As a security guard stood in a deserted hallway at 200 Orange St. unlocking the public hearing room, he was asked where the GOP convention was.
“GOP,” he replied. “GOP. What’s that?”
Such is the current state of the New Haven Republican Party.
To be fair, the guard did recognize “Republican convention” when it was clarified; only the “Grand Old Party” in both its abbreviated and unabbreviated form drew a blank.
Still, his blankness foreshadowed what was to come Thursday night as the Republican Town Committee met to select its candidates for November’s city races.
Nine committee members attended the convention. They endorsed just one candidate, incumbent East Shore Alderwoman Arlene DePino, to run for a seat on New Haven’s Board of Aldermen. DePino, who serves the 18th Ward in Morris Cove, will run against one of two Democratic candidates who are expected to face each other in a Sept. 13 primary.
In the remaining 29 wards, not a single Republican came forward. And not a single candidate emerged to run for mayor—a seat New Haven’s Republicans last won in 1951.
Before the meeting, GOP Town Chairman Richter Elser could be heard trying to round up the two or three other aldermanic candidates he thought might appear to claim the party’s endorsement. They didn’t.
Two years ago the town committee managed to scrape together four candidates to run for the board.
Elser kept his good humor throughout the hour-long proceedings.
“This is our biennial chance to celebrate the fact that there is a Republican Party in New Haven,” Elser said in opening the convention, “small and scrappy though it is.”
Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans 18 to 1 in New Haven. As of July 11, the city had 41,851 registered Democrats, 2,371 registered Republicans, 15,595 unaffiliated voters, and 336 supporters of other parties.
On Thursday night, Elser had the tedious task of going through every ward but the 18th without naming a candidate. “This could seem like we’re just taking up time,” he acknowledged.
He read off the number of registered Republicans in each ward—86 here, 40 there—followed by the number of signatures required to place Republican candidates on the ballot through a petition process. (If there were such candidates, they would be listed as Republicans on the ballot and have the town committee’s support but not its official endorsement.)
“Can you feel the suspense building over there on the East Shore?” Elser asked, nodding to the three Ward 18 committee members who had come to support DePino.
Elser (at center in photo) then read off the miniscule number of signatures needed in each ward to get on the ballot—5 percent of the ward’s total number of registered Republicans. Ward 5 has only 26 registered Republicans, requiring just one signature, for instance.
“So if there is anyone interested, they can nominate themselves,” Elser suggested.
He said he was “looking for a husband-and-wife Republican household” in Ward 26, which needs just two signatures. In Ward 24, “you’d have to invite seven people down to Delaney’s for a beer.” (Elser’s figures, which he drew from May voter registration rolls, differ slightly from the July totals.)
Even DePino acknowledged that one of the reasons she chose to run for reelection was to make sure the number of Republicans on the Board of Aldermen did not drop to zero.
“No one was stepping up to the plate,” she said after the meeting adjourned, “and I think it’s very important to have an independent voice on the board.” The board also has one independent, Maureen O’Sullivan-Best.
Still, DePino said, it was difficult to decide to run again. Because government committees require minority representation, she ends up serving on more than her share. “I enjoy being involved in the community and working on the problems of my constituents,” she said, noting she was late for the convention because she was at a tax-abatement hearing with one of her elderly constituents.
Even in her ward, DePino’s outgunned, with only 288 registered Republicans to 1,276 registered Democrats. Tina Doyle, the 18th Ward chair, said being a Republican in New Haven is “lonely,” although it helps that “we have a very loyal following in our ward.”
Some Republican Town Committee members have floated the idea of “cross-endorsing,” meaning the Republicans would back Democrats who would be listed on the Republican ballot line as well as on the Democratic one. “We have 2,400 Republicans in the city, and some of them want a name in the Republican slot even if it’s the same name as the slot above,” Elser said after the meeting. “It’s better to see that name than be greeted by nothing.”
The town committee discussed the possibility of cross-endorsing at its last meeting. Elser said the committee shouldn’t endorse without consulting the favored candidate, who might not think “our endorsement was such a good idea.” He said he hadn’t talked to any current candidates about the possibility. Therefore, all talk of cross-endorsements was “hypothetical” and would certainly not happen this election cycle.
Elser also said he doesn’t like the idea of putting candidates on the ballot just to put a candidate on the ballot. He said he wants candidates to be serious about running and about governing.
Rather than quick ballot fixes, Esler said, he hopes to build the New Haven Republican party by turning it “into a vehicle for people pushing for good government in the city.” That means attracting unaffiliated voters and even moderate Democrats, perhaps by taking advantage of “a lot of internal squabbling within the Democratic Party.” Elser noted that he’s the kind of moderate Republican whom conservative talk radio makes fun of. Rather than a “`Big R’ national Republican Party, I hope we’ll be seen as a `little r’ second party in local elections,” he said.
That may be a long way off. Asked at the end of the evening whether the door in the City Hall building could lock, making it impossible for a reporter to exit, Elser observed: “You can always get out of City Hall. But you can’t always get in.”