Independent Party Chairman Mike Telesca at the 2018 nominating convention. Credit: Christine Stuart / CTNewsJunkie

Connecticut Independent Party chairman Michael Telesca said Thursday his preference for nominating a third candidate in this year’s rematch between Gov. Ned Lamont and Republican Bob Stefanowski had him catching “flak” from Republicans hoping for a cross endorsement.

The Independent Party endorsed Stefanowski in 2018 when the Madison businessman lost to Lamont by around 44,000 votes. That year, about 25,000 voters cast ballots for Stefanowski on the Independent line. Lamont also received a cross-endorsement and around 18,000 votes from the Working Families Party in 2018.

But since then, things have changed for the Independent Party that had been divided into two feuding factions. After the election, the state Supreme Court awarded control of the party to Telesca’s faction, based in Waterbury. And Telesca said Thursday his party was now inclined to nominate Rob Hotaling, a banking executive from Cheshire, to run for governor.

“It’s like ‘Totaling’ only with an ‘H.’ Hotaling. He’s our independent candidate who we’d like to nominate and put on the ballot and I’m getting a lot of flak from the Republicans who are pretty much demanding to be considered as a cross-endorsement,” Telesca said. 

Cross-endorsements help minor parties preserve their spot on the ballot during election years when that party does not run its own candidate. But cross-endorsements were at the center of the Independent Party’s fracturing when Telesca’s Waterbury group contended the party’s other faction, based in Danbury, had become a proxy for the Republican Party.

With control of the party, Telesca said he intends to put additional candidates in play for races including the governor’s race. 

But Telesca’s preference for running a third candidate has not stopped Stefanowski from courting Independent Party voters, hoping to secure the nomination again. According to a Connecticut Post report, he met with a group of party members at a restaurant in Hartford last weekend.

Through a spokesperson, Stefanowski said he was looking for an open process to compete for the party’s endorsement.

“I was happy to have the Independent Party endorsement last Election and I’m looking forward to participating in the same open process we had last time,” Stefanowski said in a statement. “I have enjoyed talking with Independent Party voters about what’s important to them and the need to work across party lines to get things done.”

“Bob’s only request has been an open and fair process, not one where party bosses make all the decisions on their own,” Liz Kurantowicz, Stefanowski’s spokesperson, added.

However, Hotaling, who describes himself as a moderate, said Thursday he was taken aback by the Republican’s effort to edge him out of the Independent nomination.

Rob Hotaling (Courtesy of his campaign website)

“Basically, I’m going against a rich guy who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” Hotaling said. “The party wants to run its own nominee this time around. That’s a legitimate request. To have to deal with a guy throwing his money around as if he’s entitled to it … something needs to be done about it. It’s eliminating voter choice.”

Telesca was unsure Thursday whether Stefanowski’s efforts were resonating with the Independent Party members who will ultimately pick their candidate.

According to the party’s bylaws, the nomination was supposed to be awarded by a majority vote of members at a caucus meeting by the beginning of May. Telesca said the party frequently misses the deadline. This year, the meeting was further complicated by an error that prevented the party from meeting a rule requiring notice to be posted at least 21 days ahead of the caucus meeting.

Now the party expects to hold a nominating caucus in late July or August. In the past, Telesca said between 100 and 150 party members have attended to choose an endorsed candidate. He was unsure how many would turn out this year, but said some have met with Stefanowski.

“He’s using the tired old argument ‘You know third parties can’t win so don’t waste your vote’,” Telesca said.

“If we didn’t believe in third parties we wouldn’t be a third party,” Telesca said. “Our whole purpose is to present to the voters more than two choices.”

He said Stefanowki was free to identify Independent Party members and “wine and dine” them.

“We all know that money’s not an object for millionaires who want what they want,” Telesca said.

But Stefanowski is not the only millionaire in the race seeking a cross-endorsement.

Although the Working Families Party had yet to endorse a candidate for governor at the time of this posting, Roger Senserrich, a spokesperson for the progressive party, said its leadership was in conversations with Lamont’s campaign and expected to endorse a candidate in the coming months.

Hotaling, who is 44 years old, said it was time for a different type of candidate for governor. 

“Bob and Ned are out of touch: rich guys, older guys. It’s always the same story. It’s time to have a younger, more dynamic, more diverse candidate,” he said. “I’ve got a white dad, a Black mom, and a Puerto Rican wife. I’m a working man … I’m just fundamentally different.”

With around 30,000 registered voters, the Independent Party is by far Connecticut’s largest third-party alternative to the two major parties. As of last month there were roughly 801,000 registered Democrats, 453,000 registered Republicans, and about 909,000 voters unaffiliated with any party, according to the Secretary of the State’s office.

Although many of the voters registered to the Independent Party may believe they are registered as unaffiliated voters, the party still has roughly 10 times the membership of the next group, the Libertarian Party, which had around 3,000 registered voters.