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Court rejects Stefanowski’s bid to keep Independent Party off the ballot

Bob Stefanowski consulting with Bill Evans, a supporter, while his running mate, Laura Devlin watches.
Bob Stefanowski consulting with Bill Evans, a supporter, at the Independent Party caucus August 23, 2022. His running mate, Laura Devlin looks on.

A Hartford Superior Court judge ruled Thursday against Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski in his effort to block the Independent Party of Connecticut from running a candidate for governor.

Stefanowski had complained that the party’s chair, Michael Telesca, violated bylaws in breaking a tie at a caucus that gave the nomination to a party member, Rob Hotaling, and denied Stefanowski a cross endorsement and second ballot line.

The lawsuit asked the court to issue an injunction that would have required the secretary of the state to strike Hotaling and his running mate, Chip Beckett, from the ballot, but not give the line to Stefanowski.

In a 29-page decision, Judge Cesar A. Noble noted that state law gives broad discretion to minor parties in how they endorse candidates, as opposed to the prescriptive rules for major parties.

Simply put, state law unambiguously says major parties “shall” follow their rules in making nominations.

“No similar mandate appears in the statutes governing minor parties,” Noble wrote. “Had the legislature desired to impose a mandate that minor parties must follow their rules, it clearly knew how to do so, but did not.”

Stefanowski said he will not appeal.

“The court’s ruling today, that minor party chairmen can choose to effectively ignore their own by-laws in order to achieve a desired political result, is certainly disappointing,” Stefanowski said. “I urge the legislature to consider a remedy to address this issue in the future.”

Hotaling called the decision a win for political choice.

“I am pleased that the judge has ruled in our favor,” Hotaling said. “The decision is good not only for our campaign but also for our democratic process. I have said before that when the voters have more choices, it is good for democracy. Bob may feel differently, but I would ask him: in what area of commerce or industry are fewer choices better?”

Voting at the caucus last month ended in a 79-79 tie, with Telesca then declaring Hotaling the winner on the grounds the deadlock produced a vacancy that could be filled by the party’s state central committee, which already had endorsed Hotaling.

Under the party rules, a nomination requires winning 51% of the vote.

With three candidates vying for the endorsement, the caucus employed ranked-choice voting by paper ballots, producing an initial vote of 79 for Stefanowski, 75 for Hotaling and four for Ernestine Holloway.

All four of Holloway’s supporters named Hotaling as their second choice, producing the 79-79 tie.

Noble wrote the bylaws did not call for ranked-choice voting and while the actions of the party were “plausibly not in conformance with its Bylaws, they were not irrational.”

“As the defendants argued, the Bylaws contain no specific provision for breaking a tie, thus, while the IPC might plausibly have reached a contrary conclusion, its decision to nominate Hotaling and Beckett is within its discretion,” he wrote.

Neither Stefanowski’s lawyers nor his campaign offered evidence or analysis at a one-day evidentiary hearing last week 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.

Gov. Ned Lamont will be on three ballot lines in November. The Democrat was cross endorsed by the Working Families Party and the Griebel-Frank for CT Party.

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