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A New Political Team Carries Special Election

by Melissa Bailey | Apr 25, 2014 7:18 am

(9) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: Politics, State, Campaign 2014

Melissa Bailey Photo A new vote-pulling team emerged in New Haven Thursday, and it carried a political newcomer from Newhallville named Robyn Porter to victory in a special election for a state representative seat.

Porter captured 38 percent of the vote in a five-way contest to fill the 94th General Assembly District seat for the rest of this this legislative session—which ends May 7. Hamden’s Berita Rowe-Lewis came in second place, followed by Charles Ashe III of Newhallville, and Leonard Caplan and Rey Harp of Hamden. (See chart for the breakdown of the vote.) The district is about evenly split between Hamden and New Haven; the New Haven portion includes Newhallville, Prospect Hill, and parts of the Yale campus of downtown. The special election was called after the seat’s inhabitant, Gary Holder-Winfield, won a race for state senator.

As the victor Thursday, Porter will have a leg up in running for the seat again in a campaign that begins next month.

The special election, with no incumbent or widely known candidates and no public funding, was a truly grassroots, door-knocking affair determined by who could assemble the strongest team and hit the most doors to convince voters and then see that they arrived at the polls.

Porter ran her operation out of her home at 99 Division Street, with the help of communications workers union comrades, “Big Bertha,” and an election team that previously worked on Gary Holder Winfield’s failed 2013 mayoral campaign.

Christine Bartlett-Josie (at left in photo), whom Porter met when they were both working on 2011 candidate Jeffrey Kerekes’ independent mayoral quest, managed Porter’s campaign. Bartlett-Josie came with an entourage of six young people she had assembled to help with Holder-Winfield’s 2013 mayoral run. They included interns like Henry Sidle, 15, who attends Hamden High; and Dhrupad Nag (at right in photo), who’s 22, of Cheshire. A recent graduate of UConn, Nag manned the canvassing and phonebanking operation Thursday alongside Bartlett-Josie.

Marquis Smith (pictured), who lost his left eye to a bb gun in New Haven after he returned from military service in Iraq, left the headquarters around 4 p.m. Thursday to promote Porter at the polls. Smith said he got to know Porter through his mother, Tanya Smith, a former Democratic ward co-chair in Newhallville. Smith said as a military guy, he has to see someone “work in the trenches” before he supports their promotion to a leadership role. He said Porter has passed that test.

Porter kept her troops fueled with Papa John’s pizza and “Mrs. Hazel’s Punch.”

Instead of spending her whole day at the polls, as candidates often do, Porter hit the doors herself. In a half-hour expedition up Sheffield Avenue, she found few of the people on her list, but a lot of people in the streets.

She approached a group of six men who were drinking Hennessey and tall cans of Natural Ice. One of them must be registered to vote, she reckoned. She polled the crowd. Most of them said they “couldn’t vote,” an allusion to past convictions.

Porter, whose 26-year-old son is incarcerated, said she understood their situation. But she encouraged them to sign up as soon as they are done serving parole.

Porter, who grew up in New York, speaks with a warm lilt that hints of her family’s roots in South Carolina. She shook everyone’s hand before she left and asked each of their names.

“Thomas? I have an uncle named Thomas,” she told one person on the street.

Porter later encountered a man who was registered but didn’t know there was an election. He pledged to take a trip up the hill to Celentano Museum Academy to vote.

Her quest to get voters to the polls, and sign them up, surpassed the interests of her own campaign. When she met a voter in the streets who said he was supporting Charlie Ashe III, she urged him to hit the polls anyway.

“Even if you’re voting for Charlie, go vote for him,” she said. “That’s your choice.”

As she made her way back home, a voice called out from across the street.

“What you sellin’?”

“What we sellin’?” Porter responded. “Me.”

“I’m a candidate running for state rep,” she explained, crossing the street to continue the conversation.

“I don’t vote,” the man replied. “I’ve never had a reason to vote.”

Porter approached his porch to talk.

“I’m willing to do the civil service” by running for office, she said. “But I need people to support me.”

Big Bertha Arrives

She convinced him to give over his information so she could register him. She also recruited him to her other campaign: adding members to the Newhallville Community Resilience Team, which aims to put the “neighbor” back in “hood.” She told him to “bring your talents” to that group “to make the community stronger.”

As she turned the corner Porter announced a happy discovery: “Big Bertha” was out front of her house. That’s her nickname for her supervisor’s car, a late-model Ford Taurus with a big rear end. Big Bertha’s presence meant Porter’s supervisor, Pat Telesco, had arrived to help out with the campaign.

