STAMFORD – Civic leaders often say they don’t understand why so few voters turn out for elections, like the one on Nov. 7, when only local races are on the ballot.
Those who win seats on the Board of Representatives, Board of Education and Board of Finance make decisions on tax levies, road repairs, the number of police officers, school redistricting, park maintenance, traffic control, fiscal policy, and many other matters that affect residents’ lives and pocketbooks.
Yet, in a municipal election, only one out of five voters – sometimes fewer – typically shows up. When turnout is that low, a very small number of votes can decide a race.
It’s one reason why questions are swirling around the Sept. 12 Democratic primary in Board of Representatives District 9, where newcomer Walter Mardis petitioned his way onto the ballot to challenge incumbent City Rep. Kindrea Walston.
Mardis gathered all the signatures he needed from two addresses in his West Side district – 77 Havemeyer Lane, the gated community of townhouses and condominiums where Mardis lives; and neighboring 122 Palmers Hill Road, a luxury senior living facility called Edgehill.
Mardis’ petition, submitted to the city’s Democratic registrar of voters on Aug. 4, shows 67 signatures – 47 people who listed their address as 77 Havemeyer Lane, and 20 who listed 122 Palmers Hill Road. To force a primary, a candidate must gather signatures in the district from at least 5 percent of the registered voters in his or her party.
There are primaries this year because five city representatives resigned after the 2021 municipal election. The board appointed replacements, including Walston, but the replacements now must run in November to keep their seats until 2025.
Walston, who was endorsed by the Stamford Democratic City Committee and does not have to collect signatures to get on the ballot, said that when she saw all the Edgehill signatures on Mardis’ petition, her campaign assumed he had been given access to the building and asked the management if Walston could meet residents to let them know she also is running.
No door-knocking here
“They told us no. They said we could drop off our campaign literature, but we can’t speak to residents,” Walston said. “I don’t understand. How do we know what’s happening there? They can call a group meeting and say, ‘Everyone here vote for Mr. Mardis,’ and not let me even introduce myself.”
City Rep. Sean Boeger, a Democrat from District 15, said he contacted Ann Mandel, an Edgehill resident who helps run a “legislative committee” at the complex, which offers independent and assisted living, plus nursing, rehabilitative, and memory care. City property records show occupancy is 296 people.
“I am concerned that in-person access to the registered voters of Edgehill is being prohibited,” Boeger wrote in an email to Mandel. “How is one candidate allowed access to the residents but another is not?”
The complex is “totally nonpartisan,” Mandel wrote back.
“An individual Edgehill resident circulated a sign-up sheet for some Democrats to allow Mr. Mardis to get on the ballot. This has nothing to do with Edgehill — nor should it assume that any of the signers plan to vote or vote for him,” Mandel wrote. “… the best way for Ms. Walston to make herself known here is to write to voters (registered Democrats) at 122 Palmers Hill Road.”
Mandel is among the Edgehill residents who signed Mardis’ petition. That raises eyebrows, Boeger told CT Examiner.
“If a committee of people or a singular person who addresses political matters for the complex unilaterally decides which candidates have access and which don’t, it’s ripe for favoritism,” Boeger said. “We are dropping off literature, as they suggested, but we don’t know if it will get delivered to the residents or not. It’s a mystery in there, unless you have a hook to the inside.”
‘That is their prerogative’
Ashley Studley, director of internal communications for parent company Benchmark Senior Living, said Edgehill “supports the voting rights and the exercise of civil liberties by all our residents. We have a robust schedule of activities and engagement programs. Outside guests, including political candidates, are always welcome to contact us to see how we can accommodate them.”
Edgehill “did not host either candidate formally,” Studley said of the District 9 primary race. “If a resident chooses to support someone and gathers signatures for them, that is their prerogative.”
It’s true, said Jillian Hirst, press secretary for the Office of the Secretary of the State.
