’
Jackson said he has worked on several Democratic candidate campaigns going back to the days of former governor and Stamford mayor Dannel Malloy. The response of Democratic leaders in the last few weeks is not how Nabel would respond, Jackson said.
“I have never known Susan to have ill will for anyone. She does not have a bigoted bone in her body,” he said. “She would come by my house and talk to my granddaughter. She worked for this company and I would send high school and college students there and she would hire them as summer interns. I don’t know her just from Democratic politics. She is a friend and neighbor.”
But Jackson said he wonders about the party.
“There are some who seem to think that only certain people can serve in certain positions. People who look like me and serve in government positions are from the South End, the West Side, lower Cove and parts of Glenbrook,” Jackson said. “My home is in North Stamford. The party talks about diversity and inclusion, but this speaks to an exclusionary attitude. It was startling, hurtful, and not what I expected from people in Stamford.”
That was the pain on one side of Monday’s conflict.
Her mother’s wishes
Pain was evident on the other side when Morson asked Curtis, the board president, to allow Lake to speak about her mother’s resignation letter.
“I understand that there are some questions regarding the validity of my mother’s letter and the wishes for her successor,” Lake told the board. “I can personally attest to the validity of the letter, the circumstances of the letter, and the clarity with which she specified a successor.”
City Rep. Sean Boeger asked Curtis’ permission to address Lake. Curtis allowed one question.
“Ms. Lake, obviously this is a very delicate situation so I apologize – I’m trying to treat this with all due respect,” Boeger said. “I spoke with your father and he indicated that your mother’s true wish was for a particular nominee other than the one listed on that piece of paper, and that other influences … have changed it … I would like to verify whether or not that is accurate. At the end, all we are trying to do is honor your mom’s wishes.”
Lake said that, on March 31, “my mother, myself and my father were in the same location. My mother was unable to write or type herself, so she dictated her letter to me in full transparency of my father, and the whole family in the room, for Carl Weinberg, and upon completion of the letter there was no conversation, no discussion. It was her wish and her wish alone, and her sentiment was extremely clear in what we put into the letter.”
“It’s just that your father expressed something different,” Boeger said.
“I am not aware of any conversations that you may have had with my father,” Lake said. “But I … think that my mother’s word as a member of the board, which has been documented and submitted, should be the only piece of information to be considered in her wishes.”
Her mother speaks for herself on board matters, so anything else should not “have any weight in what my mother’s wishes were,” Lake said.
City Rep. Nina Sherwood, who nominated Jackson, then withdrew her nomination.
“Every member was trying to honor what Susan wanted, and there was a lot of information in front of the board that led people to different conclusions,” Sherwood said Tuesday.
Boeger had nothing else to say.
“There was a request not to involve Representative Nabel or her family any further in this matter, and I believe commenting any further would not be in the interest of respecting that request, so I decline any further comment,” he said.
Other representatives did not want to speak about the meeting.
“At the family’s request, I have no comment,” Morson said.
Ley, who said she knocked doors with Nabel in District 20 when she ran for the board in 2021, said Nabel is a mentor and friend.
“I don’t want to get into a ‘he said, she said,’ because that is not what the family wants,” Ley said Tuesday. “The family wants this to rest with Susan’s letter that was validated by her daughter at the meeting (Monday) night.”
Curtis, the board president, said what happened Monday night cannot happen again.
“It was embarrassing, sad, and difficult for everyone involved,” Curtis said. “We were not privy to a lot of information prior to Susan’s daughter speaking. When you have an unsigned letter forwarded to you by someone for someone else, it raises questions. We were trying to address those questions. We got letters from Jackson before we got the resignation letter from Susan, so that raised even more questions.”
‘A good representative’
Weinberg said he learned he was Nabel’s choice on Friday, the day she dictated the letter to her daughter. He said he has resigned from the city’s Personnel Commission, a powerful body that determines job descriptions, salaries, positions and disciplinary measures for city employees. The city Charter does not allow Personnel Commission members to hold elected office.
Weinberg said he has lived in District 20 for more than 30 years.
“I know Susan because she has been active in the district, and we are members of the same synagogue,” he said.
He is a retired PriceWaterhouseCoopers partner in human resources, Weinberg said. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from Columbia University and an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
He will make a good representative, Curtis said. But something has to be done about the custom for replacing board members who resign, Curtis said.
“The first thought I had after leaving that painful meeting is that we have to codify the procedure,” Curtis said. “I don’t ever want to sit through another meeting like that.”
He spoke with Jackson Tuesday, and plans to meet with him, Curtis said.
“He told me he was approached to switch parties, but he doesn’t want to do that. I told him that if he wants to help fix the broken and divided Democratic Party, he has to do it from the inside,” Curtis said.
Weinberg must run in a special election in November if he wants to keep Nabel’s seat, Curtis said, and Jackson should run, too.
“I told him to consider that,” Curtis said. “I can’t begin to imagine how betrayed he feels by the party.”
Jackson said that what happened makes little sense because he worked to get Democratic Mayor Caroline Simmons elected in 2021. Campaign expense reports show Jackson was on Simmons’ payroll.
Lauren Meyer, special assistant to Simmons, did not return requests for comment Tuesday.
Jackson said he thinks the issue is really about a fractured city Democratic Party in which an established guard is fighting to maintain control and a more diverse faction is fighting to have its say.
“I think that in ethnic and racial politics, if you won’t play the game the way they want you to play it, they say go to the back of the bus,” Jackson said. “In my opinion, it does not honor the legacy or dignity of Susan.”
Nabel, who is in her mid-70s, first served on the Board of Representatives from 1997 to 2000, and was re-elected in 2013. She was a member of the Board of Education from 200o to 2009, including three terms as president.