NB Politicus

Campaign dollars soared in ’21 municipal election but voter participation declined

Posted in Campaign Finance, city politics and government, Voting by nbpoliticus on March 27, 2022

28% Turnout Continues A Downward Trend In Voting For Local Office Holders

By John McNamara

“Money is the mother’s milk of politics” goes the observation first coined in the 1960s that applies to almost every state and federal election cycle as all kinds of committees and special interests raise billions in reported and anonymous donations.

That old saying about money in politics applies less frequently to local elections where votes are more easily won (or should be) on the ground and neighbor to neighbor without big outlays for media and consultants. You can’t say that about New Britain’s 2021 municipal election when the money race accelerated, voter participation declined and the status quo at City Hall was overwhelmingly sustained.

Last year marked the first time in memory that turnout dropped below 30 percent while mayoral campaign money for the November 2 election exceeded $30 for every vote cast. New Britain is not alone in a decline in voter participation for local elections, especially in mid- and large-sized cities. Cities across the state and nation continued to register lower turnouts last year. But by bottoming out at 28%, New Britain fell below the already dismal 32.13% statewide turnout.

Last year marked the first time in memory that turnout dropped below 30 percent while mayoral campaign money for the November 2 election exceeded $30 for every vote cast

Incumbent Erin Stewart handily won a fifth term over State Rep. Bobby Sanchez (D-25) and swept a Council majority in with her as a super majority of eligible voters failed to show up.

Because of a Presidential Year bounce in 2020, there were 2,270 more eligible voters in 2021 than in 2019. In her landslide win, however, Erin Stewart received fewer votes than the 2019 totals as the turnout gap widened between municipal and state and federal ballots.

Despite campaign cash aplenty voter turnout continued a decline in the 2021 municipal election. (newbritainprogressive.com)

Four mayoral campaigns involving three Democrats and Republican Stewart reported contributions totaling $384,900 by the end of 2021. The Democratic and Republican Town Committees added another $53,000 to the “off year” election cycle bringing the reported political cash to $437,900 to get out the vote. The totals do not include under ticket slate or candidate committees that drove donations well past $450,000.

Mayor Stewart’s “Re-Elect Erin” Committee raised $178,835 and spent $175,835. Stewart, tapping the advantages of incumbency, outpaced Bobby Sanchez’ fundraising by nearly $60,000. Sanchez’ committee raised and spent $116,518. Democratic mayoral challengers Veronica DeLandro and Alicia Strong raised another $90,000 combined. Strong raised and spent $21,000 in losing to the endorsed Sanchez in September’s primary. DeLandro’s committee raised approximately $69,000 but her committee failed to gather sufficient signatures to get on the primary ballot. DeLandro has subsequently formed her own “Bee The Change” political action committee (PAC), and may have converted a significant treasury into an ongoing PAC.

Last year’s surge in fundraising can be attributed to several factors. Incumbent Stewart did not take the potential of a serious and well-funded challenge for granted. She ramped up her fundraising and leaned into the perks that go with incumbency. “The Democrats showed early signs of political energy, with three determined candidates running for mayor.” observed a post-election story in The New Britain Progressive. “Whether that early momentum will continue into success in future elections remains to be seen, but it certainly did not manifest in the November elections in 2021.”

Stewart effectively pursued a Walnut Hill Park “Rose Garden strategy” in winning a fifth, two-year term. Few sparks flew between Stewart and Sanchez to stir voter interest with the incumbent largely ignoring the Democratic nominee. The incumbent even managed to ungracefully ignore a traditional League of Women Voters debate that would have been the only public forum of the campaign. Her salvos were directed at the school administration over social media related disruptions at the high school last fall making it seem at times that Erin Stewart was running against School Superintendent Nancy Sarra. For his part Sanchez earnestly pointed to his work as the Legislature’s Education Chair in delivering record amounts for school construction and school aid and called for a City Hall more responsive to neighborhoods. Stewart, meanwhile, cut the ribbon on renovations at the Chamberlain School and other developments in romping to a low-turnout victory.

