Tribunal investigates Ward 22 endorsement

HARTFORD — Years of tradition governing New Haven’s unique ward structure were in jeopardy on Thursday, 45 miles away in Hartford.

Before a specially appointed tribunal in the Connecticut Democratic Party’s State Central headquarters, Cordelia Thorpe formally challenged the Democrats’ endorsement of Gregory Morehead in last week’s Ward 22 aldermanic election. But what began last month as a protest over a relatively minor point became a debate over whether the aldermanic endorsement procedure outlined in town party rules — a procedure that has ruled city elections for years — should be overturned.

At issue is whether the Ward Committee is legally required to meet in New Haven before an endorsement is made, and if so, whether ward co-chairs are required to follow its will.

Although the tribunal will rule only on whether Town Chairwoman Susie Voigt broke the law in endorsing Morehead, its decision could lead to a significant transfer of power from ward committees to ward co-chairs in endorsing candidates for office. Endorsements are especially important in Ward 22 because the Yale College Democrats generally follow their outcome in order to decide whom to support; Yale students were largely responsible for Morehead’s victory in the election.

On one side of the argument was Thorpe — who spoke through an advisor, Larry Charles — and former Mayor John Daniels. Although Morehead did not attend the hearing, Voigt testified with help from local trial lawyer Alfred Onorato, whose aggressive and sometimes abrasive questioning of Thorpe led to a rebuke from the tribunal.

Speaking first, Charles argued that city rules “cannot be more clear, cannot be more precise” in showing that the entire Ward Committee, not Voigt, should have made the endorsement.

“Article 3, Section 4 says that the Ward Committee ‘shall’ — not may, not might, not can, but rather ‘shall’ — decide who the endorsed candidate is,” he said. “We have searched all of the Town Committee rules, we have searched all of the state party rules, all of the Connecticut laws, and we find no place anywhere that gives the power to the Democratic town chairman to decide who the endorsed candidate is.”

Following the resignation of former Ward 22 Alderman Rev. Drew King last month, Voigt held a Town Committee endorsement meeting on March 8, a day before the scheduled Ward Committee meeting. When Thorpe and her co-chair Shaneane Ragin split as to whom to endorse, Ragin voting for Morehead and Thorpe for herself, Voigt selected Morehead, thus finalizing the endorsement. At the Town Committee meeting, she said the rules were “clear” that she had to call the meeting and break any ties, over protests from Thorpe and the vice chair of the Town Committee.

“I did not intentionally schedule the Town Committee meeting to eclipse the Ward Committee meeting,” she said Thursday, citing a state party decision from October and the short time frame allowed by state law to endorse a candidate in a special election. “I was very concerned about the time line.”

Whether Voigt must cast the tie-breaking vote when a split among the ward co-chairs occurs is a separate issue; the majority of the debate is about whether the ward committee should have met before the Town Committee, which would have likely avoided a situation in which the co-chairs would have to make an endorsement without the input of the ward.

Voigt’s argument has little basis in city party rules, which is why a victory for her would mean a change to years of endorsement procedure in New Haven in that the tribunal would be calling the Ward Committee’s vote a mere formality. In an interview following her testimony, Voigt said that she has always believed that the Town Committee’s vote is the final word, but that respecting the Ward Committee’s vote is a custom so ingrained that people have accepted it as the law even though it is not.

Although Thorpe is generally known for her aggressive style, it was Onorato, Voigt’s attorney, who caused a stir as he stood against a wall and pounded Thorpe with questions about the date on which she first heard of Voigt’s intent to hold a meeting on March 8.

Afterwards, Onorato said he was trying to make a point.

“I have a right to ask questions,” he said. “I’m a trial lawyer by practice.”

Thorpe said that State Central Executive Director Justin Kronholm — who appointed the tribunal’s members and advised Voigt to cast the tie-breaking vote — originally told Thorpe that she had no legal recourse within the Democratic party at the time Morehead’s nomination occurred. But as the election neared, she said, new legal revelations led her to write a formal letter of protest to the State Democratic Party.

The three tribunal members were Tom McDonough, Lon Seidman and Sharon Palmer, who hail from across Connecticut.

While all of Thorpe’s supporters who attended were black — the dominant demographic in Ward 22 — Kronholm did not appoint a single black state party member to the tribunal. The discrepancy was decried by Daniels, the self-proclaimed “black godfather of New Haven politics.”

A decision is expected to be handed down on or before Monday.

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