Enfield Democrats have been left shaking their heads after the state party overturned the 58th House District nominating convention’s candidate selection. Proxy votes were the sticking point this time, but the real issue might be conventions in general, and how they happen here in Connecticut.
Last week sitting State Rep. Kathy Tallarita, D-Enfield, lost the Democratic nominating convention to political newcomer David Alexander, 21-20. This week, though, the state Democratic Party intervened to overturn the endorsement of the convention, throwing it to Tallarita. The whole thing revolves around proxy votes and whether a single-town nominating convention is really just a special meeting of the town committee—at which a candidate is nominated. Democrats were told ahead of time by the state party that proxies were fine, and Tallarita herself used a proxy vote at the meeting. If a local nomination has ever been overturned by the state party because of this kind of technicality before, I can’t find it. It’s all kinds of strange.
So, after all that, what does she win? Now it’s Alexander instead of Tallarita who has to go around gather about 230 signatures in order to force a primary in August. Because of the delay he only has about a week to get it done, but ever since the convention was overturned he’s motivated to make it happen. Tallarita also wins the long-term ire of any Enfield Democrat who thinks this whole thing stinks to high heaven.
This all seems like the kind of backroom farce that shouldn’t happen anymore. Nominating conventions are a relic of an earlier age when party machines ran everything and primaries were uncommon. These days, though, their purpose is a lot less clear. In Connecticut, conventions still have a say in how easy it is to get on the primary ballot, and where on that ballot a candidate’s name is placed. Contested nominating conventions often do lead to primaries, especially in towns and cities where a single party is heavily dominant. Still, because candidates will take any advantage they can get in a tough primary, and the convention tends to lend an air of legitimacy to a particular candidate with the party faithful, conventions can be the stage for plenty of shenanigans.
For example, there was some grumbling about the money Linda McMahon allegedly threw around prior to the 2010 and 2012 Republican conventions. In 2006, it appeared that John DeStefano had won the convention endorsement but, because delegates are for some unknown reason allowed to switch their votes, smart hustling by the Dan Malloy campaign was able to snatch away the nomination. A Bristol nominating convention in 2006 actually led to a brawl in the corridors of City Hall.
As systems go, this one could be improved. The choice of candidates in this country has been away from party insiders and towards the general mass of party-registered voters. Party nominations are no longer the exclusive preserve of the party elite, but now, as primaries, function as a vital first round in our lengthy election process. This function is much clearer at the national level, where the once-pivotal and contentious party convention has become a coronation for the winner of the extended primary season and a celebration of party unity and purpose. It’s not a perfect system by any means, but it beats what existed before. Conventions in the states have yet to catch up, but I have to believe that eventually they will.
Connecticut should get on board now, and endorse a system of conventions and primaries that more closely resembles the national one. Our election calendar is already shortened thanks to the needs of the conventions, and our primaries, instead of being in May or June, are in the political dead zone of August. Less powerful conventions would mean fewer fishy convention antics and rightly put the full responsibility for choosing candidates where it belongs: with the voters.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the former owner of CT Local Politics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.