While voter turnout in the 2020 Presidential Election was close to 70 per cent in the year of the pandemic in New Britain, the 2021 municipal race continued the widespread slide in the number of voters who elect local office holders. Some reformers at think tanks that study voting patterns have proposed aligning all elections from dog catcher to President to even numbered years for bigger turnouts. Legislatures or localities, however, show no signs of taking that step which involves a lengthy process of changing statutes and charters.

For New Britain it will surely take more than campaign dollars that were so plentiful last year to reverse that decline in voting in 2023.

Voter Participation In Last Three Municipal Elections In New Britain

  • 2017 Voter Participation 30% | 31,899 Eligible and 9,684 Voting
  • 2019 Voter Participation 32% | 31,205 Eligible and 9,945 Voting
  • 2021 Voter Participation 28% | 33,475 Eligible and 9,333 Voting

Behind Mayor Stewart’s War On Supt. Sarra and the BOE

By John McNamara

The vandalism and trouble that occurred at New Britain High School in September needlessly escalated the rift between Mayor Erin Stewart and New Britain School District leaders.

Incidents of student misbehavior fueled by social media have not been limited to New Britain as districts in CT and elsewhere re-opened this fall.

Mayor Erin Stewart, however, used the disruption to immediately berate School Superintendent Nancy Sarra and educators for not cracking down enough on youthful offenders. The call to meet and work together came second only after Erin Stewart got her licks in on the campaign trail. Harsh criticism of educators is a central theme of Ms. Stewart’s re-election campaign. The NBHS incident was just an opening for the incumbent mayor to score political points at the expense of school officials dealing with Tik Tok-related misbehavior and parents wanting assurances that their children would be OK.

The Mayor’s social media response to the high school incident could be forgiven if it was a one off dispute between City Hall and the School District. The dialogue gets predictably contentious every year over local funding for schools as New Britain has ranked near the bottom on school spending during the Stewart years.

Mayor Stewart maintains that the schools need to “operate differently” before she’ll support additional city dollars for education. When Council Democrats proposed a meager $1 million increase in this year’s municipal budget Stewart and her Council Caucus opposed it. A $500,000 boost was OK’d but the City is holding onto that money four months into the fiscal year claiming that it has increased local aid to education without giving up a dime.

Stewart skewers the school district for being “dead last” in student achievement while her budgets give New Britain almost dead last ranking in how they support public education. Previously, the Mayor has expressed little concern or no concern over school achievement as she denies BOE requests each year. “In recent years, educators have said they need at least $5 million more than their regular budgets to catch up with similar districts. The nonpartisan School and State Finance Project last year reported that only Danbury spends less on each student than New Britain does, with even deeply impoverished systems like Bridgeport, Waterbury and Windham spending more,” according to a story by The Hartford Courant’s Don Stacom.

In her escalating feud with Sarra and the bipartisan Board of Education, Stewart employs Paul Salina, who has held a $90,000+ patronage job (interim director of operations) at City Hall since 2018. A former NBHS Principal and band leader who retired in 2003, Salina, 72, later returned to the public schools as an administrator before and after Kelt Cooper’s superintendency holding down a $146,000 operations officer job. When Superintendent Sarra reorganized and reduced administrative overhead, she reduced Salina’s role and salary. Salina retired again but quickly joined the Stewart administration with a vague and largely undefined strategy and policy role.

Erin Stewart and Paul Salina in a recent campaign mailer.

Within the last year the Stewart-Salina duo has ramped up the fight with the BOE on a range of issues from the hiring of a football coach to school funding to control of school construction leaving no space for any kind of cooperation.

The fight over the last year has primarily involved the School Building Committee (SBC) and the attempted hiring of another retired school official and colleague of Salina for an oversight job on the Chamberlain School renovation project.

