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Southington Democrats won't attend chamber debate

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SOUTHINGTON — Saying it’s slanted against their party, Democrats won’t be attending the Southington Chamber of Commerce Town Council Candidate Forum slated for next month.

Republicans said they’ll be at the event and are eager to take questions from the public and explain their platform.

Democratic party leaders and candidates criticized the organization of previous forums as well as Southington Chamber of Commerce CEO Barbara Hekeler.

Trap for Democrats?

Edward Pocock III, a Democrat running for Town Council and a former Republican, described the event held at Hawk’s Landing Country Club as an “alcohol-infused GOP booster club event” with poor organization.

He said Hekeler is “clearly partisan” and that the event’s format is designed to “sabotage” Democratic candidates.

“If you set up an event in which you are skewing it to the point where it’s designed to be a highlight of the Republicans, I’m not going to subject myself or anyone else to that,” Pocock said. “(Hekeler) is clearly partisan, has been for years.”

“I’ll be damned if I’m going to let (fellow Democratic candidates) walk into another trap,” he said of the forum.

Previous forums have allowed candidates time to introduce themselves and their platforms. Candidates also answer questions submitted to the chamber prior to the event.

Sour grapes?

Republicans defended the forum, saying it was a neutral venue for voters to meet candidates and hear their viewpoints.

Victoria Triano, a Republican and council chairwoman not running for reelection, said the criticisms of Hekeler and the chamber were “terrible.” She’s found the chamber to be a bipartisan organization and saw the forum as valuable for voters.

Triano said Democrats may be unhappy with their performance in the forum held two years ago. Republicans took six of the nine council seats in that local election, the maximum allowed by the town charter.

Democrats “showed at the last one that we had that they were disappointing at best in their responses. Which only indicates, and continues to indicate, they have very little to offer in way of history and by way of promoting their platform,” Triano said. “They have no plan for the future, they have no record for the past.”

Getting a messageto voters

It’s unclear if the forum scheduled for Oct. 19 at Hawk’s Landing Country Club will still take place. Hekeler did not return calls for comment this week. Maryann Stanley, the chamber board chairwoman, also didn’t return calls for comment.

Mark Lajoie, Southington Republican Town Committee chairman, said Republican council candidates plan to attend the chamber’s event if it’s held.

“We’re showing up, we’re there,” he said. “If that events happens, Southington Republicans are there, and we’ll take any questions from whoever.”

The forum “really gives the voters an inside look at who and what policies they’re supporting in November,” Lajoie said. “Our experience with the chamber is that it’s bipartisan all the way. They ask tough questions of everybody.”

The Democrats’ decision was “disappointing” to Lajoie.

“We’ll answer the hard questions, we won't run and hide, we’re not ashamed to show up,” he said. “Democrats preach transparency, but when it’s time to be transparent to the people they work for, they run and hide.”

Pocock said the Democrats’ decision wasn’t about hiding from voters.

“This isn’t about not wanting to answer their questions. We have no problem doing that,” he said.

Southington Democratic Town Committee chairwoman Erin Cowles said the 2021 event was “poorly run” and that outbursts from candidates and audience members weren’t controlled. 

“Our candidates would rather go directly to the doors to speak with residents of Southington and we look forward to those conversations,” she said.

Val DePaolo, a Democratic Town Council member running for re-election, said she wanted an organization like the League of Women Voters or the  Record-Journal to host a forum for candidates.

Disagreement over moderator, structure

Paul Chaplinsky, a Republican councilor and candidate, said the forum’s structure favors neither party. Questions are written down, mixed in a bowl and drawn at random by the moderator. In 2021, that was TV reporter Tony Terzi.

“I struggle to understand how a chamber event is partisan,” Chaplinsky said.

Pocock criticized the organization of the event, describing it as a “free-for-all.” He said Terzi in his role as moderator leaned towards Republicans.

“It wasn’t looking towards us,” Pocock said, in describing how Democrats were disadvantaged by the forum’s moderation.

Terzi, now the city of Meriden’s communications director, said his role as moderator was simply to pick questions randomly from a bowl and read them.

“I remember pausing forums on a couple of occasions over the years to remind the audience that disruptions would not be tolerated. And, I can say unequivocally there was not a conscious effort to quiet one side of the aisle over the other,” Terzi said. “As a longtime former television news reporter, I took great pride in presenting the news, not my views. And I adhere to the same approach whenever asked to speak in public.”

Chaplinsky said the forum two years ago moved along faster than expected and that organizers chose to increase the number of questions answered but didn’t believe that favored either party.

“We’re just as surprised as anybody when a question is asked,” Chaplinsky said.

His recollection of the event was that a major outburst came from the family of a Democratic candidate.

Chaplinsky said he didn’t understand how Terzi had favored Republicans in his random picking and reading of submitted questions.

Pocock said the candidates forum in its current form is a “complete waste of time” that drew mostly Republicans.

“I’d rather knock on doors, talk to people,” he said.

jbuchanan@record-journal.com203-317-2230Twitter: @JBuchananRJ


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