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Democratic victories signal a new era in Greenwich politics

November 10, 2018

GREENWICH — Looking out over the packed crowd at Republican headquarters was an unfamiliar and strange feeling for Fred Camillo.

“We are starting to trend blue down here, and we, as Republicans, are going to have to adjust to that,” Camillo told the stunned crowd at the Milbrook Club, the annual site of the Republicans’ election-night party, and the scene of early November celebrations for as long as anyone can remember.

But Tuesday night was a Greenwich election night unlike any other. Camillo was essentially the sole survivor of an evening that saw the local GOP lose a seat in the state House of Representatives for the first time in more than a century and a seat in the state Senate for the first time since 1930.

Only Livvy Floren, who ran unopposed, joined Camillo among town Republicans in holding onto a seat in the Legislature.

The two representatives will return to Hartford for the next session as part of something that barely exists in memory — a bipartisan delegation from Greenwich.

“This is not just happening here,” Camillo said after the election dust had settled. “There are Democratic strongholds that are turning Republican, and you have places like Greenwich that are far more competitive than they ever used to be. People are moving to Greenwich from blue states and they’re coming here to change things.”

Slow build

For decades, Greenwich Democrats have been an Election Day afterthought. An occasional anomaly has poached an office, but the minority party has never managed to assemble a measurable challenge to the local control enjoyed by the Republican Town Committee.

Signs of change began to appear last year, however. Camillo called it a “perfect storm” that might have Republicans looking for an umbrella.

In the 2017 municipal elections, Democrats won control of the Board of Estimate and Taxation for the first time in history and cut significantly into the margin of victory for Republican First Selectman Peter Tesei, who had waltzed to victory in five earlier runs, while also winning the tax collector’s job and outperforming expectations for the Board of Education.

But even with those two election cycles where Greenwich Democrats made history, Democratic Town Committee Chair Tony Turner said the seeds of the change were planted long before Tesei was made to sweat on election night. That fact leaves Democrats in position to build on Tuesday’s historic victories by state Rep.-elect Stephen Meskers and state Sen.-elect Alexandra Bergstein, who defeated Republican incumbents Michael Bocchino and L. Scott Frantz, respectively.

“I wouldn’t call any of this dramatic,” Turner said. “I think it’s been a step-by-step process. It hasn’t been an overnight success by any stretch. It’s been a gradual change, and one we are still working on.”

Last year’s gains and this year’s victories came after years of work by Democrats to narrow the gap in town voter registration. Republicans enjoyed a two-to-one voter advantage over Democrats in 2004. By Election Day 2018, that ratio had closed to 12,857 registered Republicans in Greenwich and 10,390 registered Democrats, with both parties trailing Greenwich’s unaffiliated voters, who numbered 14,070.

For Richard DiPreta, RTC chairman, more was at play than just a change in the numbers. Greenwich traditionally has operated in somewhat of a political bubble, its voting booths untouched by goings-on in the state and country. But the last two elections in Greenwich were influenced by politics outside of town, DiPreta said. The partisan fights and anger that resulted from the 2016 election of President Donald Trump have had an impact on Greenwich, a town that Democrat Hilary Clinton carried that year.

“There is a changing climate,” DiPreta said. “That’s undeniable. ... It’s certainly been suggested, and I believe there is a large degree of truth to it, that what’s happening in Washington played a large part in what we saw happening in town and in a statewide basis.”

DiPreta said he was told by several people on Election Day that they considered the contests a referendum on Trump.

“I heard that many times, and it is disappointing to hear,” DiPreta said. “To hold Scott Frantz responsible for what’s happening in Washington I believe is a terrible mistake.”

Still Republican

DiPreta said it would be a mistake for Republicans to look at Tuesday’s results and see only doom and gloom. Not only did Camillo win comfortably, he said, but Floren had no Democratic challenger in her run for a 10th term. He credited Frantz’s loss to Bergstein’s overpowering showing in the Stamford portion of the 36th state Senate District, pointing out that Frantz carried the district in Greenwich and New Canaan.

He also touted Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski’s easy win in Greenwich over Democrat Ned Lamont, despite the fact that Lamont, who won the state, lives in Greenwich.

