DARIEN – With no town Democrats gunning for open seats, Republicans are running uncontested this election – giving voters no choice for some key seats and little opportunity for debate, a former Democratic first selectman said.
In July, members of the Darien Democratic Town Committee and Republican Town Committee held caucuses to endorse candidates for the 2023 municipal election. While Republicans chose to run candidates for the three open seats, Democrats offered no new contenders, only endorsing incumbents.
But because the Republican candidates – Jon Zagrodzky for first selectman, Gregory Grambling for the school board and Jamie Zionic for the Planning and Zoning Commission – running for the open seats are unopposed, former Democratic First Selectman Evonne Klein said this year’s election has already been decided by the July caucuses.
“The people who have been chosen to lead the town have been chosen by a very small number of people,” Klein told CT Examiner.
According to an RTC newsletter, the Republican candidates were interviewed and endorsed by the 21 members of the committee in July. Later that month, all of the endorsed candidates were confirmed by Republican electors at the caucus as no one petitioned any of the open seats.
As First Selectman Monica McNally, a Republican, will be stepping down from the role this year, Klein said it’s especially unfortunate that residents will not get to choose their next town leader. A competitive race, she said, typically serves as a way to inform voters on important town issues.
“When you have a competitive race, folks get to hear about the candidates’ point of views. They get to have a chance to hear about the candidate’s vision for the town. There are debates where you can discern what the differences are, and make an informed decision,” Klein said. “But again, the decision has been made for the town.”
While McNally is stepping down as first selectman, she is also running unopposed to fill Zagrodzy’s empty spot as a member of the board. And, other than Zagrodzky, all other members of the Board of Selectmen – including Democrats Sarah Neumann, Michael Burke and Republican Marcy Minnick – are running unopposed to keep their current seats.
Without a Democratic candidate for the executive seat, Klein said Darien will also continue to uphold its longstanding reputation as a “Republican town.” In total, she said there have been only four Democratic first selectmen, and no Democrat has been elected for the position since she left office in 2009.
But Zagrodzky, a current member of the Board of Selectmen, told CT Examiner that his uncontested run is not due to a lack of trying by the DTC.
“Rather, it reflects the fact [that] no one in their party felt prepared at this moment to make the required personal and professional commitment,” Zagrodzky added. “I am sure the DTC will have qualified candidates in the future; they certainly have in the past.”
While Zagrodzky said he’s ready to make a change in his professional career, both of the Democratic members on the Board of Selectmen – Neumann and Burke – said they cannot commit to the full time position.
“Many residents have full-time jobs that won’t allow them to run for an office such as First Selectman,” Neumann wrote in a statement to CT Examiner. “Mike Burke and I both work full-time in NYC but are proud of the hours of service and commitment we have given as volunteers on the Board of Selectmen.”
In his statement to CT Examiner, Burke said he “never considered” running for first selectman this year as he is committed to his law practice, but looks forward to working alongside his fellow board members for another term.
Klein, who served for three consecutive terms as first selectman, acknowledged that the role can be “very involved” as officials must be available at all times. She recommended that interested candidates should start small in town government, and work their way up.
“When you have the opportunity to volunteer and maybe help with campaigns, it’s not as daunting as thinking about, ‘Well, I’m waking up today to run for first selectman,’” Klein said.
And while the Republican candidates are running uncontested, the RTC is actively fundraising and holding campaign events. According to their October campaign finance filing, the RTC has raised $15,855 in funds from individual contributions, compared to $3,125 for the DTC.
Asked about RTC fundraising efforts, Zagrodzky said campaigning allows Republican candidates to connect with voters and keep them engaged despite the lack of competition this year.
“Fundraising provides the resources to do so – signs, buttons, flyers, meet-and-greets, etc,” he said. “More broadly, though, I want to drive interest in voting, which will be important in the elections next year. Voter education and engagement is critical, irrespective of political party.”
Klein said with their fundraising efforts, Republicans are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do.
“Your job is just not one election. Your job is continuous building for the election this year, the election next year, the election the year after that, and so on,” she said. “So they’re doing exactly the job that they should be doing.”
DTC Chair Theresa Vogt did not respond to CT Examiner requests for comment on the upcoming election.