Election results: Did Trump turn town blue?
Democrats’ high engagement swamped Republicans’ registration advantage.
The blue wave that crashed ashore on Election Day last week swept away six Republican incumbents, turned over four town agencies from Republican to Democratic majorities, and left Ridgefield Democrats gaining 17 of 25 board and commission seats on the ballot.
Seeing Democrats with higher vote totals in race after race was a reversal of the usual fortunes in a town where Republicans have outnumbered Democrats for as long as anyone can remember.
“Never,” said First Selectman Rudy Marconi when asked if he could recall a similar election.
“I never remember anything like this.”
Democrats gained majorities on the previously Republican-controlled Board of Education, Zoning Board of Appeals, and Board of Assessment Appeals.
Democrats expanded their majority on the Board of Finance, and Republicans lost a seat but kept a majority on the Police Commission.
The Board of Selectmen had no seats on the ballot — they’re all up in 2019 — and remains a 3-to-2 Democratic majority, giving Democrats control of six of the town’s seven major elected agencies.
Marconi grew up in town and has watched Ridgefield voting patterns over nearly three decades as an elected official.
“It was always a Republican sweep for years and years and years,” he said. “The only reason a Democrat would get elected was because of minority representation — it was the only shot you had.”
State minority representation laws, which limit the number of seats on a elected board or commission that can be held by any one party, combined with the fact that four Democratic candidates had run — successfully — for more than one position on a board or commission, left the election’s outcome uncertain in some races for nearly a week.
It wasn’t until Monday, Nov. 13 — six days after the Nov. 7 voting — that Town Clerk Barbara Serfilippi, Republican Registrar of Voters Hope Wise, and Democratic Registrar of Voters Cindy Bruno called a late afternoon meeting and sat before about a dozen members of the interested public to announce and explain the final, rather complicated results.
“The only thing missing are hanging chads,” said Dick Moccia, the former Norwalk mayor who ended up with the lone Republican seat on the finance board.
There are still two seats that remain to be filled by appointment, following resignations required from candidates who won more than one seat on a board or commission. A town charter provision states that an individual can hold only one elective office at a time.
A two-year vacancy on the school board will be filled by appointment, as will a three-year alternate’s position on the Zoning Board of Appeals.
Both must be filled by Democrats, since the multi-seat winners who are resigning are Democrats.
The school board and appeals board each have 30 days from the date the resignation is turned in to fill the seat.
The appointment process usually begins with advertising the vacancy and collecting applications. The process usually concludes at a meeting when the board involved would interview candidates, and then vote on a replacement.
If the board fails to fill the seat within 30 days, the task passes to the Board of Selectmen.
Minority representation laws complicate elections by capping the size of the majority a single party may hold on any elected board or commission — no more than six seats on a nine-member agency like the Board of Education and the Planning and Zoning Commission, and no more than four seats on most five-member agencies, like the Board of Finance and Zoning Board of Appeals. (Ridgefield’s five-member Board of Selectmen is an exception, with a single party limited to three of the five seats.)
Sometimes a candidate with a higher vote total may not win an office because seating the successful candidate would put his or her party over the number of seats allowed on the board or commission by minority representation rules. The office then goes to the next highest vote-getter who isn’t a member of the same party.
While minority representation is something of a curveball, it applies in every election.
Complicating things, for several boards and commissions this year the Election Day ballot had both full terms and partial-term vacancies to be filled out — when someone resigns, another person is appointed to fill the seat but only until the next municipal election.
Of the 25 positions on the ballot, seven were vacancies to be filled for only the remainder of the previous officeholder’s term.
Further confusing things this year, there were candidates for four different agencies who were nominated for, ran for, and won more than one position on a board or commission.
And in some of these races, Democrats running for multiple seats weren’t opposed, so their seat wouldn’t pass to a Republican who came in second.
Some election results weren’t known until candidates had declared which seats they planned to resign from, so the final outcome of all races wasn’t announced until the Monday meeting.
“We wanted to be sure we got it right,” Town Clerk Barbara Serfilippi told the crowd.
For Board of Finance, two separate races resulted in the election of three new members: Democrats Sean Connelly and Amy Macartney Freidenrich, and Moccia.