“There is nothing in statute that would prohibit the circulation of a petition by a resident in an assisted-living facility,” Hirst said, and “it is appropriate for an assisted-living facility to restrict access to candidates, if that prohibition is applied to all candidates.”
Mardis said Monday he was not given access to Edgehill.
“I have a friend there who offered to gather signatures. If [the Walston campaign has] a friend there, they can do the same,” Mardis said. “I happen to know someone there who helped me. There was no special access.”
The Stamford Democratic City Committee plays no role in discussions about whether candidates may address residents at Edgehill, said Robin Druckman, the chair.
“As a political party, we respect and abide by the decisions of each building, apartment complex, or private community as to whether or not they allow candidates onto their premises to campaign and we ask our endorsed candidates to do the same,” Druckman said.
It’s a go at the Green
Walston said she is allowed to meet residents of Stamford Green, a 90-unit affordable housing complex for seniors on West Main Street.
“Stamford Green is a building for seniors with less money. We door-knocked there. But we can’t at Edgehill,” Walston said.
Edgehill bills itself as a luxury facility offering “premier services and amenities” for “discerning seniors” who are “acclimated to life’s finer things.”
The same is true for the complex on Havemeyer Lane where Mardis lives, Walston said. Advertised as a “luxury gated community,” the 195 units in the complex on the Greenwich border fetch high prices. A townhouse recently sold for $1.45 million, and a condominium for $799,000.
“It’s just not right how someone in a gated community can come to my house and hand out campaign literature,” said Walston, who lives in the Stamford housing authority complex on Connecticut Avenue. “But I can’t come to your house and hand out my literature.”
Boeger said the disparity in access can affect the Sept. 12 primary and the Nov. 7 election, especially since residents who advocate for a certain candidate may distribute absentee ballot applications to fellow residents.
“If a candidate can use connections to gain access to places where his opponent cannot get access, where is the fairness?” Boeger said. “We have a situation where a candidate who does not represent the demographic of his district can win the primary.”
‘A big wealth gap’
It’s an important consideration on the West Side, where the Edgehill facility and Mardis’ townhouse and condo complex are anomalies, said Jeff Stella, Walston’s fellow District 9 representative.
“District 9 is very diverse in race and religion and ethnicity, but one thing most people have in common is that they are struggling,” Stella said. “A small percentage of people are well-to-do, with a big wealth gap between them and the rest of the district.”
Mardis said he holds a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University and had a career as a city manager and management consultant. He is knocking on doors in District 9, he said.
“I’m hitting as many houses as I can, and will continue,” Mardis said. “I’m not stuck up in Palmer Hill,” his townhouse complex.
He helps raise money for Stamford Dollars for Scholars, a scholarship for city high school graduates, and a similar program for students who live in the Rippowam Park affordable housing complex on Connecticut Avenue, Mardis said.
His priority issues are affordable housing, relieving congestion on Interstate 95, and supporting Mayor Caroline Simmons.
“The main thing I want to say is what the city needs is a strong mayor, and we have one, and we should do anything we can do to support her in keeping Stamford the most successful city in Connecticut,” Mardis said. “I want to do my part to support her agenda.”
Walston said Mardis has criticized her for not backing the mayor.
“I like the mayor. I just don’t agree with all of her policies,” Walston said. “I can’t be a rubber-stamper. I’m for the people.”
In her nearly 17 months on the Board of Representatives, Walston has advocated for deeply affordable housing, issues affecting seniors, safer streets, and the rights of tenants. Before she was a representative, Walston worked in the community supporting unions representing janitors, taxi drivers, and service workers.
“I love the West Side. We are so diverse. People are living their culture here,” Walston said. “There are a lot of small businesses; they look out for each other. It’s a real community. It doesn’t matter if you’re Black or White or Latino. Everybody deserves a part of the pie.”
Because turnout in municipal primaries and elections is usually low, she is working to reach as many people as she can to remind them of the importance of voting, Walston said.
“I think voters will be a little more motivated by this race,” she said. “I am not a stranger on the West Side.”