“Relations between the Mayor’s office and the BOE, contentious over budget issues in most years, have become even more adversarial over the SBC’s move late last year to hire Ray Moore, a retired school facilities director and a colleague of Paul Salina, as a consultant or “construction representative” on the Chamberlain School project at a six-figure annualized salary. BOE President Merrill Gay, Vice Chair Nick Mercier and Dr. Violette Jimenez-Sims criticized the attempted hiring with “no request for proposals or bidding for this position,” asserting that the role could be filled with existing school staff to save money for other education needs. Intervention by the BOE’s attorney averted a full appointment of Moore at that time to the consultant post. Republican Mercier’s public opposition to hiring a consultant without BOE input and questioning the Stewart-controlled SBC also led to the Republican Town Committee’s ousting of Mercier in July for a nomination to a third term on the BOE. A longtime Republican activist and music teacher, Mercier will stand for re-election to the BOE as a petitioning candidate for his efforts at accountability on school construction issues. ” from New Britain Progressive, August 22, 2021;

‘The Return of Tim Stewart: Ex-Mayor Chairs SBC As $50M School Project Begins”

The flap over the hiring of a Chamberlain project consultant demonstrates what is behind the barrage of attacks against Sarra and the school board which have become fodder for Team Stewart’s campaign of misinformation.

At issue is power, patronage and the special favors that Stewart and her cronies want and used to get but are not getting anymore. Nancy Sarra won’t have any part of the political games Stewart and Salina want to play. She and the current BOE’s Democratic and Republican members who have her back are resisting inappropriate power grabs from City Hall as they focus on the challenges of educating in a chronically under-funded urban school system.


The Return of Tim Stewart: Former Mayor Chairs SBC As $50 Million School Project Begins

Former Mayor Tim Stewart is the new Chairperson of the School Building Committee, gaining reappointment by his daughter, Mayor Erin Stewart, just as the seven-member committee moves forward with expenditures on the $50 million major renovation at the Chamberlain Elementary School on the city’s East Side.

The former four-term Mayor resigned from the SBC and the Mattabassett District Commission in 2019 under pressure and at the behest of his daughter, over offensive, misogynestic social media posts that referred to Democratic U.S. representatives in Congress, including 5th District Rep. Jahana Hayes, as “bitches in heat.” The controversy also forced Stewart out of his job as President of the New Britain Chamber of Commerce. Stewart currently works as a commercial realtor. In 2017 Stewart came under fire for disparaging and racially charged remarks about the North Oak neighborhood, but he held on to his municipal appointments and Chamber job.

His return to the SBC comes after the Common Council on April 28th approved by a party-line vote a resolution to increase the powers of the SBC, designate the Mayor as the sole appointing authority and to diminish oversight by the Common Council and Board of Education.

The city is receiving a higher than usual 95 percent reimbursement for the Chamberlain school project for which a groundbreaking occurred August 10th. Representatives of Kaestle Boos Associates and Newfield Construction, the major contractors on the two-year project, were joined by Stewart administration officials. State Representative Bobby Sanchez (D-25), the House Chair of the Legislature’s Education Committee, led efforts to secure the state bonding for Chamberlain and previously worked to secure state financing of Smalley and Gaffney school projects. Neither Sanchez, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for Mayor in the September 14th Primary to run against Stewart, nor BOE members were reported as participants at the groundbreaking.

The revised ordinance , authored by Republican Caucus members Danny Salerno and Sharon Beloin-Saavadra, has drawn bipartisan protests. It gives the SBC absolute authority to “engage, select, and enter into or continue all necessary contracts with contractors, architects, landscape architects, or engineers.” Those powers also extend to hiring “construction representatives” on projects, positions that have been known to turn into lucrative patronage jobs. The ordinance retains board of education and common council approval of preliminary and final plans but everything in between, including change orders and expenditures in design/build and construction phases, is left up to the SBC.