“There is still a Republican stronghold in town,” DiPreta said.

Turner agreed, to a point, noting strong Republican performances in traditional GOP fortresses in central Greenwich, Riverside and the backcountry. But Old Greenwich and Pemberwick/Glenville, which have become swing districts, swung to Democrats this year — a trend his party will work to solidify.

National issues played a part in the Democrats’ strong performance over the last two election cycles, Turner agreed. But Democrats were able to connect with Greenwich voters on a level they haven’t before, which he attributed to the strong campaign work by Bergstein and Meskers. Bergstein’s dominance was in Stamford, but Turner pointed out she was able to cut deeply into Frantz’s Greenwich firewall, bringing in a much larger proportion of votes than Democratic candidate John Blankley had in 2016.

On Friday, Bergstein attributed her victory to a “growing desire for positive and productive political discourse” from the voters in the district.

Having run as “a different kind of Democrat,” who took no money from the state party — she heavily self-financed her campaign and outspent Frantz — Bergstein suggested neither party will be able to take voters for granted in the future.

“Regardless of party label, or any other label, we are all equals and neighbors, and are all invested in the success of this state,” she said. “Party labels are limited at best, and I don’t subscribe to the ‘us versus them’ mentality. I am solely focused on constructive dialogue about real solutions. And, it turns out, that’s what the voters want, too.”

Indivisible

As undeniable as the change in voter registration numbers is the fact that the two political parties are no longer the only players in local elections.

Formed in the wake of the Trump election, the groups March On Greenwich and Indivisible Greenwich made their voices heard in last year’s municipal elections, particularly Indivisible, which made formal endorsements and campaigned against a proposed Board of Education charter change. The groups were widely credited with energizing the Democrats’ uncommonly strong showing.

Indivisible’s co-founders, Joanna Swomley and Nerlyn Pierson, were elected to the Greenwich RTM last year in a wave of new, mostly female, members. They said the group does not participate directly in individual campaigns, but stresses to its members “the importance of running for office and becoming engaged in the election process.”

There is little debate over which side of the spectrum the group has succeeded in engaging.

Indivisible Greenwich this year endorsed Bergstein, Meskers and Camillo foe Laura Kostin, “because they espoused policies consistent with IG’s missions,” Swomley and Pierson said in a joint statement.

“IG also produced material attempting to educate the community about items such as the political state of CT, know your rights on election day, voting records of the Greenwich delegation on women’s rights, education, the working poor, net neutrality, among others,” they said. “Finally, IG sponsored a general Get Out The Vote post card writing initiative highlighting the importance of voting.”

Both pledged to continue the group’s efforts to fully participate in all upcoming elections.

2019 and beyond

The close of polls Tuesday started the clock ticking on next year’s municipal elections. Tesei announced last month he will seek a seventh term in office. That will be on Turner’s mind as Greenwich Democrats seek to build on recent gains, which he said will require growing the party’s infrastructure in town and bringing in new volunteers and new members.

“We have to harness and direct the energy of the voters in our direction,” Turner said. “That is still going to be a long job for us.”

For Republicans, DiPreta said the focus on analyzing the 2018 results and responding as a political party has already begun. He said that a lot went right for Greenwich Republicans, who campaigned tirelessly and increased outreach into the community, particularly on social media.

“Obviously we need to do more, because I strongly believe our message is the correct message for this town, and we do need to ask ourselves if we’re doing a good enough job of getting that message out there,” DiPreta said. “How can we campaign better? When you lose, you feel there’s obvious room to improve. We’re taking a step back and seeing what we can do better.”

As the parties wrestle with challenges and questions, one thing remains certain: For two consecutive cycles, Greenwich has experienced competitive elections for the first time in many decades, if ever.

Camillo, in assessing the new landscape, put out a warning both to Democrats and his own party: remember the unaffiliated voters, who made up Greenwich’s biggest voting bloc in 2017, and grew in 2018.

“Going forward, I think everybody, and that’s both Republicans and Democrats, need to pay attention to where the biggest number of voters are,” Camillo said. “That means you can’t just keep relying on your base, and it means people need to be able to work from the center. That shouldn’t just be a goal you talk about at election time. It has to be how you operate.”

kborsuk@greenwichtime.com

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