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Groton City Democratic primary becomes contentious on social media

Groton — The Democratic primary for Groton City mayor has brought out a high level of interest from people — and also become contentious on social media.

One side is alleging people are getting personal, while the other is taking issue with restrictions to social media access.

Town Councilor Aundré Bumgardner, who is challenging incumbent City Mayor Keith Hedrick in a March 8 Democratic primary, said on social media that “Sad when your fellow party members have to get personal to elevate their preferred candidate...” and “Word of advice to Mayor Keith Hedrick and his campaign: You do not come for my family or my girlfriend. Period. Do not cross that line.”

Meanwhile, several people say they have been blocked by Bumgardner on Facebook, and Gweneviere Depot, the city’s deputy mayor and vice chair of the city’s Democratic Committee, has written Bumgardner a letter saying he is violating First Amendment rights by doing so.

People also are sending a steady volume of letters to the editor and weighing in both strongly for and against the two candidates for the Democratic primary in which the winner will not face a Republican opponent in the May general election.

While Bumgardner did not elaborate on his posts, he said a candidate’s “personal life should be off limits.”

“That’s the rule of thumb I learned in politics,” he said. He added that he remains focused on the issues confronting the city and respectfully asks his opponent and his opponent's campaign to focus on the issues that matter.

Hedrick said he is not aware of anything that his supporters or campaign did to warrant Bumgardner’s posts. He said that he would not support attacking anyone, and going after someone’s family or girlfriend is “off bounds.”

Depot also said she never personally attacked Bumgardner and has nothing against Bumgardner, who she said seems personally nice.

She said she had been asking Bumgardner questions, such as what his plans are for managing employees and if he had any ideas for how he would manage employees differently than the current mayor. She said it was mostly in the interest of getting information to her constituents who had asked questions.

Depot said she was blocked from Bumgardner's personal page, and when she found out that a handful of other people had been blocked, she researched the issue and used the ACLU’s website to draft a letter, which she emailed to him. She said it is an issue because she said Bumgardner, a town councilor, posts town updates on the page.

“The Facebook page is being used as a public forum where governmental matters such as legislation, policies, and votes — which affect me as a constituent — are routinely discussed. Blocking me from this interactive space solely due to the nature of my comments violates my First Amendment rights,” the letter stated.

Bumgardner said he did not block anyone from his campaign page, where Depot “has every ability to participate in the discourse."

“Any person has the ability to ask me questions or engage with our campaign and me directly on my campaign page,” he said. He also said people can call or email him with any questions concerning the City of Groton.

He said he has a personal Facebook page intended for friends and family.

The ACLU of Connecticut has taken a position on public officials' behavior on their official social media accounts.

"Sitting public officials have the same right to personal, private spaces as anyone else, including on social media, and the same right to determine who can be in that private space as they choose,” David McGuire, the ACLU of Connecticut’s executive director, said in an emailed statement. “If a public official is using an account to inform the public about their government work, solicit input from the public about government issues, and identifying the page with their public position, however — and it must be all three things — there is a chance they are using the account as a government actor, in which case the space is not private. If that is the case, the law is quite clear, and the public official cannot block people from that page.” 

Syma Ebbin, a supporter of Bumgardner and a District 2 representative on the Representative Town Meeting, said Bumgardner has been forthcoming and accessible and listens to people. She cited his experience on the Town Council and as a state representative, and said experience comes in all different forms. She said she feels arguments about experience can be used to “pigeonhole” women, minorities and young people.

Depot said people are not solely asking about qualifications but also asking him about how he would approach different issues in the city.

Liz Duarte, a member of the Democratic Committee in the city who said she is volunteering on Hedrick’s campaign, said she was blocked by Bumgardner after she asked him about his qualifications and what his experience was to be able to run the city and be in charge of nine department heads and a multimillion-dollar budget with both the city and Groton Utilities. She said public officials and candidates should be accessible and answer questions.

Debra Dickey, who now lives in Norwich but once served on the Groton City Council and Representative Town Meeting, and as city clerk, said she found herself getting blocked when she asked Bumgardner several times about his qualifications. Her son and grandchildren live in Groton.

“I think candidates should be willing to answer people’s questions,” she said.

Bumgardner said he has explained that he has been in public service for seven years and is serving as Town Councilor and has served as state representative and worked in the state treasurer’s office.

He said he will continue to go door to door listening to voters' concerns.

Beverly Washington, a member of the city’s Democratic Committee and an RTM member, said some people may be upset that Bumgardner is running against another Democrat, but she said he has the right to run.

“This is a democratic society,” she said. “He can run if he feels he can do a better job and let the voters speak for themselves.”

Depot said there may be a high level of interest in the primary — as evidenced in the number of letters to the editor — because people were not expecting a contested race.

But she said she is happy to have more engagement in the city, and increased feedback, whether positive or negative, helps members of the City Council have better ideas and she hopes to capitalize on that even after the election.

k.drelich@theday.com

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