Porter and Telesco (pictured) work together for the Communications Workers of America international union. The union rallied a half-dozen members to help Porter’s campaign on election day, Telesco said. The union members ran a phone bank out of a local office in Hamden, on Dixwell Avenue, Telesco said. After calling some numbers on Porter’s list, Telesco, a seasoned campaign volunteer, complained that the people weren’t all supporting Porter. For some of them, this was the first call they had received. The union said that in the course of the truncated campaign, it sent out three mailers to 2,000 households on Porter’s behalf; worked to secure endorsements for her from the AFL-CIO and the Working Families Party; and had volunteers knock on 1,000 doors, which led to 600 conversations with voters.

“They’re undecided,” offered Porter at about 5:15 p.m. She said there was still time to convince them to join her side.

“Boom, boom, pow!” Christine Bartlett-Josie, Porter’s campaign manager, exclaimed at about 8:15 p.m. as supporters gathered at Porter’s kitchen table tabulating results and people realized Porter had won.

Melissa Bailey Photo Porter began crying and hugging supporters in the house, who included previous 94th District state Rep. (now state Sen.) Holder-Winfield. He did not endorse a candidate. He said he did offer some help to Porter because she asked him for it—and no one else did.

“When she asked my advice, I said put on some sneakers,” Holder-Winfield said. She took the advice.

“You paved the way. I just did a ditto,” Porter told Holder-Winfield, who lives across the street from her at the corner of Division Street and Winchester Avenue.

“When she asked my advice, I said put on some sneakers,” Holder-Winfield said. She took the advice.

Knocking on doors and “connecting with people” led to her victory in Thursday’s special election, she said. “It was all about community for me.” She said she will run again this year for a full term in the seat; Holder-Winfield said he will support her. Berita Rowe-Lewis said Thursday night she will decide “in a couple of weeks” whether to try again.


An earlier version of this story follows:

Robyn Porter Wins Special Election

Boosted by a pop-up grassroots campaign team as well as help from the communications workers union, a political newcomer from Newhallville named Robyn Porter has won a special election to serve as New Haven’s and Hamden’s state representative from the 94th District. At least for a short while.

The above chart shows results from the polls Thursday in the special election for the open seat.

Melissa Bailey Photo Porter captured 348 votes, or 38 percent of the total. Berita Rowe-Lewis of Hamden came in second with 239 votes on the machines, or 26 percent. Newhallville barber and minister Charles Ashe III was close behind with 22 percent, or 202 votes. Republican Leonard Caplan, a former state legislator from back in the disco era, picked up 81 votes, all but 10 of them in Hamden (and most of them from one polling place, Helen Street School). Rey Harp of Hamden collected 43 votes.

Diverse Ward 19, which includes East Rock’s Prospect Hill neighborhood as well as part of the Newhallville neighborhood, gave Porter her margin of victory. Newhallville’s Ward 20 turned out strong for Ashe, who had the backing of Alderwoman Delphine Clyburn.

“Boom, boom, pow!” Christine Bartlett-Josie, Porter’s campaign manager, exclaimed at about 8:15 p.m. as supporters gathered at Porter’s kitchen table tabulating results and people realized Porter had won.

Porter began crying and hugging supporters in the house, who included Gary Holder-Winfield, who held the 94th District seat before becoming a state senator. He did not endorse a candidate. He said he did offer some help to Porter because she asked him for it—and no one else did.

“My heart is racing a thousand miles a minute,” said Porter, a single mom and staffer in the Communication Workers of America North Haven office. Porter worked for independent mayoral candidate Jeffrey Kerekes in New Haven’s 2011 municipal elections.

Knocking on doors and “connecting with people” led to her victory in Thursday’s special election, she said. “It was all about community for me.”

“You paved the way. I just did a ditto,” Porter told Holder-Winfield, who lives across the street from her at the corner of Division Street and Winchester Avenue.

“When she asked my advice, I said put on some sneakers,” Holder-Winfield said. She took the advice.

Rowe-Lewis’s supporters gathered after the polls closed in the dark-wood-paneled conference room, with a framed poster-sized photograph of John F. Kennedy on the wall, in the Dixwell Avenue law offices of the Dolan and Luzzi law firm.

Rowe-Lewis said she was “not surprised” by the outcome but she was disappointed.

The 94th District is almost evenly split between southern Hamden and portions of New Haven. The New Haven portion includes Newhallville, Prospect Hill, and part of downtown.

Four of the candidates were Democrats. But they ran as petitioning candidates after because the Democratic Party failed to nominate anyone in the race.

