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Bob Stefanowski doesn’t testify in case against Independent Party

Mike Telesca of the Independent Party talks to reporters outside the courthouse. He accused Stefanowski of "sour grapes."
Mike Telesca of the Independent Party talks to reporters outside the courthouse. He accused Stefanowski of "sour grapes."

Testimony in Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski’s effort to remove the Independent Party’s candidate from the ballot ended Thursday without Stefanowski taking the stand.

Hartford Superior Court Judge Cesar A. Noble said he will render a decision by Sept. 15 in time for ballots to be finalized. At issue is whether the party violated its bylaws in nominating Rob Hotaling rather than Stefanowski.

The single day of testimony by three witnesses focused on allegations by Stefanowski that the party’s chairman, Michael Telesca, violated its bylaws in breaking a tie in favor of Hotaling at a nominating caucus last month.

Stefanowski’s lawsuit would not give him the Independent Party ballot line. It only would strip the minor party of a gubernatorial line in 2022, forcing it to petition again for ballot access in 2026.

“He knows he’s not going to get our line,” Telesca said after the hearing. “He didn’t ask to be put on the line. He’s only asking our candidate be removed from the ballot, which I think is really, really poor sportsmanship.”

Neither Stefanowski’s lawyers nor his campaign offered evidence or analysis about the degree to which a vote for Hotaling could be one less vote for Stefanowski.

The lawsuit filed on behalf of the GOP ticket of Stefanowski and Laura Devlin, plus three members of the Independent Party, simply states that they will be “irreparably harmed” if the court does not enforce the bylaws.

Stefanowski and his campaign manager, Patrick Sasser, were listed as witnesses, but the candidate’s lawyers rested their case without calling them. Neither was in attendance.

Jared Cohane, the lawyer representing Stefanowski, declined comment.

The assumption in political circles always has been that a major-party candidate benefits from cross endorsements by a minor party that will put a candidate’s name on more than one ballot line.

William Bloss, the lawyer defending the Independent Party, said proving injury from the loss of a cross endorsement is impossible.

“I don’t think it’s possible to prove the type of injury [Stefanowski] would need to prove to remove [Hotaling] from the ballot,” Bloss said. “As a matter of fact and political science, it’s unknowable.”

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s margin of victory in 2010 was smaller than the number of votes he collected on the Working Families Party line. But would the WFP voters have cast a vote for Malloy on the Democratic line had he not been cross endorsed?

Bloss said political scientists and political junkies have long debated such questions without resolution.

Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, and Stefanowski each were cross-endorsed in 2018: Lamont by the union-backed Working Families Party and Stefanowski by the Independent Party.

The Working Families Party has called itself a “protest vote” that matters.

Its line offers labor progressives a way to vote for a Democrat while indicating a measure of support for the WFP agenda, which has included paid family leave and a higher minimum wage.

In their rematch this year, Lamont is cross endorsed by the WFP and the Griebel-Frank for CT Party, putting the Democrat on three ballot lines.

Stefanowski’s lawsuit is against the Independent Party, Telesca and Secretary of the State Mark F. Kohler. It demands the secretary keep Hotaling off the ballot.

The attorney general’s office moved to strike Kohler from the case, noting he has no option but to accept nominations that come to him from minor parties.

The Independent Party has been roiled by litigation since its inception, initially to resolve a fight over control by factions in Danbury and Waterbury. The faction led by Telesca in Waterbury was victorious.

But the Waterbury faction has its own fights, with Lawrence De Pillo clashing with Telesca over whether the party should continue to cross endorse major-party candidates or nominate one of their own members.

De Pillo, who is a plaintiff in the current case, testified that the caucus won by Hotaling after Telesca broke a tie was tilted towards Hotaling.

Stefanowski’s name was not on printed ballots, and the use of ranked-choice voting to reach a majority vote in a three-way race was not explained well.

“It was chaotic,” De Pillo testified.

But De Pillo conceded that Telesca put the names of all three candidates on a white board and directed supporters of Stefanowski to write his name on their ballots.

Stefanowski led Hotaling 79-75, with 4 votes for Ernestine Holloway, when the voting was complete. Under the rules, Holloway was excluded and the second choices on her ballots all were for Hotaling, producing a 79-79 tie.

Quoting the party’s bylaws, Stefanowski’s campaign said there should have been a second round of balloting, not the use of ranked-choice voting.

Cynthia McCorkindale, who chairs the Independent town committee in Bethel, testified that the failure to follow the rules was an affront to party members.

“If you don’t have a process, then what do you have?” she said. “It almost didn’t matter that I was there.”

Bloss, who represents the party, has said state law grants great discretion to how minor parties nominate candidates.

In testimony, Telesca defended his declaring Hotaling the winner as falling within a party bylaw that allows the state central committee to fill a vacancy, and the committee previously had endorsed Hotaling.

In breaking the tie, Telesca said, he was representing the committee.

Telesca testified the party had used ranked-choice voting previously when there were more than two candidates, though it is not expressly permitted by the bylaws that Telesca helped write a dozen years ago.

Cohane noted that the party seemed to ignore its bylaws often. For one thing, the deadline for making an endorsement was missed by months, he said.

“We’ve never met that deadline, ever,” Telesca said.

“The bylaws to you are just a suggestion?” Cohane asked.

“No, that’s not true at all,” Telesca replied. “We use them as guidance.”

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