When Connecticut voters go to the polls in November to decide if Sen. Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 should serve a second term in Washington, they will see all the familiar labels on the ballot: Democratic, Republican, Working Families.
They will not, however, see any candidates with the words “Independent Party” next to their name.
That comes as the result of a complex lawsuit between competing factions of Connecticut’s Independent Party, the latest incident in a line of feuds and growing pains that has marked the history of the party. This most recent dispute involves alternative endorsements by the party’s Waterbury and Danbury factions in both the senatorial race and in numerous state legislative races. To challenge Blumenthal, the Danbury faction endorsed Republican candidate Rep. Dan Carter, R-Danbury; the Waterbury faction dissented, endorsing John Price, a Democrat, by a narrow vote instead. A similar situation ensued in the state legislative races.
Superior Court Trial Referee Susan Peck, who heard testimony in the case last week, decided on Monday that she had no jurisdiction to order one slate of candidates onto the ballot for 2016, deeming it a “political question.” Litigation will continue to clarify the process for future elections, but for 2016, no Independent Party candidate will appear on the senatorial ballot.
Both sides’ arguments in the case focused on which faction could rightfully claim to speak for the Independent Party.
“Secretary of State Denise Merrill has refused to place plaintiffs’ duly and legally nominated candidates for the United States Senate [and other districts] on the Independent line for the … general election,” Matthew Grimes Jr., attorney for the state candidates endorsed by the Waterbury faction, said. “The facts and the documentation in this case show that there should be no conflicting nominations.”
Maura Murphy Osborne, assistant attorney general, said the Secretary of State’s Office has a long-standing policy of declining to place either candidate on the ballot when separate factions of a party disagree on an endorsement. Merrill has followed that policy in this instance, but both factions argued that their candidates are the rightful ones.
In “intraparty feuds,” Murphy Osborne said, the secretary of state maintains a “principle of neutrality.” Osborne did say, however, that the lawsuit’s close proximity to the election — for which overseas ballots must be shipped by Friday — meant that her office would like to see a resolution as soon as possible.
Thomas Willcutts — attorney for Michael Telesca of Waterbury, named as one of the defendants — explained the Byzantine origins of the Independent Party’s internecine warfare in detail. In the beginning, he said, the Independent Party was nothing more than various unassociated municipal organizations; when Ralph Nader sought an Independent endorsement for his presidential run in 2008, the party began to nominate candidates for statewide office.
But the local nature of the party never disappeared, and factions based in different towns — Danbury and Waterbury, among others — persisted. Disputes over whether the party should endorse independent candidates, as opposed to cross-endorsing Republican or Democratic candidates, also continued to vex the party.
Willcutts said Telesca, his client, represents the will of the majority of Independent Party voters in the state. The Danbury faction, he said, seeks the power to nominate candidates unilaterally, overriding the will of voters.
“The [Danbury faction] is essentially doing nothing other than taking Republican candidates and taking those candidates and putting them on all the IP lines,” Willcutts said in his testimony. “They’re not, essentially, allowing any of the prior history of IP candidates, who are chosen locally and elected locally, to retain that democratic right of being chosen locally.”
Murphy Osborne noted that some of the local tradition has been maintained. In previous disputes, she explained, the dueling factions had decided to divide the state’s territory, granting each other the right to make endorsements for local races.
That settlement became a court order, and Merrill understood it to be settled law; hence, Murphy Osborne said, the Secretary of State’s Office accepted the Danbury faction’s endorsement for races in the 14th and 118th districts. For statewide races, though, no such settlement was ever reached.
In Friday’s hearing, Peck expressed doubt over the court’s ability, or power, to solve what she considers an intraparty dispute, not a justiciable election issue.
Ben Proto, Carter’s attorney, disagreed with Peck. The intraparty dispute over which faction of the party has supremacy, he said, is intricately and inextricably linked to the elections issue of whose name would appear on the ballot.
Peck’s ultimate view in the dispute over the 2016 ballot boiled down to a simple proposition: that her chair possesses no authority to place one name or another on the ballot.
“That is essentially a separation of powers issue,” Peck said in the Hartford Superior Court on Monday. “It’s a political question that the Legislature has obviously reserved for itself by not passing any statute that vests jurisdiction in this court regarding the issue that is presented in the court.”
Peck’s refusal to make a decision in the case was enough to cause both parties to drop their lawsuits, though they said they would continue with litigation that will, if all goes according to plan, obviate the need to come into court again in 2018.
This year’s dysfunction is not the first time disputes between the Danbury and Waterbury factions have caused paralysis. In 2014, the Danbury faction sued their fellow party members in Waterbury in an effort to force them to stop making filings with state elections officials over registrations.