State affirms Ward 22 endorsement

A unanimous ruling by a tribunal of Connecticut Democratic Party committee members has made it official: In nearly all circumstances, the town committee, not the ward committee, holds the endorsement power in New Haven.

The tribunal was appointed to investigate the party’s endorsement of Ward 22 Alderman Greg Morehead in the elections held last month, but its decision has larger implications in that it calls into question years of city political tradition. The Tuesday ruling, which also affirms that the Town Chair has authority to break ties under party bylaws, nonetheless suggests that current city Democratic Party leaders sharpen the rules governing ward committees “with some speed,” so as to “avoid a repeat of this dispute” in the coming November election.

“I’m pleased with the outcome, and I think their suggestions for changing and revising are appropriate,” current Town Democratic Committee Chair Susie Voigt said.

She wants to make city rules more in accord with those throughout Connecticut while preserving the role of the ward committees, she said.

But Morehead’s runner-up, Cordelia Thorpe, who started the dispute and claims that Voigt invented the rules in endorsing Morehead, said the decision was evidence that the Democratic Party “cannot police itself.” She testified in Hartford alongside former Mayor John Daniels last Thursday.

“This all reminds me of ‘Animal Farm,’” Thorpe said. “The rules keep on changing.”

The decision is potentially significant because it has become a tradition in New Haven for ward committees — which consist of ward residents — to endorse a candidate for the ward’s aldermanic seat, and then for the ward co-chairs to respect that decision. But the co-chairs may disagree, as they did in the Ward 22 endorsement when the ward committee never had a chance to meet. When the co-chairs are split, the tribunal ruled, the Town Committee chair — in this case, Voigt — will always have the power to break the tie.

Voigt said she sees nothing wrong with her tie-breaking power. She said the co-chairs often agree anyway, and noted that there have been cases in which she has fought for candidates to be endorsed even when she has opposed them personally.

Thorpe maintained that the rules appear to support her argument regarding ward committees. In Thorpe’s interpretation, city party bylaws state that Ward Committees “shall” endorse aldermanic candidates, while the rule about Town Committee members states that aldermanic candidates shall not be included among their endorsements — a clause that the tribunal did not address. But the tribunal, citing its own decision from a recent dispute in New Haven’s Ward 14, said a “plain wording of the rules” proves that the Town Committee shall endorse candidates and that the Ward Committee’s endorsement is advisory.

Thorpe said she has moved to challenge the legitimacy of the election in court. Her hearing date has been set tentatively for later this month.

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