News of Stewart’s low-key return to the SBC appeared on the August 18th agenda of the SBC in a terse statement: “Chairperson Fran Wolski stepped down and Tim Stewart is the new elected Chairman.” Last February SBC Chair Wolski announced her resignation as the Chair, according to the SBC committee minutes. According to the city’s website, Wolski remains a member with Stewart as Chair and Peter Smulski as Vice Chair. Other members include Robert Ames, Michael Cassella and Angelo D’Alfonso. Paul Salina, the Stewart-appointed Director of Support Services and a former school administrator, oversees the SBC for the city.

In his prior time on the SBC in 2016 Stewart with Wolski supported the selection of a troubled Bridgeport architectural firm with a less than stellar, litigious track record for the $53 million Smalley School project, a decision that was subsequently set aside when New Britain-based Kaestle Boos Associates challenged the selection process. State Senator Rick Lopes (D-6), then the 24th District State Representative, alerted the SBC to the problem but the committee chose the “beleaguered” Bridgeport firm anyway. That action resulted in delays and cost overruns on the Smalley project.

Relations between the Mayor’s office and the BOE, contentious over budget issues in most years, have become even more adversarial over the SBC’s move late last year to hire Ray Moore, a retired school facilities director and a colleague of Paul Salina, as a consultant or “construction representative” on the Chamberlain School project at a six-figure annualized salary. BOE President Merrill Gay, Vice Chair Nick Mercier and Dr. Violette Jimenez-Sims criticized the attempted hiring with “no request for proposals or bidding for this position,” asserting that the role could be filled with existing school staff to save money for other education needs. Intervention by the BOE’s attorney averted a full appointment of Moore at that time to the consultant post. Republican Mercier’s public opposition to hiring a consultant without BOE input and questioning the Stewart-controlled SBC also led to the Republican Town Committee’s ousting of Mercier in July for a nomination to a third term on the BOE. A longtime Republican activist and music teacher, Mercier will stand for re-election to the BOE as a petitioning candidate for his efforts at accountability on school construction issues.

By bringing back her father to now lead the SBC as another major school construction project starts, Mayor Stewart is doubling down on an adversarial relationship with the Board of Education and school officials which unfortunately is a centerpiece of her campaign for re-election.

At the same time the new School Building Committee ordinance provides fewer checks and balances by the Council and BOE in the spending of public dollars . That means public scrutiny and closer monitoring of the SBC (Monthly meetings occur the third Wednesday of the month at noon) is needed now more than it has ever been as the Chamberlain School project moves forward.

by John McNamara

Landlord Group’s “cage fight between Lamont & Zherka” remark stumps the press, brings apology to Governor

There’s No Mystery About Who Sam Zherka Is In New Britain

By John McNamara

West Hartford-based Connecticut Coalition of Property Owners (CCOPO) had to issue a quick apology on May 19th over its first version of a press release opposing an eviction moratorium and use of $400 million in federal pandemic aid to landlords and tenants, according to a Hartford Courant story by Daniela Altamari.

“The governor needs his ass-kicked,” stated the initial release sent to the Capitol press corps announcing a press conference later in the week, “and we set up a celebratory cage fight between Lamont & Zherka to raise funds for orphaned children.” The “bizarre” statement was followed by CCOPO’s condemnation of the Unite Connecticut program that is meant to provide both tenants and landlords with help paying bills in the recovery from the pandemic.

The January 13, 2013 front page of the now defunct New Britain City Journal that was backed by notorious landlord Sam Zherka at the height of a housing controversy in New Britain.

The reference to “Zherka” left reporters and editors who received the press statement puzzled. At first, news stories speculated that it referred to Jon Zherka, a controversial and banned social media streamer.

But in New Britain there is no mystery as to who CCOPO was referring to in its provocative public statement.

The name Zherka brings back memories of a well organized mob descending on City Hall in 2012 over a proposal to assess fees on absentee landlords to pay for code enforcement. The issue led to scurrilous, months’ long attacks and threats against the Democratic Mayor and City Council during the 2013 municipal campaign. It was a dark money political attack aided and abetted by the Waterbury-based CT Property Owners Alliance and Selim “Sam” Zherka, an absentee landlord who would later be indicted and jailed for mail fraud in New York.

