In a letter to the editor that appears in today’s Greenwich Time (July 24, 2013), my friend Peter Berg, District 8 leader on the Democratic Town Committee, takes issue with my most recent column (Sunday, July 21, 2013).
He disagrees with my assertion that the DTC decision to limit Board of Education endorsements to two people was about party control (Although Peter’s sole focus is on the Democrats, my column referred to both parties).He also does not agree that candidates are chosen by a handful of party people and that voters with children in public schools crave voter choice in selecting candidates for the school board.
Peter’s underlying premise is correct. The 120 people, plus or minus, who constitute the membership of the two town committees – the RTC and the DTC – are democratically chosen at biennial party caucuses to represent the local Republican and Democratic parties and to conduct local party affairs, including the endorsement of candidates for municipal office. And those voters who choose not to affiliate with any party, or who choose not to participate in party caucuses, relinquish all involvement in partisan candidate selection, which is not to say they can’t be involved in petition candidacies that aren’t on any party line.
I accept this underlying premise as true. But as far as I’m concerned, it in no way undermines my observations regarding party control. I still maintain that this year’s decision by both parties to limit the number of school board endorsements to two people is about party control.
There were four qualified Democrats seeking to serve, who could have been endorsed. The party could have exercised this choice. There were three qualified Republicans seeking to serve, who could have been endorsed.The party could have exercised this choice.
If it’s not about party control, why are the parties reluctant to put forward more than two candidates when they have more than two qualified candidates anxious to serve? What’s the harm in leaving the ultimate choice to the electorate?
From a party point of view, the problem with giving voters this choice, as Peter points out, is that it creates a situation tantamount to a primary in a general election. When more than two candidates run on the same party line, they’re really running against each other, and unlike in a primary, where party voters make the choice, in this situation the entire electorate chooses the winners. This problem is exacerbated if only one party gives voter choice and not the other party.
But the fact that the parties prefer not to give the entire electorate this opportunity to choose only underscores the extent to which it really is about party control and that this control is exercised by a handful of people, albeit democratically chosen to represent the party.
Moreover, the fact that the larger public is continually calling for choice and decrying such tight party control only underscores the extent to which voters – Republicans, Democrats, unaffiliated voters – crave greater choice in selecting members of the school board.
As of July 17 at 4 p.m., there were a total of 32,047 registered Greenwich voters: 12,385 Republicans, 11,367 unaffiliated voters, 7,842 Democrats and 453 other.
Unaffiliated voters are an ever-growing segment of the electorate. It’s true the choice to remain unaffiliated deprives one of participation in party caucuses and primaries. But Peter errs in thinking that voters who remain unaffiliated don’t crave choice in general elections, or don’t want some say in who serves on the school board.
Indeed, perhaps it’s dissatisfaction with both parties that influences the choice to remain unaffiliated. And the more narrow and closed the parties are, the more likely this dissatisfaction and disaffection.
“We don’t want Republicans to choose which Democrats represent our party on the school board,” was the often-heard refrain last Thursday night as the DTC debated whether to put up more than two candidates for the school board. Although Republicans were repeatedly mentioned, the implication was that unaffiliated voters should also be excluded from this selection process.
The RTC, by contrast, had no debate when they met last Wednesday night. But the RTC decision to endorse only two candidates, and not put up an incumbent seeking re-election was also about maintaining party control. And it involved the sanctioning of an incumbent who’s strayed from the party path.
The DTC debate on the subject of voter choice was revealing. Many DTC Democrats expressed the sentiment that only ‘true’ Democrats, ‘progressive’ Democrats, should represent them on the school board and that the DTC has an obligation to determine who these Democrats are.
“For the Republicans, it’s all about control,” said DTC member Sean Goldrick, advocating that the endorsement be limited to two candidates. “It’s about time the Democrats take a stand and do the same as the Republicans.”
But what does it mean to be a ‘true’ Democrat?
“Narrowing the talent pool does not serve a Democratic ideal,” said DTC member Steven Meskers.
Others made similar points. “Limiting voter choice does not serve the interests of the Democratic Party,” they said.
Others suggested that the party was limiting choice out of fear and described the notion that a small group of people should give the voters no choice as an outmoded idea, reminiscent of the smoke-filled back rooms of a bygone era.
“Inclusiveness and openness are core principles that have made the Democratic Party strong,” said DTC member Stephen Fuzesi. “It’s critical that we advance all four candidates to advance the level of discussion of public education.”
And so, there’s the paradox. Or irony. In order to maintain strict party control and ensure that only ‘true’ and ‘progressive’ Democrats serve on the school board, the party must violate its progressive principles.
The DTC voted 34 to 28, with one abstention, to limit endorsements to two candidates.
Yes, I would say to my friend Peter Berg, what you say is technically correct, but in the end it’s still about party control in the hands of a small number of people. And sometimes this does not serve us well.