Behind the Scenes at the Hartford Democratic Town Committee Convention
By Kerri Provost
July 22, 2011
A large room crammed full of powerful people (and those aiming to be) dressed in red, white, and blue, with buttons and signs galore. The party casts its votes, maybe some numbers don’t match up and a recount is needed, but the endorsements get made and the evening moves on. Reporters pushing their way through to get to the newly endorsed or to those left behind. That’s the image that comes to mind, and to an extent, that is what happens. But for those who have never been to a convention and who are not politically connected, it might be eye-opening to learn that the behind the scenes “back room deals” are not so secretive after all.
The Hartford Democratic Town Committee’s convention was scheduled to begin at 5:30 on Thursday evening in Bulkeley High School’s air conditioned auditorium. We assumed that this was the fake time, which is told so that events kick off on time about thirty minutes later. Segarra’s supporters were gathered around the building’s entrance with signs and stickers at 4:30 pm. By all accounts, I thought I would be home by ten, latest.
Upon entering, we had our choice of seats. Nothing was roped off. Nobody was serving as an usher. I sat with Emily of Live in Hartford, and near reporters from The Hartford Guardian and The Hartford News, two small, local newspapers that work hard to get the story, like journalists from days of yore. We were in the second row, center, and nobody seemed to mind.
Waiting for the event to begin, we noted who was conversing with whom. Julio Concepcion, an HDTC member, stopped over and we chatted about the waves he made when he publicly questioned the 2-2-2 strategy days prior. In the audience was a young man, a teenager about to enter Hartford Public High School after attending Bellizzi. He began the evening as the embodiment of idealism. We never saw if he looked the same, or disenchanted, when he slipped out later.
At 6pm, we thought the event was going to begin when the committee announced that the little people had to move our seats:
"@liveinhartford Half an hour after this thing was supposed to start, us riffraff are told to vacate the first 2 rows for HDTC members. Elitists! #hartdtc"
The rationale made sense. Leave room so that HDTC members can easily access the microphone and be heard; one wonders why this was not announced earlier. One also wonders why this was even attempted, as the members were scattered throughout the auditorium, some griping that they could not hear, all the while not moving their seats, despite the vacant ones now reserved for them.
After we were herded elsewhere, we thought the show was about to begin.
We were wrong.
Nothing got underway until almost 6:30, an hour after the event was scheduled. Or, as far as we know, that was the time it was scheduled. The HDTC website is among the most useless we have encountered. While all the members’ names are listed, none of the candidates were, the convention was not even posted as an upcoming event, and the contact form appears to dump inquiries into a black hole somewhere. We have heard from readers who have tried to contact the HDTC to volunteer that their messages were never returned.
Anyway, we knew the meeting was underway when someone on the stage yelled “sit down!” in an ever-so-professional manner. This was followed by two traditions that felt wholly out of place given the context: Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer. During the rest of the evening we wondered if people were acting out of desire to improve the nation on a local level, or if all this was nothing more than ego tripping and the securing of other positions in power.
We thought there would be introductory speeches or maybe a refresher of the rules, but they essentially jumped into action by taking attendance:
"@realhartford 66 members of HDTC present...seems kind of unwieldy. #hartdtc"
As we were commenting at the time, if you need to reserve two full rows of an auditorium for committee members, it might be time to downsize the committee.
The process goes like this: the committee is asked if there are any nominations for the position, someone nominates, someone seconds, and then they motion to close nominations. After this, there is roll call. Every single person is asked for who s/he endorses. They can “pass” and give their endorsement after others have done so, but only a certain number of times. They can also abstain. Sometimes they can change their votes. After voting closes, they tally the numbers and determine if any candidate has gotten a majority vote. If not, they repeat this entire process, minus the nominations. They do not eliminate any of the candidates who receive few or no votes, though at this time candidates may withdraw themselves from the race. After an endorsement is awarded for one position, they begin the process again with the next office.
The endorsement for mayor was the most seamless of the evening– surprising, given that this is the position we equate with having the most power. Nominated candidates: J. Stan McCauley, Edwin Vargas, and Pedro Segarra. Rev. Patrice Smith had announced her candidacy, but did not get nominated.
What became apparent early into the evening was how this system is broken — from an outdated website and lack of social media presence on behalf of the HDTC (can we call this Borders Syndrome? too soon?), to the filling of racial/ethnic quotas, to the barring of women from power, to how the votes are counted:
"@realhartford The tallying method is ridiculous. Chalkboard tally doesn't match spreadsheet tally. #hartdtc"
That’s right. Chalkboard tally. An old green chalk board that can barely be read from the front row under normal circumstances was cluttered with names and tally marks.
"@liveinehartford Oh wow! I just saw the chalkboard some of y'all had alluded to. What is this, little house on the prairie? #hartdtc"
This was accompanied by a spreadsheet projected onto a large screen, which was only slightly more readable, but offered other challenges. While not an issue during the first vote, as there was only one candidate committee members could vote for, later in the evening, HDTC members could not even keep track of their own votes, asking how many people they could still vote for. As Segarra was getting an endorsement from the Democrats, we noted this:
"@realhartford But numbers announced don't match what person just read. It was a complete landslide in either case. #hardtc"
Later, the accuracy of numbers would become much more important.
