State Democrats Hear Complaints of Abuse, Vote Fraud by Bridgeport Party Leaders


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BRIDGEPORT – Local Democratic Town Committee leaders skipped a Friday hearing about claims of backroom meetings and claims of strong-arming of the 90-member committee.

On Friday night, the state Democratic Party gathered a panel to hear allegations that state and local rules had been violated by Bridgeport committee Chair Mario Testa. While numerous former and current committee members attended to air grievances and back the claims, Testa and other committee leaders chose not to join the meeting.

Prerna Rao, an attorney representing the complainants, said Testa’s absence proved a “severe lack of respect” for the state party and its rules.

“To not even show up? It shows how much that this process of transparency and accountability means to this panel and the people who are here today, versus how much it means to the respondents,” Rao said.

The complaint by Gemeem Davis and Callie Gale Heilmann, co-directors of the political non-profit Bridgeport Generation Now Votes, was submitted to the party on Feb. 7, alleging a longstanding culture of closed-door political dealings within the Bridgeport DTC.

Davis and Gale Heillman claimed that Testa – who has served as party chair for more than a decade and is a staunch supporter of Mayor Joe Ganim – violated party rules by holding private DTC gatherings in his own restaurant, providing no public notice for meetings and giving members little say in committee decisions.

A panel of three party members – Rosemarie Tate from West Hartford, Micheal Vogel from Canton, and Marc Garafalo from Derby – spent more than two hours on Friday listening to testimony from four Bridgeport Generation Now Votes’ witnesses. The witnesses – Davis, Rahul Branch, Josue Jorge and Donna Curran – all largely confirmed the allegations detailed in the complaint, maintaining that a lack of transparency has allowed issues like absentee ballot fraud to slip through the cracks in Bridgeport.

As the city with the largest concentration of Democrats in Connecticut – 48,947 of the 888,707 registered Democrats – the witnesses said mismanagement at the local level has given the entire state party a bad name.

Backroom decisions

According to Davis, a committee member for District 131 from 2020 to 2022, the local DTC held only three public meetings in the two years that she served. All other meetings, she said, were seemingly held behind closed doors by Testa and the 10 district leaders.

While decisions like DTC leadership appointments and candidate endorsements were made at the full 90-member committee meetings, Davis said all other decisions – such as campaign spending, messaging and planning – were allegedly made in private.

Asked by the panelists about the details of the district leader meetings, Davis said she rarely knew when they were held or what decisions were made – she simply knew that she was not welcome. 

“It was understood that we could not go as just a regular member,” Davis said.

While Davis said district leaders are supposed to report back to members with a summary of the private discussions at individual district-level meetings, Jorge said he has yet to hear an update from his district leader over the last two years.

Jorge, who has served on the local DTC since 2022, said he was surprised to learn that committee spending is decided behind the scenes. He said he was especially confused when he saw that the committee had paid for advertisements for Ganim’s 2023 mayoral campaign without approval from the full committee.

“I never voted on any placement of advertisement for the mayor,” Jorge said. “Maybe I shouldn’t have to vote on that topic. I don’t know, because I’m left completely in the dark.”

In 2023, the DTC reported receiving a total of $43,335 in contributions in 2023 from DTC leaders like Testa and Vice Chair Wanda Geter-Pataky, candidates like Ganim, Councilman Ernest Newton and Councilwoman AmyMarie Vizzo-Paniccia, and committee members. Per the campaign filings, the committee spent a total of about $41,315, largely spent on mailers, newspaper advertisements and rental fees for campaign events.

Without public minutes detailing the district leader meetings, it is unclear who exactly approved campaign spending.

While Jorge said he would like to know what goes on in the committee leadership meetings, he told the panelists that he does not ask his district leader for updates out of fear of disrupting the status quo.

“You want to ask what goes on behind the curtain but, at the same time, not really. You don’t want to get anybody upset,” Jorge said. “Me being on this call and providing this testimony – I’m sure it’s gonna get someone upset.”

Public meetings?

Along with the private meetings, the witnesses also said there is little transparency surrounding the full committee meetings.

Per local rules, the Bridgeport DTC must hold meetings at least four times a year, and they must be open and accessible to the public. However, all of the witnesses said they’ve only attended two or three meetings in the years that they’ve served on the DTC, and that there was little notice of the meetings or their location.

Branch, who served District 135 from 2022 to 2024, said he was notified of the two full-committee meetings he attended through mailed letters from committee leaders and private email chains. Because the committee does not have a website and is inactive on social media, he said, there are very few ways for the public to learn about the meetings.

Branch said the full meetings were held either in the private banquet room at Testa’s restaurant or the local Italian club, which often discouraged the public from attending.

“Technically they’re supposed to be open to the public. But if you don’t know where the meeting is, when the meeting is happening, then you wouldn’t know to walk into that room,” Branch said.

When asked by Rao, all of the witnesses said there was no signage at the restaurant or club directing the public to the meetings.

On average, Branch said anywhere from 30 to 40 members of the public joined the 90 DTC members at the public meetings. He said those who attended the meetings were usually those who ran in Bridgeport’s “political circles” and had ties to DTC leaders.

Jorge said that there was little room for members to suggest their own candidates for endorsement or ask questions at the full committee meetings. He said there is almost no structure to DTC meetings, making it nearly impossible to speak up. 

He pointed to one particular meeting when the DTC was choosing between two candidates for City Council. According to Jorge, one of his district members stood up to voice her opinion on a candidate, and was immediately shut down.

“Not only [Testa], but other members discouraged her from speaking,” Jorge said. “She stood up and she said, ‘I just have something I’d like to say quick.’ And they said, ‘No, don’t talk. Sit down. Stop talking.’”

While the DTC is supposed to follow Robert’s Rules of Order, Jorge said members are constantly talking over one another, meaning requests and motions often go unheard.

A call for change

Curran, who served on the DTC for District 130 from 2018 to 2020, said all of the issues outlined by her fellow witnesses help to foster a system of deceit among Bridgeport Democrats – particularly when it comes to absentee ballots.

According to Curran, she was the only candidate on her 2018 DTC slate who did not fall victim to absentee ballot fraud. While five of the nine people on her slate won at the polls, she said, she was the only candidate who won after a count of absentee votes.

While she had no proof to back up the claim at the time, Curran said she was certain that the opposing candidates had taken advantage of low-income Democrats in her district and had “controlled, bribed or threatened” voters to secure their support by absentee ballot. But now, she said, the city has clear proof of DTC members engaging in absentee ballot fraud.

In a lawsuit by mayoral candidate John Gomes presented city surveillance footage of Geter-Pataky and Councilwoman Enedia Martinez seemingly stuffing ballots into city dropboxes ahead of the Sept. 12 Democratic primary election. Curran said the lawsuit validated her earlier claims in 2018 and longstanding allegations of voters suppression.

“The town committee is very important to Mr. Testa. It’s his power base,” Curran said. “It’s that abuse of power that has suppressed voters and suppressed sufficient numbers of good candidates so we can have a robust election in this city.”

At the end of the hearing, Rao called on the panelists to help Bridgeport Generation Now Votes to help the almost 50,000 Democrats in the city and rule on the complaint. According to a spokesperson for the state party, panels typically issue their decision about a week after the hearing.

Testa could not be reached for comment.