Groton Republicans assess election losses

Dean Antipas, left, Republican candidate for Groton Town Council, and Lian Obrey, right, Democratic candidate for Groton Town Council, stand outside the polling station at the Groton Public Library early Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. Antipas lost his seat, and Obrey won a seat, in a Democratic sweep. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Dean Antipas, left, Republican candidate for Groton Town Council, and Lian Obrey, right, Democratic candidate for Groton Town Council, stand outside the polling station at the Groton Public Library early Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. Antipas lost his seat, and Obrey won a seat, in a Democratic sweep. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

Groton — Republican Town Committee Chairman Dean Antipas stepped in front of his shocked colleagues at Republican headquarters Tuesday night after the election returns came in.

“I’m the author of this debacle,” he began, then apologized, looking stricken. “I don’t know what else to say.”

Town Councilor Antipas and six other Republican incumbent councilors — including Harry Watson, who held his seat for 26 years — lost Tuesday in a full Democratic sweep of the council.

Voters elected Democratic incumbent Richard Moravsik; Rita Schmidt, a former town councilor; Patrice Granatosky, a former town councilor; Lian Obrey, a real estate broker; Conrad Heede, a Groton City councilor; Rachael Franco, a business manager in Norwich; Juliette Parker, the administrative assistant to the Groton City police chief; David Atwater, a former selectman in Maine; and Joe Zeppieri, a retired orthopedic surgeon who practices law.

Franco, Atwater and Zeppieri entered the campaign as relative unknowns.

Groton voters also elected all three Democrats who ran for the four seats on the Board of Education, and every Democrat but one who ran for Representative Town Meeting.

“I’ve been fielding phone calls all day from people in shock,” said Diane Barber, who lost her seat along with Antipas, Watson and fellow Republicans Bruce Flax, Deborah Peruzzotti, Karen Morton and Bonnie Nault.

“A lot of people have the theory that it comes down from Trump. I am not going to take it personal,” Barber said. “When you look at all the different races, the Democrats won and the Republicans were on the bottom in almost every single race. So that tells me that people were voting party line.”

At least twice on Tuesday, voters approached candidates at the polls, expressed anger about Trump and asked who the Republicans were, Nault said.

“I wasn’t completely shocked,” she said of the election. “I really didn’t think I was going to win.” But she didn’t expect a complete sweep, she said.

National politics played a role, but the state’s budget crisis also affected incumbents, she said. Local incumbents had to respond to a delay in passing a state budget. While the Groton Town Council cut spending, taxes still rose, Nault said.

“The state budget this year left anyone who was in office in a terrible position,” she said. “We didn’t know what to do because we didn’t know what we were going to get.” Councilors took a hard line on the budget and some people loved it, but others were angry, she said.

Obrey, the second-highest vote-getter for Town Council after Zeppieri , said the council made decisions at the local level, which hurt them and were televised.

The council initially cut the Board of Education budget by $5.2 million, later restoring $2.2 million of that money. “That was a pretty radical cut, and then they didn’t do the same to the other departments,” Obrey said. She believes they didn’t realize it would have the impact it did.

Councilors also considered not renewing the lease of the Par 4 Restaurant at Shennecossett Golf Course earlier this year.

“Quite honestly, I think when they got involved with Par 4, it was a horrible mistake,” Obrey said. Small business owners saw what occurred and didn’t like it, she said. “They lost confidence in them. I think that had a lot to do with taking down the whole group.”

Flax said he believes Democrats were more organized; they jumped ahead with their message about local issues and this combined with national politics to affect the outcome. With regard to Par 4, Flax said former Town Manager Mark Oefinger was negotiating the lease with the restaurant owners and approached the council saying the discussions weren’t going well and the owners might not be interested. Then the council met with the owners, discussed putting the lease out to bid and that went badly, he said.

“You mull it over and you try to do what’s best for the town,” Flax said. Likewise, when the town faced a potential $17 million loss in state funding, it cut the city police department, he said. That issue also became contentious, and Democrats took up both and put their message out, he said.

“I guess it’s a learning experience for me. I still continue to learn,” Flax said.

“They obviously were more organized than we were. I had that feeling,” Watson said. “I think they were running on the wake of the heels on the (Groton) city election, where they swept and put all Democrats in there. If you look at it now, we have a town and a city where the top layers of government are completely one party. Maybe that will be good for communication, but I don’t think it’s good for the community.”

After the results were finalized, the incumbents still at Republican headquarters drove in a caravan to Democratic headquarters. They congratulated the winners and shook their hands.

“I’m fine with the decision that’s been made,” Watson said. “I just hope things go in the right direction. I really do.”

d.straszheim@theday.com

Editor's Note: Groton Town Councilor Joe Zeppieri received the most votes. An earlier article said another candidate was the top vote getter.

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