Bruce Kimmel (opinion): Norwalk holding a puzzling election

Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling shakes hands with Jonathan Riddle at the 2018 Mayor's Golf Tournament at Oak Hills Park in Norwalk, Conn. Riddle is the 2021 Republican candidate seeking to unseat Rilling on Election Day.

Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling shakes hands with Jonathan Riddle at the 2018 Mayor's Golf Tournament at Oak Hills Park in Norwalk, Conn. Riddle is the 2021 Republican candidate seeking to unseat Rilling on Election Day.

Alex von Kleydorff / Hearst Connecticut Media

Imagine you’re a lifelong Republican, and this November you begin to fill in the circles on your ballot, but you stop, wondering what’s going on. There are hardly any GOP candidates. And not a single Republican for the four seats on the Board of Education. The ballot instructions say you have four votes for BOE candidates, but there are no Republicans. Something must be wrong.

Welcome to the 2021 municipal elections in Norwalk, which might turn out to be the strangest in city history. Although the Democratic party is fielding a full slate of candidates for the 15 Common Council and four Board of Education slots, the local Republican party, in an unprecedented move for a major party in Norwalk, nominated only eight candidates for these 19 positions. Both parties have a mayoral candidate.

The weirdness is also reflected in the council candidates: Each GOP voter will have two votes for four in-district council candidates (usually, two Democrats and two Republicans) and five for the at-large council slate (usually, five Democrats and five Republicans). But one of the five districts has zero Republican candidates, three have only one Republican, and the GOP has only three candidates for the five at-large seats.

Another wrinkle to the strangeness is the appearance of candidates who petitioned their way onto the ballot. They call themselves “Independents for Norwalk” and are fielding nine candidates for the 19 slots (they don’t have a mayoral candidate). But there could be a legal challenge in the works because a statewide Independent party already exists (but is not running candidates), and Norwalk has roughly 1,000 voters registered as Independents. The two “Independent” groups appear totally unrelated. Which begs the question: What’s a life-long Independent to do when he or she receives a ballot?

For the record: I am a Democrat and former elected official who intends to support Mayor Harry Rilling and the Democratic slate of candidates. I believe the mayor has done a good job steering the city through the pandemic, maintaining the city’s critical AAA credit rating, controlling property taxes, working with the BOE, and improving our land use policies and procedures. Much of this could not have been achieved without the support and work of the Democratic majority on the Common Council.

As mentioned, the local Democratic party is running a full slate of candidates (20) for mayor, Common Council, and Board of Education. Many of these candidates will probably have the support of the Working Families Party, which does not field candidates in Norwalk, but generally endorses local Democrats. Many Democratic candidates will thus have two spots on the ballot.

The Norwalk Republicans have had a tough time in recent elections: In 2017, the party was split, with many prominent Republicans supporting a non-Republican for mayor instead of their own endorsed candidate; and two years ago, the party nominated an unaffiliated resident to be their standard-bearer. They lost both elections badly. And now they have nominated a candidate for mayor who has never held elected or appointed office.

I was amused by the statement from the Republican chair, who was quoted in the media as saying their nominating convention “went very well. The meeting flowed nicely. The big challenge was making sure everybody stuck around to secure necessary paperwork.” The chair, of course, was in a difficult situation and did a nice job transforming what should have been a major embarrassment into a positive outcome — the candidates remembered to pick up the form that needs to be delivered to the Registrar of Voters.

At first glance, the Republican strategy makes absolutely no sense. They did not even bother to find “placeholders” (individuals with no intention of campaigning or interest in winning) to complete the ballot. But, taken together, the GOP and “Independent” partial slates do resemble a full slate (except for South Norwalk, where neither group nominated any candidates). This, of course, begs yet another question: Are they working together? It seems that way, especially considering the GOP’s mind-boggling decision not to nominate a single candidate for the four BOE positions, while the “Independents” nominated a full slate for the BOE.

Whatever the case, the Norwalk Republicans have made voting a puzzling endeavor for its dwindling number of supporters.

Bruce Kimmel is a a former member of the Norwalk Common Council and the city's Board of Education.