Gregory Morehead, a candidate for alderman in the special Ward 22 election to be held Monday, may have won the Democratic Party’s endorsement illegitimately last month, according to one reading of state statutes and party bylaws.
Cordelia Thorpe — also a candidate for Ward 22 alderman and co-chair of the Ward 22 Democratic Committee — has always maintained that she was unhappy with the tiebreaker vote that handed Morehead the party endorsement last month. But Thorpe had stopped short of claiming that the vote, which was cast by Town Democratic Party Chairwoman Susie Voigt, was illegal. Now, however, Thorpe plans to file a legal complaint arguing that under party and Connecticut rules, the endorsement decision should have been made by the full Ward 22 committee, which would not have necessitated a tiebreaker vote by Voigt. Some think a decision by the ward committee may have turned out in Thorpe’s favor.
“The so-called endorsed Democrat was not selected by the rules and should be removed from the race altogether because his selection violated the party rules,” Thorpe said.
The crux of the disagreement is whether or not the rules insist that the Ward 22 Democratic committee must meet before an endorsement is made. The endorsement in question is significant because it determines which candidate will be listed on the Democratic Party’s ticket and influences the endorsement decisions of prominent groups like the Yale College Democrats.
Generally, the ward committee — consisting of several dozen politically active community members — meets to vote for which candidate it prefers. In the case of this election, however, the ward committee did not meet before the two co-chairs, of whom Thorpe is one, cast votes on which of the two aldermanic candidates to endorse. Thorpe argues that the ward committee meeting should have occurred prior to the endorsement vote. On the other hand, Voigt says that though the process was not “perfect,” she does not believe the ward committee was legally obligated to meet before the chairs relayed their decision to the full Democratic Town Committee.
The ward committee’s meeting had been delayed until March 9, a Friday. Former Ward 22 Alderman Drew King had resigned the week before, and the ward committee needed the extra time to convene all of its members. Voigt cast the tiebreaking vote at a March 8 meeting of the Democratic Town Committee.
The outcome of the dispute will likely turn on the meaning and applicability of three state statutes, as well as whether or not these state statutes trump city Democratic party rules.
If city party rules have jurisdiction, the relevant bylaw is in Article 3, which concerns ward organization. By one reading — which Thorpe supports — this rule indicates plainly that Voigt should not been involved in the vote.
“The Candidate for Alderman from each Ward shall be endorsed by a convention of delegates in each Ward within the time provided by state statutes,” the bylaws read. “The delegates to each such convention shall be the members of the Ward Committee. The person with a majority of those present and voting at said convention shall be the endorsed aldermanic candidate from that Ward.”
Yet there is another side to the story. Voigt said she broke from past practice to hold the town meeting before the ward meeting because she was afraid that in case of a dispute, there would not be enough time for the Secretary of State to certify the endorsed candidate’s name. She said the Secretary of State needed to certify the endorsement by Monday, March 12. The town committee would not have been able to meet during the weekend after the ward committee meeting due to religious observances, she said.
Further, a Friday ward meeting would have effectively disenfranchised the Yale students on the Ward Committee, since they would have been gone for the University’s spring recess.
Voigt also turns to state statutes — all under Title 9, which deals with elections — to show that although the ward committee might vote on the endorsement, the final decision is up to the co-chairs, not the entire ward committee. If the co-chairs cannot agree on a candidate, Voigt says, Robert’s Rules of Order — a commonly used form of parliamentary procedure — compel her to cast the tiebreaking vote.
The state statute entitled, “Selection of party-endorsed candidates for municipal office…,” which Voigt relies on for her legal backing, seems to suggest — though far from clearly — that state laws render ward committee endorsement meetings unnecessary.
“In the endorsement of any person for an office or a position as committee member … for whom only the electors of a political subdivision of such municipality … may vote, only the enrolled party members, delegates or town committee members, as the case may be, from such political subdivision or district may participate,” the statute reads.
This suggests that Thorpe and Ragin would have been the only eligible voters as only they, as ward co-chairs, are members of the full town committee as well as their ward committee.
But the law is silent as to the question of the tie: There is no apparent power for Voigt to cast a tie-breaking vote.
The same state statute calls for endorsements to be held “in accordance with the rules of [the] party,” indicating that New Haven party rules should be followed, while city party rules say that state laws should reign supreme.
It is, in short, a circular puzzle unlikely to be resolved before the election takes place — or does not take place, on the off chance that it is postponed.
Voigt responded to the accusations that she intentionally broke the rules with insistence that she followed the statutes as best she knew how with the help of legal counsel.
“I work very hard to abide by state statutes and party rules, leaving time for these kinds of confusions and difficulties, and I have faith that there’s a process to sort it out,” Voigt said. “I look forward to a vital election on Monday.”
Board of Aldermen President Carl Goldfield, an attorney, echoed Voigt’s insistence that relevant laws were consulted and interpreted as best they could be prior to deciding to hold the Town Committee meeting on Thursday, March 8.
“A good lawyer’s always able to take any language and argue how it should apply to any different set of facts,” Goldfield said. “It seems to me that what [Voigt] did was correct. Sure, there’s always some ambiguity in these things, but I don’t think there’s a hell of a lot [in this case].”
Yet some prominent community members have joined the chorus against Voigt’s March 8 tiebreaking vote. After reviewing the relevant bylaws and statues on Thursday, former Mayor John Daniels said he believes Morehead should be removed from the ballot.
“There is nothing in the New Haven Democratic Town Committee rules or the Democratic State Committee rules, nor the Connecticut statutes, that gives the town chairman [Voigt] the power she exercised in naming Greg Morehead as the endorsed aldermanic candidate,” Daniels said.
Approached with Thorpe’s intention to dispute his place on the ballot, Morehead reacted calmly.
“That’s their opinion, and we’ll see what happens,” Morehead said, hours before canvassing Yale students in Timothy Dwight College. “Everything is moving on, and I’m still going to work as hard as I have been working, and we’ll see what happens. I’m not out here running scared or anything.”
Justin Kronholm, executive director of the Democratic Party’s Stat Central Committee, declined to comment because it will ultimately be his responsibility to appoint the three-person committee charged with resolving Thorpe’s legal complaint.