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Indivisible’s ascendance lays bare the party divides

November 17, 2018

In late 2017, not long after the November municipal elections, more than 500 people packed the Second Congregational Church in Greenwich to listen to three of the state’s most prominent Democratic elected officials.

Attracting that many people for any political event in town is no easy feat; it was even more surprising that it happened in the days immediately following an election, when a certain political fatigue sets in among even the most committed politicos. Plus, the three Democrats, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, and U.S. senators Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, were well known to Greenwich voters. So why the big turnout?

Well, Greenwich politics had a new energy in late 2017. Democrats had won control of the town’s Board of Estimate and Taxation for the first time, and voters sent more than 70 new members to the Representative Town Meeting, many of them women. The power source fueling the new energy was Indivisible Greenwich, a women-led, grassroots political organization that had arisen from the 2016 Women’s March on Washington.

By filling the pews in the elegant stone church, Indivisible was taking a victory lap of sorts; in just one year the organization had radically changed the town’s electoral dynamics, and had proved itself to be a more potent campaign organization than either the Democratic or Republican town committees. The event’s timing also signaled that the group was not resting on its early successes. There was another election just 11 months away and the clock was ticking. Himes and Murphy, both of whom were up for re-election this year, heard the Indivisible call loud and clear. And when 500 people showed up, Himes, Murphy and Blumenthal knew they were addressing a strong, growing movement.

Here we are, a year later, and Indivisible’s political strength has gained even more power and momentum; Democrats supported by Indivisible won two of the town’s three contested General Assembly seats, and the organization generated huge voter turnout for a non-presidential year. Greenwich still seems stunned at this turn of events: two weeks after the election, the historic upsets are still the first topic of conversation when friends meet at coffee shops, in front of schools, at the gym or in the office. And one losing Republican candidate cannot seem to stop writing letters to his constituents, rehashing his defeat and questioning his opponents’ motives.

It would be a mistake for both local Republican and Democratic town committees to dismiss Indivisible as little more than an organization of women angry at President Donald Trump’s brutish, often sexist, rhetoric and behavior. Anti-Trump feelings still run high among women, and within Indivisible, but the successful candidates in Greenwich won by focusing on issues beyond Trump, such as gun control and economic development, and by speaking to the changing voter demographics within Greenwich.

The 2019 municipal election campaigns have already begun; such is the nature of our non-stop political cycles. If First Selectman Peter Tesei seeks an unprecedented seventh, two-year term this November, his relatively weak showing at the polls in 2017 leaves him vulnerable within his own party; his re-nomination is not the lock many people may think.

And the Democrats have some internal issues of their own. The more liberal Democrats on the town committee were glad to see the defeat of state Sen. L. Scott Frantz, but were not enthusiastic about the financial conservatism of his Democratic opponent, state Sen.-elect Alex Bergstein. Plus, there is a rift in the party leadership. Democratic Town Committee Chairman Tony Turner, a member of the BET, led a very aggressive fundraising effort last year that some DTC members thought came too close to violating campaign finance laws. Tax Collector Howard Richman resigned in June as treasurer of the DTC, in a move that many DTC members saw as a protest of Turner’s tactics. Richman said only that he resigned because he “wanted to devote his full energies to my job as tax collector.”

It is also known that Indivisible Greenwich is less than impressed by the campaign chops of the DTC. Several members pointed to the DTC’s non-existent response to local Republicans claims that the Democrats were “telling lies” in their campaign ads.

“As DTC chairman, Turner should have been ready with a detailed response, giving point by point support for the Democratic claims about the Republicans’ voting records. But he didn’t. His response was very general, as if he did not have a full grasp of the issues,” said one DTC member, who was familiar with both DTC and Indivisible campaign operations.

Just as they have on the state and national level, local political party organizations have become less important in elections. Candidates are expected to raise their own funds and provide their own get-out-the-vote effort. If it weren’t for the two major parties’ control over places on the ballot each election, they would have hard time demonstrating their relevance.

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