By John McNamara
On the eve of the 2015 municipal election scores of tenants in New Britain got a notice about a possible rent increase from their landlord.
It wasn’t an official increase but a not so subtle endorsement of Mayor Erin Stewart who at the time was cruising to re-election for a second term.
The unsigned communication in English and Spanish read:
“To our residents: In order to help keep your rent from increasing we suggest that on Election Day, Tuesday, November 3rd, you vote for Mayor Stewart and her entire Row B Team. It’s important that we all work together to keep rents from increasing by electing responsible leaders like Mayor Erin Stewart as she has restored New Britain to a place where people can afford to live.”
If anyone thought this message — mailed first class by The Carabetta Companies of Meriden —- was a civic-minded promotion of voter turnout by a major out-of-town landlord they were mistaken. Carabetta’s tenants were being warned in intimidating fashion: Vote for the Republican Stewart or your rent will go up.
The “To Our Residents” note amounted to an unreported corporate contribution with promotion of the Stewart re-election phone number for a ride to the polls and offer of help on getting registered to vote. “A Team Stewart member will assist you,” said the notice not attributed to any political committee as it should have been.
State election law spells out the kind of violation that could be involved here (see below). Moreover, penalties could potentially apply to the Stewart committee for “coordinating” activities with their off the books landlord friends.
Sec. 9-613. (Formerly Sec. 9-333o). Business entities. (a) Contributions or expenditures for candidate or party prohibited. No business entity shall make any contributions or expenditures to, or for the benefit of, any candidate’s campaign for election to any public office or position subject to this chapter or for nomination at a primary for any such office or position, or to promote the defeat of any candidate for any such office or position. No business entity shall make any other contributions or expenditures to promote the success or defeat of any political party, except as provided in subsection (b) of this section.
No doubt the tactic from one of the city’s absentee property owners was a throwback to the 2013 municipal campaign when Stewart and the Republicans teamed up with outside landlords to wage a scorched-earth, months-long campaign against Democrats pouring as much as $100,000 of dark money into the election.
At issue was a controversial ordinance that set fees for non-owner occupied properties to pay for housing and code enforcement — a policy subsequently repealed that can be found without controversy in hundreds of communities across the country. Ironically — aside from concerns about blight and raucous parties in rentals around CCSU — the issue that caused the vitriolic campaign in 2013 never surfaced in 2015.
Team Stewart and friends just couldn’t help themselves go low when they could have taken a pass on intimidating tenants into voting a certain way in 2015. In the era of Citizens United and the anonymous corporate money throughout the political and legislative system it’s easier to make the calculation that any judgment on blatant violations of the law would come months later when the State Elections Enforcement Commission rendered a decision. And any SEEC fine levied would be worth the investment to get away with messing with tenants about how they should vote.
As Election Day 2017 approaches consider this a cautionary tale. Team Stewart — now in an increasingly tight race for City Hall — won’t hesitate to use all manner of 11th hour mischief to stay in power like the tenant notice of two years ago. Voters need to know that their franchise is personal and private and not subject to influence by their landlord, their boss or anyone else.
Full disclosure: I was the late starting and under-funded Democratic nominee for Mayor and the Democratic Chair in 2015 not willing to see Ms. Stewart go unchallenged. Consequently, any rent increases incurred over the last two years have come on Ms. Stewart’s watch)