Communications Workers Weigh In

New Haven’s usual political coalitions ended up not playing a determinative role in this election. While the Hamden Democratic Town Committee backed Rowe-Lewis, the New Haven Democratic Town Committee did not have a candidate. Local UNITE HERE unions, which usually play a major role in vote-pulling in New Haven elections, largely sat this one out. Robyn Porter did receive some statewide labor backing, including from the communications workers union, for whom she works. The communications workers and UNITE HERE do not generally work closely together in Connecticut politics. The union said it sent out three mailers to 2,000 households on Porter’s behalf; worked to secure endorsements for her from the AFL-CIO and the Working Families Party; and had volunteers knock on 1,000 doors, which led to 600 conversations with voters.

“Robyn’s win tonight is a win for hard working families in the 94th District and a win for progressive values across Connecticut. We’re pleased to help send a champion for our values to Hartford to tackle inequality,” Bob Master, political and legislative director for Communications Workers of America District 1, declared in a statement released after the polls closed.

None of the candidates qualified for public financing. That made door-knocking especially important.

The whole campaign process starts again next month when candidates start seeking support to run again in this fall’s primary and general elections for the same seat. The legislative session, meanwhile, ends on May 7.

Porter said she will definitely run again in the fall.

“You have my endorsement,” Holder-Winfield told her Thursday evening.

Berita Rowe-Lewis said she will decide “in a couple of weeks” whether she will seek the seat again this year. “I have some time to breathe,” she said.

Some voters experienced confusion about where to vote Thursday, especially in Ward 21. That has happened during a number of recent elections following the combined state and municipal redistricting of voting districts.


Thomas MacMillan reported from Rowe-Lewis headquarters. Melissa Bailey, Thomas MacMillan, Allan Appel, Lucy Gellman, Brian Tang, and Tommy Thornhill reported from the polls as results were announced Thursday evening.

Previous coverage of this campaign:
Map Discovery Throws Convention Into Disarray
Candidate Calls For Prayer In Schools
A Candidate Un-Draws The Line
Candidate Encounters 2 Worlds On Huntington St.
She Has A Vote Ready

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posted by: cedarhillresident! on April 25, 2014  6:12am

OMG! This was fantastic news to wake up to! A plus for New Haven!!!!!!!!! Congratulations!!

posted by: Threefifths on April 25, 2014  6:56am

This is a win for one party.She will be part of the machine.The only win for the people would be proportional repesentation and Term Limits.

posted by: Babz Rawls Ivy on April 25, 2014  9:00am

This is amazing! Ms. Porter is a wonderful person and a very smart woman!

I have no doubt that she will hold her own and win! Rather than just whine and rant about change she had the real courage to run And WIN!

Bravo! When women run, women WIN!

posted by: David Backeberg on April 25, 2014  9:47am

Good for her. This is my favorite kind of politics (candidates pounding the pavement in-person), and I wish there was more of it.

posted by: robn on April 25, 2014  1:20pm

What happened to no union involvement?

posted by: Brian L. Jenkins on April 25, 2014  1:28pm

Let me preface my remarks by first saying, in all of my years being involved in politics, I have never heard of a sitting mayor refusing to endorse a family member running for political office.  To watch her brother in-law wither on the vine politically, reveals just how disingenuous she is person/politician.

They (Ray and Toni) can try and put a political face on her neglect of support all they want, but Ray Harp was ubiquitous in Toni’s quest to be mayor.

Pivoting to Ms. Porter, I never met the woman, but reading her story of perseverance is indeed refreshing.

I would encourage all those who lost to Ms. Porter, to endorse her campaign immediately.

My suggestion to the new State Rep. is 1. Be your own person and don’t be swayed by the politics of other elected officials.

2. Keep working in your district, always.

3. Many are going to come around you to try and coax you into doing things/voting the way in which they want you to, (even State Senators), but at the risk of being redundant, be your own person.

4. Build an active coalition with members in the district from both Hamden and New Haven.

Above all, congratulations.

posted by: Threefifths on April 25, 2014  1:40pm

posted by: David Backeberg on April 25, 2014 10:47am

Good for her. This is my favorite kind of politics (candidates pounding the pavement in-person), and I wish there was more of it.in-person), and I wish there was more of it.

Huslers pounding the pavement.The question you should ask is why are those of the Two Party system afraid of the system of proportional represetation.Like I said mark my words she will be for the machine.

posted by: DingDong on April 25, 2014  6:34pm

I’m very concerned that a New Haven politician would order Papa Johns pizza.  I hope in the future she and other candidates will make better choices.

posted by: robn on April 26, 2014  7:19am

No union involvement?

Mary Olearys article just about sums it up. The election was bought and paid for with a blitzkrieg of union money and “volunteers”.

http://www.nhregister.com/government-and-politics/20140425/unions-helped-new-haven-candidate-win-94th-house-seat

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