New Haven’s top Democrats counted the votes, and thought their candidate had a convention sewn up. They didn’t count on a woman from Hamden named Kyle Blake, or her knowledge of which state maps to look at—and which ones not to.
New Haven’s leading Democrats looked at the wrong map. Or else they had a hard time reading the right map—which is indeed hard to read.
As a result, nobody ended up winning an endorsement at the convention, held in New Haven Tuesday night at the lovingly restored parish house next to Betsy Ross Arts School on Kimberly Avenue. The convention itself lasted about two minutes. The maneuvering and confused fact-checking took place right before that, and took considerably longer.
The convention was called for the Democratic Party to endorse a candidate to run in an April 24 special election for the 94th General Assembly District seat that recently opened up when its occupant, Gary Holder-Winfield, became a state senator. The district is split roughly evenly between Hamden and New Haven. (In Hamden it includes the Newhallville neighborhood as well as portions of East Rock and downtown.)
This is a season of special elections in New Haven, in which little-known rules get more confusing by the day. They were plenty confusing Tuesday night—turning the convention into a Hamden-versus-New Haven political chess match.
Six Become Five
Six separate candidates collected petitions to get on the ballot for the special election. (One of them, Jerome Dunbar of New Haven, ended up signing up too many people who live outside district boundaries, and not enough who live inside the boundaries. So he said he plans to run as a write-in candidate. He’s pictured above at right alongside Rey Harp of Hamden, another candidate)
They’re spending all that energy for the right to serve just two weeks in office before the state legislative session closes. Then they have to run for the seat all over again, if they want to keep it.
At stake Tuesday night was who would get the Democratic Party endorsement—and thus a leg up in qualifying for matching money under the state’s public financing program. The other candidates who gathered enough signatures of voters can still have their names appear on the ballot as petitioning candidates, not as the official Democratic candidate.
The representative from the 94th District has always come from New Haven, not Hamden. The district used to include only New Haven. That changed in the last redistricting; Hamden’s southern end became a big part of the district. With Holder-Winfield’s ascension to state senator, Hamden Democrats saw a chance to seize the state rep eat. Tuesday night’s convention was part of that quest. New Haven would have nine delegates to the convention, Hamden eight. A candidate needed an absolute majority (not a plurality) of the convention vote to win the endorsement.
One of the six candidates, former Newhallville Alder Charles Blango (pictured at left), dropped out of the race right before the convention. He said he did so in the name of party unity: He had some of New Haven’s nine delegates sewn up. But another New Havener, barber Charles Ashe, also had a number of delegates.
Hamden’s delegates, meanwhile, had rallied around a Hamden City Councilwoman named Berita Rowe-Lewis (pictured at right). So if New Haven delegates split their votes, Rowe-Lewis could get the endorsement—and an advantage going forward to the April 24 election.
Caution: Read Slowly.
Ultra-Complicated Part Ahead
New Haven party leaders further buttressed their chances by paying attention to a minor detail: Some of the district’s boundaries have changed since a redistricting two years ago.
Here’s why that mattered: Not all the original delegates to Tuesday night’s convention were still eligible to vote.
The list of delegates for a special convention is drawn from the list of delegates who voted in the last election’s endorsement convention. New Haven had nine delegates at the convention, Hamden, seven.
Two years ago no one paid attention to who the delegates were. Because Holder-Winfield ran uncontested. No one at the time realized that four of New Haven’s delegates no longer lived in the 94th District, thanks to the redrawing of state maps. Technically they weren’t supposed to be allowed to vote.
But party officials in both towns did notice that prior to this convention. Also, a Hamden delegate had moved out of state.
In order to replace those delegates in time for Tuesday night’s convention, each city’s Democratic Town Committee would have to hold a special, separate delegate-nominating convention. Hamden didn’t do that. New Haven did do that—at an already scheduled Town Committee meeting earlier Tuesday evening. The New Haven Democrats chose four new delegates to replace the booted ones.
Still following this? (If not, don’t be embarrassed to go back and re-read this section so far.)
So, as the special nominating convention neared Tuesday night, the New Haven had nine delegates to Hamden’s seven. New Haven had apparently lined up all nine delegates behind Ashe. (Ashe, it turns out, lives just outside the district, too. But actual candidates are allowed to wait to see if they win before moving in to the district.) The assumption in the room Tuesday night was that Ashe would win the nomination.
Until a few minutes before the convention’s scheduled 7:30 start.
Oh, That Map
That’s when Kyle Blake (pictured) got busy. Blake worked for Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson’s last two campaigns. She now is running Rowe-Lewis’s campaign in this special election. She apparently knows what she’s doing.
She called up a computerized list of all district registered voters. She wanted to double-check the names of the four new delegates New Haven had just chosen to vote at the convention. She did not see two of the names on the list.
Then she called up a map of the district from a state government website. The map showed those two delegates’ addresses as having been moved out of the district.
The Hamden team huddled (pictured), then informed New Haven party leaders.
A legal expert from the state Democratic Party, Thomas McDonough, dispensed tidbits of advice ...
... with a well-thumbed copy of Robert’s Rules of Order on a nearby table.
“We’re down to seven to seven,” Joseph McDonagh (no relation to McDonough), the recording secretary and unofficial coach of the Hamden Democratic Town Committee team, told his counterpart, newly elected New Haven Democratic Town Chairman Vincent Mauro Jr.
That means no one wins. No reason to hold a vote.
Mauro and other New Haven leaders checked their own maps. It turned out they’d been relying on maps from the Connecticut State Library website that didn’t always match up—and that in the case of one delegate, showed a district boundary line running down Dixwell Avenue. It turned out the line meant that one side of the avenue now falls in one district, the other side in another. And that delegate was in the other. Mauro displayed the maps on his smart phone (pictured). Click here and here for examples of web databases through which party members were clicking. (The Independent was not able on deadline to locate the right maps.)
“They were looking at the old maps,” said Hamden’s Blake. “I’ve been looking at these maps for two weeks.” She said the state has failed to update district boundaries on the map found at the web page for the 94th District. You need to click on a separate portal to “redistricted” maps to find the newer boundaries, she said.
So the convention was called to order, then immediately adjourned, with no endorsement.
The Hamden team was elated. “Everybody now,” McDonagh said of the five candidates, “is on an equal footing.”
“I’m sorry,” Barbara Vereen (pictured), one of the newly disqualified delegates, told Mauro and New Haven Town Committee Treasurer Gwen Mills. “I thought I still lived in the 94th.” They commiserated about how complicated it can figuring out where to vote in new Haven these days; thanks to the combination of state and local redistricting, some voters end up traveling to one place to vote in even-numbered years, other places in odd-numbered years. Sometimes they vote in two different spots in the same year, one in primary season, one in the general election.
“There’s baptism by fire,” said Mauro, who was only one hour into his new job as town chair, “and there’s baptism by fire.” Translation: it was a humbling way to start the gig.
McDonagh (at right in photo), a former town chairman himself, sympathized. “I owe you a couple Guinnesses,” he told Mauro (at left).
Meanwhile, he warned, “we will have Kyle here again checking every name in May”—when the 94th District Democrats reconvene to start the process all over again and endorse a candidate for an August primary and a new election cycle.