Nine years ago Zherka owned a large apartment complex in New Britain and lent heavy support to the now defunct New Britain City Journal which carried unfounded accusations and personal attacks on Democrats in a well-financed direct mail, free circulation campaign supported by Zherka and out of town landlords, who pledged a $100,000 off the books fund to defeat Democrats. The New Britain Republican Town Committee and Erin Stewart were quick to embrace Zherka and absentee landlord support in her first, successful campaign for Mayor and she’s never looked back.

To clean up the “cage fight between Lamont & Zherka” statement this month, Publicist Ann Baldwin did her best at damage control for the CCOPO, which had also stridently taken issue with the Unite Connecticut program by saying “the people that are not paying never intended to pay so there is no reason for them to apply for the funds, these tenants are most of the 19,000 that try to live for free annually in CT.”

Baldwin’s revision softened the group’s position, according to press reports, by saying the landlords’ goal is just to “keep good people living in their homes” and calling for the Lamont administration to “fully fund” the eviction moratorium.” CCOPO President John Souza backtracked further in an apology saying “I would never condone violence against the Governor or anyone else, even in jest.”

In response to the first CCOPO release the CT Fair Housing Center’s blog responded: “This attitude illustrates both the need for a Right to Counsel for tenants facing eviction as well as why the Governor and/or Connecticut legislature should require landlords to participate in Unite CT. Tenants must be protected from the landlords who believe that the Governor “needs his ass-kicked” because he dared to protect vulnerable Connecticut residents. Please join us as we work to ensure that tenants are protected from the landlords who believe tenants deserve to be punished for being poor.”

The flap over a press release shows that it’s never an easy task for government to fairly balance the rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants. The pandemic has caused hardships on all sides and made evictions a serious threat to thousands of rentpayers. While the Governor extended an eviction moratorium until July 20, the administration is ramping up the Unite Connecticut program that enables both landlords and tenants to get pandemic aid for their losses.

CCOPO describes itself as a “constructive voice for responsible landlords” for “mom and pop” business people who presumably could benefit from the Unite CT program while keeping tenants in their homes.

But invoking the Zherka name as unintentional as it was shows that some members of the landlord group may not be interested in fairness or playing by the rules at all. Nobody knows that better than folks in New Britain who lived through the Zherka-led, local assault on democracy here that bears a striking resemblance to the assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6th of this year


Stewart Penalized For Using Taxpayer Mailing To Boost Her 2017 Re-election Campaign

Posted in Campaign Finance, city politics and government, New Britain Republicans by nbpoliticus on December 1, 2018

Mayor Erin Stewart violated state campaign law by promoting her candidacy through an official mailing of tax bills to city residents during the 2017 municipal campaign, according to a ruling by the State Elections Enforcement Commission (SEEC).

The SEEC, at its November 14th meeting, fined Mayor Stewart $500, citing a violation under state law (9-610) that prohibits incumbents “during the three months preceding an election in which (she) is a candidate for reelection or election to another office” from using “public funds to mail or print flyers or other promotional materials intended to bring about his (or her) election or reelection.”

Using her campaign slogan “Leading The Way” in the taxpayer-funded brochure, Stewart cited saving the city from fiscal ruin, good bond ratings, reorganizing city hall departments “to find efficiencies and improve customer service and “a continuous commitment to provide our teachers and our children with the proper tools for learning and exploring.”  The official message was a carbon copy of what could be found at the time on Stewart’s campaign website.  The mailing with the brochure was sent by Tax Collector Cheryl Blogoslawski’s office and paid for by the city. Although the mailer came directly from the Tax Collector’s office, Ms. Blogoslawski was absolved of any wrongdoing by the commission.