Connelly (2,715 votes) and Freidenrich (2,702) outpolled Republicans Michael Raduazzo (2,235) and Marty Heiser (2,290) in a four-way contest for two full four-year seats.
And in a separate race for a two-year vacancy, Freidenrich (2,772) outpolled Moccia (2,068).
Having won the two seats, Freidenrich has said she’ll keep the four-year term and resign the two-year seat, which then passes to Moccia as the second highest vote-getter in that race.
“First time I’ve ever won by losing,” Moccia said, to laughter, at Monday’s meeting.
Connelly, Heiser and Raduazzo were incumbents going into the election.
On the nine-member Board of Education, six seats were up. Democrats won five seats and Republicans one.
In a seven-way race for the four open full-four-year terms, four Democrats were victorious — incumbents Doug Silver (2,880 votes) and Margaret Stamatis (3,057), and newcomers Kathleen Holz (2,934) and Carina Borgia-Drake (2,615), defeating Republican incumbent David Cordisco (2,296) and new Republicans Kaitlyn Hayes (2,397) and Scott Preston (2,103).
There were also two separate positions to fill two-year vacancies on the ballot. Running unopposed, Republican incumbent Sharon D’Orso (2,818 votes) won one of the two-year school board seats, and Borgia-Drake (3,019) won the other.
Borgia-Drake informed election officials she will keep the four-year seat and resign the two-year seat.
Because she was unopposed for the two-year seat, the vacancy created by her resignation will be filled by a vote of the school board, and must go to a Democrat.
School Board Chairwoman Frances Walton said the board will probably close applications for the two-year Democratic seat on Wednesday, Nov. 29, then interview candidates and vote the first week of December.
People interested may send résumés to email@example.com.
As for the Democratic Town Committee, Chairman Tom Madden said candidates interested in DTC’s endorsement may send a note and a résumé to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Planning and Zoning
For the nine-member Planning and Zoning Commission, six seats were up and three Democrats and three Republicans were elected as a result of last Tuesday’s voting. The Democrats are Joe Dowdell and incumbents Charles Robbins and Joe Fossi. The Republicans are George Hanlon, Rebecca Mucchetti and Bob Cascella — all incumbents.
In this race, there were two separate contests: one for five full-four-year commission seats, and another to fill out a two-year vacancy.
The five full-term seats went to the five high vote-getters: Robbins, Dowdell, Fossi, Mucchetti, and Hanlon.
For the two-year vacancy, Robbins was on the ballot again, and outpolled Republican Bob Cascella, 2,456 to 2,296.
But having won a four-year seat, Robbins has resigned from the two-year seat, which then goes to Cascella, who came in second for it.
Following the final results, the Republicans still have the majority on the board, 5-4. Rebecca Mucchetti, George Hanlon, Mark Zeck, John Katz, and Bob Cascella all serve as Republicans. Joe Fossi, Charles Robbins, Tim Dunphy and the newly-elected Joe Dowdell represent the Democrats.
Zoning Board of Appeals
For Zoning Board of Appeals, there were five seats to fill, two full five-year terms, a one-year vacancy, and two different terms for ZBA alternates.
Democrat Mark Seavy, with an expiring term as an alternate, was on the ballot for four of the five positions.
Here’s how the results break out.
For a full five-year ZBA term that begins this November, Democrat Terry Bearden-Rettger (2,648 votes) defeated incumbent Republican Carson Fincham (2,052), and will take the seat.
For a full five-year ZBA term beginning in 2018, Democrat Mark Seavy (2,591) defeated Republican incumbent David Choplinski (2,099), and will fill the seat.
Seavy also won — unopposed and collecting 3,054 votes — a one-year vacancy on the ZBA, which he can fill out since it expires in November 2018 when the full five-year seat he won, defeating Choplinski, is due to begin.
Seavy also ran for two vacancy positions as ZBA alternates, and has said he’ll resign both.
In a head-to-head contest for a two-year ZBA alternate’s position, Seavy (2,314 votes) outpolled Republican John McNicholas (2,153), who will take the seat with Seavy resigning.
