Mike Telesca
Mike Telesca, chair of the Connecticut Independent Party, outside Hartford Superior Court Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Lawyers for Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski sought Thursday to convince a Superior Court judge to strip Independent Party candidate Rob Hotaling from the November ballot over allegations the party violated its own bylaws when it chose a nominee. 

Stefanowski, of Madison, is running a second campaign for governor against Democratic incumbent Ned Lamont. He appeared twice on the ballot during his unsuccessful 2018 bid as a result of a cross-endorsement from the state Independent Party, which he had hoped to win again this year.

However, during a nomination caucus last month, the minor party’s chairman, Mike Telesca broke a 79 to 79 tie vote in favor of Hotaling, a Cheshire banking executive running in his first campaign for governor. Stefanowski subsequently sued Telesca and the secretary of the state, asking the court to remove Hotaling from the ballot. 

Despite appearing on the witness list, Stefanowski did not take the stand or appear in court during Thursday’s hearing. Neither did his campaign manager, Patrick Sasser. 

Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, Telesca called Stefanowski’s lawsuit “sour grapes” and a “vicious” attempt to suppress voter options. 

“They’re not going to get the line, they just want to get us off the line and I think that’s really mean-spirited on his part,” Telesca said. “The truth of the matter is he’s going to be on the ballot. He wants to get our very fine candidate off the ballot.”

However, two of Stefanowski’s supporters and members of the Connecticut Independent Party testified that they felt aggrieved by the way the August nominating convention was conducted.   Plaintiff Lawrence De Pillo told the court that Telesca violated the party bylaws, which called for a revote if any candidate failed to garner 51% of the vote during the nominating caucus. 

“[Telesca] violated my right to have a revote, when I specifically told him after there was a tie that there should be a revote and I was ignored and as far as I’m concerned all those people including myself … were harmed,” De Pillo said. “Being a member of the Independent Party for as many years as I was, I never saw such a disgraceful act against the voters.”

Telesca, meanwhile, testified that he broke the tie on behalf of the party’s state central committee, which had endorsed Hotaling days earlier. He suggested that another vote had occurred through the caucus’s ranked choice voting system, which eliminated a third candidate, Rev. Ernestine Holloway, and sent her four votes to Hotaling, the second choice listed on those ballots. 

While questioning Telesca, Jared Cohane, an attorney for Stefanowski, said the chairman had a lax approach to following his own party’s rules.

“The bylaws to you are just suggestions, you can follow them at your whim?” Cohane asked.

“No. That is not true at all,” Telesca said. “We use them for guidance.”

At another point in the hearing, Cohane asked Telesca if anyone in the party asked him to consult the bylaws about his determination to break the tie. Telesca said he hadn’t heard any requests, perhaps due to the uproar that followed his announcement. 

“There was a lot of noise in the room,” Telesca said. “That’s what happens when half the room wants one thing and the other half wants something else.”

Cohane had another take.

“Perhaps it’s what happens when half of the room is deprived of their opportunity to vote,” Cohane said.

“They all had their opportunity to vote,” Telesca answered. 

Judge Cesar Noble said he planned to issue a ruling on the matter before ballots must be finalized next week. 

Stefanowski’s efforts to remove Hotaling from the ballot comes amid news that his major party rival picked up a second cross endorsement this week. In addition to the Democratic nod, Lamont has now been cross endorsed by the state Working Families Party and the Griebel-Frank for CT party, meaning he will appear on the ballot an unprecedented three times.

Major party candidates in Connecticut often seek cross endorsements from smaller parties with the understanding it will benefit them at the polls to appear on more than one line. On Thursday, as a judge weighed whether to keep his name on the ballot, Hotaling rejected that conclusion.

“Everyone knows Bob Stefanowski’s the Republican candidate, having the Independent party line does what?” Hotaling said. “I can understand why the Republicans are upset because they feel they’re entitled to [the nomination] but the Independent Party and the unaffiliated want new and different ideas because they’re upset about the partisanship.”