FAIRFIELD — Party leaders on the Representative Town Meeting are looking for a modus vivendi for the next two years, after Democrats won a supermajority in the November elections.
Democratic First Selectman Bill Gerber beat Republican incumbent Brenda Kupchick for the town’s top seat by just 37 votes. But for the RTM, Democrats swept district-level races and transformed their pre-election majority — 23 Democrats and 17 Republicans — to a 31-9 supermajority.
Although the first selectman race suggested a fairly even political split among Fairfield residents, RTM Minority Leader Jeff Steele said Republicans will have almost no power over the 40-member body for the next two years.
“I get the sense that they’re still just going to push through what they want, because they have the votes and they know it,” Steele said. “And they know that we know it.”
Steele, a former moderator and RTM member of 14 years, said Monday that contentious laws like the noise ordinance and safe streets ordinance were passed by the group last year, despite staunch Republican opposition. And with fewer caucus members for 2024 and 2025, he said Democrats can do virtually “whatever they want.”
But Elizabeth Zezima, the RTM majority leader, told CT Examiner that she doesn’t want to govern that way. Republicans can still have a voice, she said, so long as they help create ordinances this time around.
“You have more leverage when you engage right from the very beginning by pushing an ordinance in a direction that’s more acceptable to you,” she said.
Zezima said Democrats have asked GOP members to co-sponsor legislation in the past, but that Republican leaders have often not responded or asked to see a draft of the proposal.
Steele, however, said Democrats commonly misunderstand the reason behind Republican opposition. They only vote against proposals, he said, when they disagree with the content and the process itself.
An ideological difference
Steele said members of the Republican Party typically look to protect personal liberties, not restrict them. In the case of the noise ordinance, for example, Steele said his fellow party members did not see the need for a townwide change.
The new law passed by the RTM in August limits daytime noise levels, bans yard work after 8 p.m. and allows Fairfield police to use their own discretion when responding to complaints instead of relying solely on noise monitors. While Democrats reasoned that a 30 percent increase in noise complaints from 2019 to 2021 warranted change, Republicans argued that the large majority of those calls come from neighborhoods surrounding town beaches and local universities.
“These weren’t townwide issues, but they put a whole townwide ordinance in place to conquer that,” Steele said.
Leading up to the election, Steele claimed that Democrats often drafted legislation alone and pushed it through because they had the votes to do so, not because Republicans refused to engage. He pointed to the so-called safe streets ordinance, which was introduced by Gerber two months before the election.
Passed in October, the policy requires Fairfield to hire a coordinator to plan, budget and implement street improvement projects. Gerber, who was a RTM member at the time, said the ordinance was time sensitive, as four Fairfield pedestrians had been killed by cars since 2020. But many Republicans argued town department heads had not been given enough time to review the proposal, which Gerber said he had worked on separately for the last 10 months.
Zezima acknowledged Republicans’ hesitation to impose new restrictions, and said she hopes to create bipartisan working groups to discuss issues with ordinances early in the process. When she brought the idea to Steele in November, Zezima said he seemed to support it.
Zezima denied claims that Democrats have purposefully pushed legislation by Republicans for political gain. Both the noise and safe streets ordinances, she said, were created in response to constituent concerns.
“I’m not sitting around just thinking of what we can do with our majority in a thoughtless manner,” she said. “Everything we did was out of public interest.”
A ‘fresh start’
In addition to the working groups, Zezima said she’s always thinking of ways to bring RTM Democrats and Republicans together. She said she wants to reignite a past tradition in which all RTM members went out for drinks and meetings, and said she may require the five committees to appoint one liaison from each party to its corresponding town board. In the case of the Education & Recreation Committee, both parties would appoint liaisons to the school board.
With the election behind them, Zezima said she hopes political tensions can dissipate and RTM members can work across the aisle.
“When you have an important election like that coming up, you’re gonna see a lot more partisan and political divisions in every area of government,” she said. “We are now operating with a fresh start, a new administration, a new term.”
Steele said he plans to be professional and polite to Democrats, but said national politics have significantly impacted officials on the local level in the last four years, shifting dynamics.
“This is not the way it should be. It’s not the way I’ve ever seen it. It’s gotten to a point of being pretty divisive and very partisan.” Steele said. “I hope we can work together, but it has to be two ways.”