Stamford Democrats Trade Charges Ahead of Tuesday’s Party Vote


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STAMFORD – In preparation for Tuesday’s Democratic City Committee election, Arthur Selkowitz, a staunch supporter of the established wing of Stamford’s dominant party, emailed a wide-ranging group of friends.

Selkowitz explained why the election is important, and asked for contributions to the campaigns of DCC candidates who back Mayor Caroline Simmons – members of a group called Democrats United for Stamford. 

Whichever faction of Democrats controls the DCC “essentially chooses who will run the city,” Selkowitz wrote. “Since Democrats represent a large majority in the city, it is often the case that whoever the Democrats nominate gets to serve. That goes for the mayor on down.”

The other faction of the party, Stamford Dems for Responsive Government, wants to “gain control over the DCC so they can choose the candidates who will ultimately take power in the city,” Selkowitz wrote. “If they win, they will likely not renominate Caroline Simmons for mayor” if she decides to run for a second term next year. 

Selkowitz, a retired Madison Avenue advertising executive, titled his Feb. 5 email, “They are coming after us again.”

It illustrates the state of Stamford’s Democratic Party, which controls the mayor’s office and all the elected and appointed boards that govern the state’s second-largest and fastest-growing city.

Selkowitz’s use of “again” in the email title is a reference to last year’s fight over revisions to the city charter, which centered around development. 

Charter: The first fight

Simmons and the establishment Democrats support the current pace of development in Stamford, saying it’s needed to fill a critical housing demand.

Opposing Democrats say development is poorly planned, built on spot changes to zoning regulations without regard for neighborhood traffic and housing congestion, or community need.

In a dozen years, more than 12,000 mostly high-end apartments have gone up in Stamford. City regulations require developers to set aside 10 percent as affordable units — though the actual affordability of the units is much debated.

After a bitter campaign in which pro-development Democrats outraised their opponents by more than 3 to 1, the proposed changes to the city charter, which proponents said would have given residents more say over development matters, were defeated in November.

Selkowitz, who formed a political PAC to fund-raise against the changes, said in his letter that the charter effort was “a naked grab for power.” 

The effort now to challenge seats on the DCC is the same, Selkowitz wrote. 

Selkowitz warned that if the opposing Democrats win, “they will stack the Board of Representatives with people who will stymie all progress in the city.”

It’s a message that has been repeated by DCC Chair Robin Druckman, and in campaign materials for Democrat establishment candidates. “Stop the power grab,” reads a mailer sent to voters. “People behind the charter revision power grab are at it again.”

Grabbers vs. retainers

Nina Sherwood, majority leader of the Board of Representatives and head of the challenging Democratic faction, said the charter changes were not a power grab. They were designed to give residents more say in zoning decisions, and ensure that Zoning Board members don’t remain in their seats indefinitely, as now is the case, she said.

“Saying ‘power grab’ is a talking point, a way to demonize your opponent. It’s mean-spirited and designed to fear-monger,” Sherwood said. “The party establishment wants to make sure they retain their power. If we are power-grabbers, are they power-retainers? Because that’s how the political system works.”

Two years ago, for example, the then-chair of the DCC, Josh Fedeli, told CT Examiner that in 2020 there was “a coalition of people who liked Caroline Simmons and wanted to make a change,” rather than elect former Mayor David Martin to a third term. 

So the coalition “went door-to-door, ran campaigns, raised more than $70,000, got put on the DCC” and voted Martin out and Simmons in, Fedeli said.

Asked whether that was a power grab for Simmons, Druckman said, “I cannot comment on the thought process of the former chair.”

Asked the same question, Selkowitz said he is not qualified to answer.

“I was not involved or close to any of the inner workings of the party during that period,” he said. 

Lauren Meyer, spokeswoman for the mayor, referred questions to Michael Hyman, campaign chair for Democrats United for Stamford.

Hyman did not respond to the question Friday.

Sherwood said the power grab label “is ridiculous,” given that the political system is based on getting and keeping power.

All kinds of power grabs

The DCC is not supposed to endorse candidates running for DCC seats, but Druckman has spoken out for certain candidates nonetheless, Sherwood claims.

“She has publicly supported certain people,” Sherwood said. “If the people she supports are elected, she will retain her DCC chair. Is that a power grab?”

Druckman said the DCC does not endorse candidates for a DCC primary election. 

“The DCC is not involved in any candidate campaigns. Per state statute, candidates must petition to get their name on the ballot,” Druckman said. “Candidates running in the DCC primary form their own candidate committees to raise money and run their campaigns.” 

That presents another aspect of power grabbing, Sherwood said. 

Campaign finance reports filed Tuesday show the establishment Democrats raised $88,886, nearly triple the $30,535 raised by Sherwood’s group.

The biggest contribution to establishment Democrats was $10,000 from a New York executive with Yahoo Finance. Three of Simmons’ family members contributed a total of $11,500 – her father, a cable entrepreneur from Greenwich, gave $3,000; her brother, Clifford, a CEO in New York, gave $5,000; and her other brother, Nicholas, who is running for a seat in the state Senate, gave $3,500.

Among the $5,000 contributors to Simmons-backed candidates for the DCC were the owner of a Stamford property management company; a Florida real estate executive; and an investor from Chevy Chase, Md.

Hyman said the out-of-town contributions “came from the candidates, their families, friends, supporters, and their personal and professional networks.”

Sherwood said the contributions are political favors that have no benefit to Stamford residents.

“They accuse us of trying to take over the party through a power grab, but they are allowing the party to be taken over by wealthy interests from all over the country,” Sherwood said.

Grassroots giving

Her group was funded mostly by Stamford residents who gave $20 to $100, the filings show. 

“We have people scrounging together $50,” Sherwood said. “They can’t compete with the donation power, or the connections, of the establishment Democrats.”

The biggest contributors to Stamford Dems for Responsive Government were two Stamford attorneys – one gave $5,000 and the other $3,000. The other large contributions were $2,225 from the campaign treasurer; $3,600 from a teacher and city representative; and $1,200 from a Stamford author and friend of one of the DCC candidates. Another friend of a candidate contributed $1,200. Most friends and family members gave amounts closer to $100.

The double-dipping question

Druckman said Sherwood’s group also grabs power by double-dipping, which she defines as someone who holds seats on the DCC and the Board of Representatives. It’s because city representatives are nominated and endorsed by the two DCC members from their district, so city representatives who sit on the DCC can nominate and endorse themselves.

“Their endorsement is literally in their own hands,” Druckman said. “Their seats will be protected, which is grabbing and holding onto power. This is hardly a ‘responsive’ or responsible government.”

Druckman said DCC members who hold citywide offices, such as the Board of Finance or Board of Education, are not double-dippers because they “do not control their own endorsement. Their endorsement is in the hands of the full 40-member DCC.”

Establishment Democrats on the DCC who hold citywide positions include Richard Freedman, chair of the Board of Finance; Jackie Heftman, president of the Board of Education; Hyman, a member of the Board of Education; and David Stein, a mayoral appointee who chairs the Zoning Board.

But DCC members who hold citywide offices can still vote for themselves, so Druckman’s statement “is hypocritical,” Sherwood said.

“Either they are all conflicted, or they are all not conflicted,” Sherwood said. “But this is not about nominating and endorsing yourself. It’s about obedience. If you’re obedient to the party, they don’t care if you double-dip. The bottom line is that this is a party that does not accept opinions that differ from the opinions leadership says you should have.”
Polls Tuesday are open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. For information, visit here.

Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 722 6811.