Trump demands attention from suburban voters. Down-ballot Republicans wish he wouldn’t.

MARK PAZNIOKAS :: CTMIRROR.ORG

Bob Hebert, a Republican legislative candidate in Ridgefield, talks to a voter outside the GOP headquarters on Main Street in Ridgefield.

Ridgefield — There is no Trump sign in the window at the Republican headquarters here. It’s a storefront across from the Ace hardware store and Deborah Anne’s Sweet Shoppe, a quaint stretch of Main Street with brisk foot traffic. The absent sign is, well, a sign of the times.

“If I put Trump signs up in the window, it’s a trigger for some people. We don’t want that,” said Bob Hebert, the GOP nominee to succeed Rep. John H. Frey, R-Ridgefield, who is retiring after 22 years. “We as a party support our president. We want him to win, but on the other hand —”

It goes without saying: The election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States has been trouble for Republicans in places like Ridgefield, one of the affluent Fairfield County suburbs where GOP victories in state and federal races once were assured. No longer.

The contest to succeed Frey in the state’s 111th House District, wholly within the boundaries of Ridgefield, is one of several in Connecticut testing the opportunity Trump has afforded Democrats – and the complications that the GOP’s national brand presents for Republicans in New England.

If I put Trump signs up in the window, it’s a trigger for some people. We don’t want that.”— Bob Hebert

The Republican and Democratic nominees here are archetypes of 2020 politics: Hebert is running despite the president; the Democrat, Aimee Berger-Girvalo, is running because of him, happy to talk about the dangers Trump’s pending nominee for the Supreme Court poses to reproductive rights in Connecticut.

On Sunday afternoon, as Hebert sat inside the campaign HQ talking about the unsettled and often angry vibe of election season, he smiled at a 30-something woman who briefly lingered on the sunny sidewalk by the open door and raised her hand, as if to wave. But she didn’t wave.

“Oh,” Hebert said, “the finger.”

It’s been that kind of a year. 

New in 2020 at the Republican headquarters is a video and audio recording system. A placard in a standing Lucite frame instructs volunteers: “If you get someone acting inappropriately, please let them have their rant, smile and point out our cameras and thank them for the content.”

The anger goes both ways. 

Democrats opted against a physical headquarters due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a recognition that volunteers tend to be young and potential vectors of the coronavirus or old and vulnerable to it. Instead, they operate virtually during the week and staff a pop-up HQ on weekends under a canopy outside Town Hall. 

On Saturday, Trump supporters screamed at Democrats, said one of the volunteers, Sylvia Steinert. One man parked his Jeep behind the Democratic tent and yelled, “Fascists!” 

Berger-Girvalo said she has been abused and subjected to wild rumors on social media. She has largely chosen to ignore them, though some friends took up the fight on Twitter and Facebook — only to withdraw.

MARK PAZNIOKAS :: CTMIRROR.ORG

Door knocking means hiking in Ridgefield. Aimee Berger-Girvalo, left, and two volunteers talk to an undecided voter. On Sunday, she covered six miles.

“There were people who started to speak out, who won’t anymore,” Berger-Girvalo said Sunday as she campaigned door-to-door on winding, tree-lined roads lined with stone walls and shade trees, but no sidewalks. “They have just been so seriously bullied online in all forms of social media.”

At the Republican headquarters, a masked mother accompanied by a teenaged boy in a Mets sweatshirt told Hebert she was nervous about putting up lawn signs, fearing a post-election “retribution.” She didn’t say what form that might take.

The mother described herself as skeptical about the safety of childhood vaccines and quizzed Hebert on his thoughts. He replied he believes in their safety and efficacy, but supports maintaining the current religious exemption, which allows parents to withhold them.

The woman left with signs for Hebert, the Republican state Senate nominee, Kim Healy, and Trump. While there were no Trump signs in the window, the GOP had a limited supply provided on consignment by the Trump campaign. They were on sale for $20.20. Hebert’s are free.

Not all conversations with voters go so easily for Republicans this year. Hebert said he often is asked about Trump.

“First of all, I tell them there’s a lot the president does and says that I don’t agree with. There’s things that he says that you know are cringeworthy for me,” Hebert said. “I have worked for people I didn’t like. But they were phenomenal business people. I’ve learned from them. Some of them have even mentored me. I didn’t like them. I didn’t like the things they do or say. And that’s kind of where I am with Trump.”

MARK PAZNIOKAS :: CTMIRROR.ORG

Bob Hebert’s lawn signs portray suburbs as threatened by school regionalization and police defunding. The “thin blue line” flag supporting police is prominently featured at his headquarters.

