A self-described “country-club Republican” is turning over the local party to a man who once made the news for filming teens stealing Donald Trump signs off his lawn.
That transfer of power took place on Thursday night at the Republican Town Committee meeting at the Hall of Records on Orange Street.
After two years as party chairman, Jonathan Wharton, a Southern Connecticut State University political science professor who brought a moderate message and energetic recruiting approach, stepped down. In a unanimous voice vote from the 25 members in attendance, the committee picked Jeffrey Weiss, a marketing exec, as his successor.
Wharton clapped Weiss on the back after the vote and handed him a green parking permit — the one “booby prize,” Wharton said, in the unforgiving task of rebuilding a party from scratch.
The party also reelected Marlene Napolitano as vice-chair, Michael Tortora as treasurer, David St. Hilaire as secretary, and Victor Fasano as parliamentarian.
Weiss now takes over Wharton’s uphill electoral battle to break the Democrats’ hold on the Elm City. The GOP last won the mayor’s office in 1951, and it hasn’t run for the position again since 2007. Every seat on the 30-member Board of Alders, not to mention the state and national delegations, is held by a Democrat (including two independent alders who identify as Democrats).
In part, that’s because the GOP is outnumbered in navy blue New Haven. Only 4.2 percent of registered voters claim party membership. The Democrats, by comparison, make up 68.3 percent of the voter rolls.
Weiss managed the GOP’s one citywide campaign last year. In the race for probate judge, a position opened up for the first time in 32 years by a retirement, Democrat Clifton Graves, Jr., beat out Weiss’s candidate, Republican Melissa Papantones, with 83.3 percent of the 10,549 votes cast.
A sales rep for JC Marketing Communications in Southington and a resident of the Quinnipiac Meadows neighborhood, Weiss moved to New Haven a year and a half ago from West Hartford. Up there, a Fox News affiliate featured him in a segment after two teenagers stole Trump campaign signs off his lawn. (Watch the video here.)
Weiss said he admires former President Ronald Reagan and believes the left veered off course after President John F. Kennedy. On Facebook, he has accused television networks of peddling “fake news,” mocked the special counsel’s investigation into Russia’s election interference, and spread conspiracy theories about the murder of a Democratic staffer.
Weiss said President Trump is doing a “great job.” But he said in his new role as chairman, he’ll welcome diverse viewpoints, encouraging “robust discussion of everything,” in contrast to what he called a union-enforced Democratic agenda at City Hall.
In his time in New Haven so far, “I see the town’s got a lot of very untapped potential,” Weiss said. “The biggest problem is that it’s one-party rule. With any party, whether it’s Democrats or Republicans in charge, there is no give and take; you do not get the best results. You always need some sort of balance, so we’re here to restore democracy.”
Weiss said he plans to focus on growing the party’s size and running candidates for every open seat, from the school board to the State Senate. “There’s no reason for a seat to go unchallenged,” he said. How does Weiss plan to recruit those candidates? “You’ll see,” he said.
After two years in the gig, Wharton decided he needed to step down from the post. “It’s over,” Wharton said in an interview. “I’m overdue.”
Wharton said he plans to apply for tenure at SCSU next year, a task he said he needs time and mental focus to see through.
As chairman, Wharton tried to boost the party’s standing by finding over two dozen Republicans to join city boards and commissions , overhauling the party’s outdated webpage, and tweeting at all hours of the day.
Sometimes, his moves were questioned within the party. Wharton heard grumbles about holding too many fundraisers, especially at venues with bad food, and doing too many interviews with the media, only to get “backstabbed at the end of the day,” he said. He defended both those tactics for pulling in thousands of dollars to the party coffers and boosting the party’s presence.
Weiss said he plans to continue drumming up funds. “That’s a no-brainer,” he said. “No organization survives without the money.”
Does Wharton worry that the local party is losing a symbol of inclusivity without him at the helm? “Maybe it’s older. Whiter, okay. And straighter, fine, I get it,” said Wharton, who is African-American, but he said he feels he is leaving the party in good hands.
Weiss “brings a certain skill set that will be very helpful for candidates in the future to run for office,” Wharton said. “I’m more of a policy wonk; I’m obsessive-compulsive about issues and stances. He’s good with marketing and ads, getting the notoriety out there.”
Wharton said he and Weiss do differ in their presidential politics, too.
Wharton, who said he wrote in John Kasich’s name on the November 2016 presidential ballot, said he fits the “country-club variety.” Wharton said he doesn’t know what it would mean for a Trump supporter to be the one grooming candidates for New Haven’s party or slating delegates to send to the gubernatorial convention.
Weiss declined to say whom he’s backing for governor. “Probably a Republican,” he said.
The change in the Elm City’s chairmanship represents a general rightward trend across New England. In the region’s 21 congressional districts, 13 turned redder from 2012 to 2016. While there are still moderates in high office, from Maine’s U.S. senator to Vermont and Massachusetts’s governors, those establishment figures appear to be on the way out, demographers believe, as former industrial areas turn towards Tea Party populism.
Wharton said that it be overshooting the point to suggest that a real shift is happening in the Elm City. “The reality is that there’s variation,” he said, “but you don’t see all of them, because they’re not as plentiful on the Democratic side.”
Weiss said he plans to make room for all viewpoints in the local party.
“The national party has a platform: It’s a big tent. No one is excluded from participating if you don’t agree with the whole party line. You don’t have to follow every tank, as opposed to the Democrats where if you’re anti-abortion, you’re not welcome,” he said.