Bob Horton: Campaign season, Greenwich style

October 8, 2017 GMT

Our impulsive, erratic president and Greenwich’s own Mr. Inappropriate have created a wave of political activism in town that is making a significant impact on the upcoming municipal elections.That activism is shining a new light on the most anachronistic part of Greenwich government: The Representative Town Meeting, a 230-person, quasi-legislative body whose members rarely face contested elections and that often has more than a few vacant seats. But this year, it seems everyone wants to serve on the RTM.The most competitive race will be District 8, Cos Cob, where 37 people are vying for 28 spots. That is the home district of Chris von Keyserling, the aforementioned Mr. Inappropriate, who is known to lambast people at public meetings and engage in vitriolic personal attacks. He is awaiting trial on sexual assault charges for his admitted unwanted touching of a female town employee at Nathaniel Witherell earlier this year, an action well beyond inappropriate. Those charges and the resulting courthouse protests focused regional and national media on the Cos Cob eccentric, which had the effect locally of introducing the RTM to Greenwich-ites who had never heard of it.And when von Keyserling refused to resign from the RTM (he did temporarily step down as chair of District 8), people who had already organized locally to join the anti-Trump national Women’s March on Washington now had a Greenwich issue at which to direct their newfound political energy.Organizers of the local Women’s March grew into a more formal group, Indivisible Greenwich, whose objective is to engage more people in public discourse, politics and government at the grassroots level. The growing interest in the RTM is directly attributable to its recruitment and education campaign, a politically agnostic drive to increase political participation that enlisted Republicans, Democrats and independents alike. In all, 40 to 50 of the 79 RTM petition candidates came through the Indivisible program. And these candidates are now sharing information about campaign tactics and local issues.As the Indivisibles minted dozens of new politicians, Democratic Town Chairman Jeffrey Ramer hesitated about even nominating a candidate to oppose Republican First Selectman Peter Tesei. Ramer came oh-so-close to delivering Tesei a sixth term without a fight, but just days before the party’s nominating convention, Indivisible Greenwich member Sandy Litvack swooped in to grab the lead spot on the party’s ticket this November.Though a neophyte in local politics, Litvack is a man of impressive accomplishments in the corporate and legal arenas. And by now, he must be puzzled, if not horrified, at what passes for political campaigning in Greenwich.The Democratic party is led by someone who seems more concerned with seeking Republican approval than staking out alternative positions on key issues. DTC Chairman Ramer represents the wing of the party that believes Democrats “have to earn the respect of Republicans,” in the words of a former Democratic town chairman.Greenwich campaigns are more heavily scored on style and decorum points than on issues of real substance. Consider the Republican Board of Education race. The GOP petition challenger, Peter Bernstein, incensed that his opponents dared to show up at the same public space where he was seeking support, sued them for harassment. Even though the judge ruled definitively that nothing came close to approaching harassment or interference (free speech, perhaps?), Bernstein and his supporters are working hard to create the perception that their behavior was “obnoxious”, the ultimate political liability in Greenwich.And last month, those same candidates, GOP incumbent school board Chairman Peter Sherr and newcomer Jason Auerbach, took their campaign to Hamilton Avenue School, where parents and neighbors have protested the poor condition of the playing field, a longstanding issue. Sherr and Auerbach support restoring the field immediately. What was the takeaway from that event? That they acted “inappropriately” by campaigning near, or on, school grounds. It is apparently acceptable in Greenwich to deprive young students of a safe and usable playing field, but not to expose them to politics.Municipal elections are now a month away, and all we hear about is campaign style points. This at a time when an unelected school building committee is pressuring the town to potentially spend an additional $20 million to $23 million on a new elementary school when there are 1,000 empty seats in its existing schools. No incumbent from either party has tried to stop this nonsense. Sherr inexplicably abstained from the school board vote asking that the town allocate money for the project before seeing whether promised state funds will come through. Auerbach is the only one who has issued a statement asking the town to reconsider its approach to replacing New Lebanon Elementary School.I suspect we won’t hear any campaigning about the town’s laissez-faire approach to ridding the Greenwich High campus of PCBs. It has been more than six years since the town unearthed shocking amounts of the highly toxic compounds on school grounds and it does not yet have a final plan to clean the site.And there will be no discussion of the town’s preference for spending hundreds of millions of dollars on new buildings while its existing structures, parks and infrastructure suffer from neglect. Or why, for more than 10 years, the school board has remained complacent about fixing underperforming schools in western Greenwich.But we will continue to hear, mostly through the grapevine, about whether a given candidate would fit in well at a cocktail party or at the club. We won’t hear about the reasons why the town preferred to spend more than $100 million over seven years despite quarterly and annual reports that showed pension fund managers performed near or at the bottom of their peer group and received higher than average fees.If enough newcomers are elected to the RTM, maybe they can change the club-like political culture in town. Or maybe they will just become new members of the club. That would be indefensible.Bob Horton can be reached at bobhorton@yahoo.com.