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Connecticut Democratic Party rule change felt on local level

The Connecticut Democratic Party has asked towns to put together their slates for municipal offices differently this year, a move criticized by Republicans as small-town politics heat up for a contentious election season.

Democrats say the measure protects against the spread of COVID-19. Republicans argue that the move is a form of voter suppression.

Rather than coming up with slates via caucuses, where any registered Democrat is allowed to vote, the state party has sought to limit local Democratic town committees to voting for candidate endorsements among committee members only.

The state party didn't notify the Secretary of the State's Office of its rule change in time for it to be formally added to the bylaws. Party officials claim this was on purpose, and was always meant to be a temporary change caused by the pandemic.

How are local Democratic town committees compelled to follow this temporary rule change if it's not in the bylaws? Couldn't committees still decide between a caucus and a committee meeting, as was the case before the pandemic?

"The party rules are set by the State Central Committee, and they voted on the temporary rule change in January," state State Democratic Party communications director Patty McQueen said in answer. The Secretary of the State's Office "is the repository for those rules, but they do not need to approve."

A letter notified the Secretary of the State's Office of the temporary, emergency change.

Democratic State Central Committee rules state that towns with a population under 5,000 people have caucuses. Towns with more than 5,000 residents also can allow for a caucus in Democratic Town Committee bylaws, though the state party isn't sure how many have done so.

Adding to the confusion, the state committee is allowing more than 30 towns that have planned caucuses to hold them. However, their Democratic town committees will be required to endorse whoever is chosen to run. State Democratic Party Chair Nancy DiNardo said town committees almost never vote contrary to caucus results.

Despite not officially being in the bylaws, DiNardo called the caucus change "a definitive rule change that local Democratic town committees should be following."

"Some town chairs have said to me when we have caucuses, it really is the town committee members that are at the meeting anyway," DiNardo continued. "The rule is a temporary change, and our rules committee meets next year at our state convention. I don't see this becoming permanent. It was to deal with the health care situation."

The change has the biggest impact on small towns, as most larger municipalities already leave it to a committee to vote on their slates.

Among those advocating for allegedly disenfranchised Democrats was East Lyme Republican Town Committee Chairman John Kleinhans, a former executive director of the state GOP.

“I think it’s unfortunate. I think they should allow all Democrats in the town of East Lyme to have a voice,” he said Tuesday, after the announcement that his party had endorsed longtime Democratic Selectwoman Rose Ann Hardy as an unaffiliated candidate.

The Democratic Town Committee last week put forth a slate that, for the first time in 36 years, did not include Hardy. In a phone call following the upset, she identified the new members-only voting policy as one of the factors that made this year’s nominating process different from years prior.

Democratic Town Committee Chairman Jason Deeble said last week that the committee “petitioned long and hard to keep it a caucus” by pleading with the state party.

“We wanted community involvement. We wanted openness and transparency. I like to think we preserved those facets to an extent,” he said. He noted members of the public were invited to attend, even though they could not vote.

“And now, in hindsight and in the face of the surging delta variant (of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19), I can really appreciate the state party’s desire to factor public safety and public health into the equation," he said. "I think it’s the right choice to do so.”

On Wednesday, he responded to the Republican argument that restricting the voting process is undemocratic.

“Given that GOP-led legislatures around the nation are working forcefully to restrict voter access, it’s hard for me to believe that Republican comments on this matter are intended to do anything other than score points with their base,” he said.

McQueen said it wasn’t difficult for state Democratic Party officials to decide to extend emergency coronavirus party rules to protect participants.

“When the decision was made in January, vaccines were only just starting to be administered and there were concerns about new variants that could spread much more easily," she said. "Today’s spread of the delta variant only underscores the wisdom of that decision.”

Old Lyme Democratic Town Committee Chairman Christine Gianquinto said Wednesday that she kept her committee’s membership informed of the changes and found agreement that the precautions were necessary “in view of the continuing COVID situation.”

“As usual, all registered Democrats in Old Lyme were welcome to attend,” she said. “As for this year, I don't think we would have had any more attendees if there had been a caucus rather than a DTC meeting.”

Preston Democratic Town Committee Chairman Nick Vegliante said his members, too, were understanding of the change. “When first announced, the change seemed to be a no-brainer,” he said. “As time went on and (COVID-19 case) numbers declined, I think some may have felt that the decision was too hasty and that in-person caucuses were feasible.”

He credited DiNardo and the state party for sticking with the decision as “an exercise of caution” and to avoid unnecessary confusion.

“As we approached the time for caucuses, (COVID-19) numbers started shifting in the wrong direction and I imagine many of our members would have felt uncomfortable if we were faced with a caucus,” he said.

State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, took notice last week when East Lyme Democrats changed their candidate nominating process. The state Republican Party did not implement rule changes regarding caucuses and the nominating process this year.

“I’m disappointed the Democrats saw fit to disenfranchise their Democrat electors by creating a process where candidates were chosen only by insiders,” Cheeseman said. “Only members of the town committee at a special meeting can weigh in on who the candidate can be. I suspect in many towns there were lots of Democrats who didn’t even know this change had been made. For a party that prides itself on being inclusive, open and transparent, this strikes me as the ultimate in hypocrisy.”

The state Republican Party has a similar system to the pre-pandemic Democratic Party in choosing candidates — some town committees meet and vote by caucus, and others by committee.

“New London Republicans meet by town committee, so we don’t have to put out the notice that we’re caucusing,” New London Republican Town Committee Chair Kat Goulart said. “We just have a town committee meeting and then our town committee nominates and votes on our endorsed slate.”

DiNardo responded to Republican critiques of the rule change. “Before they start pointing fingers at Democrats, I would want to know Republicans’ opinion on the changes to voting in Texas, Georgia, Alabama and everywhere else,” she said. “Is that voter suppression by Republicans?”

“‘Voter suppression’ is an odd criticism coming from the party that continually opposes no-excuse absentee ballots and early voting measures,” McQueen added.

s.spinella@theday.com

e.regan@theday.com

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