During the SEEC inquiry Mayor Stewart, through an attorney, defended her use of the mailing at the height of the municipal election season. “The pamphlet is issued annually and is sent in the same envelope with our property tax bills. Given the lack of a timely issued state budget and the commensurate uncertainty surrounding final municipal aid (and, therefore, our tax rate), New Britain joined many other municipalities across Connecticut in electing to post the property tax bills later than normal this fiscal year,” Stewart argued. She contended that the “message from the Mayor to taxpayers” and “a section discussing progress made by the City in numerous areas” contained “nothing of a political nature.”  The mailing at issue was first reported in September 2017 in an NBPoliticus post  and in a story published by The New Britain Progressive

Rejecting the Mayor’s argument on a complaint brought by Democratic Town Chair Bill Shortell,  the SEEC found that Stewart’s “message from the Mayor” and the citing of New Britain’s accomplishments “are irrelevant to the tax bill and therefore their inclusion in the mailer is violative of 9-610. The Commission finds that the mailer plainly could have been limited to the mill rate and various other information regarding motor vehicle taxes in New Britain, without including favorable references to the budget and past performance  of the Mayor of New Britain and her administration.”

Car Tax

Brochure advancing Mayor Stewart’s campaign sent with motor vehicle tax bills at the height of the municipal election campaign in 2017. State law bars use of public funds for candidate promotions within three months of elections.

Related Posts

Did Stewart Get A Prohibited Campaign Freebie In Mailing of Car Tax Bills?

Will Erin Stewart Get Another Off The Books Push From An Absentee Landlord in 2017?

 

Your Tax Dollars At Work: Erin Stewart Does Politics On Dem. Primary Day From City Hall

Posted in City Hall, city politics and government, New Britain Republicans by nbpoliticus on August 9, 2016

Republican Erin Stewart  is taking time from her  duties at City Hall to jump into today’s Democratic Primary for State Senate and Registrar of Voters,  posting a pitch from her official Facebook page to support the challengers.

Acknowledging she “is not a Democrat” Ms. Stewart urged her social media followers to oppose endorsed candidates State Senator Terry Gerratana and Registrar of Voters candidate Mike Trueworthy.

In an earlier post on her personal Facebook page Ms. Stewart resorted to name calling that was caught by Courant Columnist Kevin Rennie on his Daily Ructions blog.  Rennie has been a chronicler of Erin Stewart’s foul-mouthed rants and drinking episodes that have been an embarrassment to the city and may come back to haunt the young Republican as she seeks higher office.

Stewart Post

Erin Stewart in full campaign mode ripping up a Vote Democrat sign.

In his pursuit of a return to public office Registrar candidate Lucian Pawlak is relying heavily on Republican financial support.  A fellow Democratic supporter of Pawlak’s recently asked the former four-term Mayor if he would co-sign a letter to the editor opposing the controversial sale of the city’s Patton Brook Well in Southington that is up for a vote this week at the City Council.. Pawlak initially agreed but purportedly backed off telling his supporter that the Stewarts offered to get his committee contributions for the Democratic Primary.  Pawlak, in other words, allowed himself to be bought off on a key public issue.

Beloin-Saavedra, touting her advocacy for education and support of the schools in her challenge, has also embraced Stewart but that embrace has come at a price for what Beloin-Saavedra has said she stands for. When Mayor Stewart illegally attempted to cut $4 million already appropriated for the school budget in her first budget  Beloin-Saavedra never said a word in protest,  acquiescing to the raid on school funds. That was a disappointment for those who have always admired her BOE leadership and advocacy for education through the years. It took New Britain’s Democratic legislators  to block the loss of funds for education.

If nothing else in today’s Democratic Primary  Mr. Pawlak and Ms. Beloin-Saavedra are giving new meaning to the acronym  DINO – Democrats In Name Only.   And contrary to Ms. Stewart’s “people not politics” slogan  it’s about politics, pettiness and self aggrandizement on the city’s dime.