At this point, Segarra took to the stage and gave a brief acceptance speech
"@SegarraForMayor I would like to thank the democratic town committee members for their support. #hartdtc"
This was followed by a break.
"@realhartford Now they are taking a 15 minute break. For real? Is this a union gig? #hartdtc"
Given that this began an hour late, we erroneously thought they might try to expedite matters. Instead, we just learned that they have either no ability to tell time, or no respect for anyone else’s. Fifteen minutes is not fifteen minutes at the HDTC convention.
"@realhartford The delay is apparently out of consideration to cig smokers. #hartdtc"
"@liveinhartford Now 30 minutes into our 15 minute break. But no worries, we will start in 5 minutes. #ifyoubelievethatihaveabridgetosellyou #hartdtc"
Just as we thought things were going to pick up speed and mimic the considerably painless endorsement of mayoral candidate, we learned otherwise. HDTC members nominated (and eventually endorsed) candidates whose names they could not pronounce, indicating a lack of familiarity with them. Candidates that were nominated included Alex Aponte, Kyle Anderson, Sean Arena, Kevin Brookman, Marc DiBella, Raul DeJesus Jr., Rupert Daniels, Kathleen Kowalyshyn, Ken Kennedy, David MacDonald, Ramon Espinoza, rJo Winch, and Shawn Wooden.
Then, there were more delays:
"@realhartford looks like some backroom deals need to be made before anyone can vote. #hartdtc"
When it came time for roll call, dozens and dozens of HDTC members passed — what some might call strategy, others see as cowardice and lack of conviction.
"@realhartford And they are joking about it! A total mockery happining right now. #hartdtc"
During the first run through of roll call, only two committee members cast votes:
"@realhartford Number of people on DTC with an ounce of integrity--so far, only two. #hartdtc"
As the votes started to be cast, there was laughter among the group, because this approach to democracy is apparently hilarious. Basically, what happens is that a few people cast first votes, and then the rest divide up to determine how they will vote in groups.
Contrary to popular belief, these are not backroom deals. These happened in the corners of the auditorium, in the lobby, hallway, patio, and directly in front of me. Anyone who attended could see this in action, and as this is a public event, anyone really can witness it.
This process lasted forever. I exaggerate only slightly. People would cast a few votes, but pass on others. The numbers on the spreadsheet did not match those on the chalkboard; during a recess, which was intended to tally the votes and nothing more, some candidates appeared to magically have votes added to their totals. One nominated candidate, Marc DiBella, withdrew.
While Wooden was lagging in the votes early in the process, he caught up later after some dealings occurred. It was during this stage when the two nominated females were kicked to the curb:
"@realhartford No women whatsoever. Guess Dems don't have a 3:3 policy for males/femailes. #hartdtc"
While some Hartford Democratic Town Committee members and politicians take issue with their party “being painted” entirely as a boys’ club, it’s impossible to ignore the dirty politics happening in plain sight last night which esteemed certain candidates — for reasons wholly unrelated to qualifications in some cases — over others. If one does not want to be painted in a particular manner, then perhaps it is best to not pose in such a way that lends itself as such.
After the six candidates for City Council — Kyle Anderson, Raul DeJesus Jr., Alex Aponte, Ken Kennedy, David MacDonald, and Shawn Wooden.– were finally endorsed, it came time to nominate and endorse a candidate for treasurer. Because this was only one position and it was very late, we thought this would be expedient like the endorsement of mayor.
"@realhartford Several DTC members left early. Well, if fie hours later is early. #hartdtc"
Besides a few people leaving early, no nominated candidate received a majority vote during the first round. Nor in the second or third round. Instead of scratching a candidate who receives no votes, his name remains in the mix. As we know from the famous quote, insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” We saw certain groups beginning to “pass” on voting, which only took votes away from a candidate, but did not help to determine a majority.
"@remigan @realhartford Hope I have all the numbers right. Oh wait, no one does. Face. Palm. #hartdtc"
It was not until early Friday morning that Adam Cloud was given the Democrats’ endorsement.
The chaos involved in this process could have been easily avoided in a few ways. Having moderators who can handle the task without getting into tiffs with committee members when they ask questions would be a start. Learning the rules of the process and procedures would be helpful, as would spelling them out at the start of the convention. One HDTC member declared that while she had been involved for ten years, she never bothered to learn the rules and wanted them explained to her, hours into the meeting. Moving away from the dirty dealing by casting votes with a different medium would add some integrity (or at least force the deals to happen in advance) and streamline the process. Using paper ballots could reduce something that took six hours to just a fraction of that time.
When the process is so obviously broken, who would want to get involved?
Still more to come, so check back!
Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford.
To view other stories on this topic, search RealHartford at http://www.realhartford.org/.