For a three-year ZBA alternate’s vacancy, Seavy was unopposed and got 2,944 votes. He will resign and the seat, which will then be filled — with another Democrat — by a vote of the appeals board.
Appeals board alternates would participate in the appointment decision only of a regular appeals board member is absent for the interviews and vote on Seavy’s replacement — in which case that place may be taken by an alternate.
Town Clerk Serfilippi said she and Democratic Registrar Bruno had reached the conclusions that the body voting for the replacement would be appeals board members, with alternates voting only if a regular member was absent — as is usual for alternates. And, she said, they had their thinking reviewed and confirmed by Town Attorney David Groggins.
“We called David. He said we were right,” Serfilippi said. “We’re checking everything out to make sure.”
Zoning Board of Appeals administrator Kelly Ryan said Tuesday that a time-line for the advertising and interviews hadn’t been set.
“We don’t know the date of that yet, we might call a special meeting for it,” she said.
People interested may call her at the board’s numer, 203-431-2786.
Candidates for the position may also drop off resumes at the ZBA office in the Town Hall Annex, or email them to email@example.com.
“They need to be a registered Democrat,” she said.
And, if candidate wants to seek the Democratic Town Committee’s backing for the ZBA vacancy, letters and resumes may be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Democrats picked up a second seat, but Republicans retained their majority at 3-to-2, on the five-member Police Commission.
In a five-way race for three open Police Commission seats, two Democrats, Stephen Saloom and Arnold DiLaura, were challenging three Republican incumbents, Thomas Reynolds, Marcie Coffin and Joseph Savino.
Republicans Coffin (2,732 votes) and Savino (2,601) held their seats, while Reynolds (2.479) was edged out by Saloom (2,512). Democrat DiLaura (2,472) came in fifth.
On the three-member Board of Assessment Appeals, there was a three-way race for two open seats. Democrats Ann Cutter (3,045) and incumbent Jeff Lundberg (2,923), knocked off Republican incumbent Robert Jewell (2,386), to gain a majority.
Democrats’ near sweep in Ridgefield was notable given Republicans’ continuing registration advantage — though the GOP lead is not as large as it once was, and unaffiliated voters are the largest group in town.
Registrar Bruno said Tuesday, a week after the election, that Ridgefield voters’ party affiliations were as follows: unaffiliated voters 6,461 (35.8%); Republicans 6,085 (33.8%); Democrats 5,267 (29.2%); and others (Greens, Libertarians, etc.) 213 (0.012%).
Last Tuesday’s turnout of 5,256 represents 28% of registered voters — up from 24% in 2013, the last comparable election, with board and commission seats but no president, governor or even a selectman’s race at the top of the ticket.
Alex Karsanidi, chairman of the Republican Town Committee, thought the public’s reaction to President Donald Trump’s first year in office might have hurt Republicans — or helped Democrats.
“I’ve read things in newspapers, especially in the Northeast, that there was a — quote, unquote — ‘Trump tsunami’ is what they called it … meaning that there was backlash against Republicans,” he said.
“Yes, there probably is some of that. How much? It’s very difficult to say at this point,” Karsanidi said. “It might have motivated Democratic voters a little bit more, might have given them a little bit more ammunition to stir up their supporters.”
Marconi, a Democratic officeholder in Republican Ridgefield, was convinced of a Trump effect — in part by the similar results in other towns.
“It appears that it is not just unique to Ridgefield. It’s something that has happened to a multitude of communities here, as well as in Westchester County,” he said.
Marconi said he’d spoken with Tim Herbst, retiring Republican first selectman in Trumbull, who’s pursuing gubernatorial ambitions.
“I said to Tim, ‘What happened in Trumbull?’ He said, ‘Rudy, it was a sweep.’ He said to me: ‘Trump, Trump and Trump. I had Republicans coming out of the polls that looked me square in the eye, that said: Tim, we would have loved to have supported you and your team, but not with that guy in the White House.’”
“And although I don’t think many people would verbalize it that publicly,” Marconi said, “that was a big part of the reason.”
One person who wasn’t talking about a “Trump effect” was Madden, the DTC chair.
“We nominated really good candidates, and we worked hard, and we had a message that resonated with voters,” Madden said.
“The secret of our success is really to have good candidates.”