Some Republicans in other suburban districts have tried to open space between them and Trump without alienating a base still loyal to the president. In West Hartford, Rick Bush is running Facebook ads explaining how Connecticut Republicans are a different breed than the national party. He does not mention the president.

“It is an extremely delicate and challenging place to be walking — to be able to attract new voters, undecided voters, even Democratic voters, without alienating a base I ultimately need to have even a remote chance of gaining a seat,” said Bush, a long shot to prevail in a House race against a freshman Democrat, Jillian Gilchrest.

In East Lyme, state Sen. Paul Formica, a Republican who won two years ago with just under 52% of the vote, said Trump raises problems from the left and right. On his Facebook page, one commenter demanded to know why Formica had not denounced the president. Another faulted him for not planting a Trump sign on his lawn.

The changing face of suburbia

Ridgefield, a community of 25,000, is one of the suburbs Trump wants voters to believe need his protection. To an audience in Wisconsin, the president recently railed against Democrats who would “eliminate single-family zoning, bringing who knows into your suburbs, so your communities will be unsafe and your housing values will go down.”

Republicans, Hebert included, campaigned against the police accountability bill passed in special session this summer in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, as well as a school regionalization proposal that quickly died two years ago.

Berger-Girvalo and Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport, who now represents the district after unseating a Republican two years ago, have worked together to rebut GOP claims they are open to school regionalization and cutting funding for police.

“They’re ignoring the fact that Will Haskell and I have come out strongly in favor of our police department and strongly opposed to the regionalization that was proposed a year and a half ago,” she said. “We both understand for the districts we represent it’s not practical.”

Ridgefield is bordered on the west by bucolic New York suburbs, on the north by Danbury, and on the east and west by a crescent of suburban wealth in Redding, Weston, Wilton and New Canaan. The median price of 227 homes recently on sale in Ridgefield was $759,000. Its median household income was estimated in 2018 at nearly $160,000. Three quarters of the adult residents have at least a four-year college degree.

By the norms of a playbook that served Republicans well, Hebert is a textbook candidate: the businessman who has lived in town for 39 years, coaching sports and volunteering in civic life, first as chair of the local housing authority and now as a member of the Board of Selectmen.

Hebert is 71, married with three adult children, one a pilot of C-130 transport planes for the Air National Guard. He is tall and trim with close-cropped white hair. He is a Vietnam veteran, a founder of a community bank in New Canaan.

Frey recruited him to run. 

No one needed to ask Berger-Girvalo.

Berger-Girvalo, 47, is the divorced mother of a high school freshman and a college sophomore. She amiably refers to her former husband as her “wuz-band.” She grew up in New York, lived in Boston and has been in Ridgefield for 15 years.

Before COVID, she worked one-on-one with children on the autism spectrum as a therapist trained in applied behavior analysis, a practice that focuses on improving specific behaviors such as communication and social skills. The home therapy visits are about to resume.

MARK PAZNIOKAS :: CTMIRROR.ORG

Aimee Berger-GIrvalo, at the top of the stairs, asks an elderly voter for support. At left are two volunteers, Matthew Brooks, 18, and Sylvia Steinert.

Her activism — she long has been involved with Planned Parenthood and NARAL in defense of reproductive rights — receded as the demands of career and motherhood grew. 

She returned to political activism after the Sandy Hook School shooting in nearby Newtown in December 2012, working with Moms Demand Action in support of the passage of a sweeping gun control law. Berger-Girvalo helped arrange for three busloads of Ridgefield families to go to the State Capitol on Valentine’s Day.

Hebert said he is unsure if he would have voted for the Sandy Hook law, though he is comfortable with universal background checks. “I am a 2A person,” he said. “I believe law-abiding citizens should have guns.”

As a selectman, he voted against a proclamation supporting “Gun Violence Awareness Day.” He offered an alternative: “Gun Safety Day.” He challenged the other selectmen to explain what the proclamation would accomplish.

“There were crickets,” he said.

Hebert and Berger-Girvalo disagree on abortion – and whether it is a state issue. Herbert, who describes himself as a pro-life Catholic, calls abortion settled law and notes that Connecticut has codified the essence of Roe v. Wade in state law. Berger-Girvalo said Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to succeed Ruth Bader Ginsburg will give the court a 6-3 conservative majority that easily could return the issue of abortion back to state legislatures.

Trump’s election turbo-charged her activism. Her Facebook post about the Women’s March on Washington, a movement that rapidly blossomed into a national protest aimed at demonstrating support for reproductive rights as Trump took office, drew 1,000 likes. She joined the Democratic Town Committee.

It is the story of suburban Democratic women across the country.

In 2018, she decided to run against Frey, a real estate broker who rarely found himself in controversy in Hartford. While low-profile as a lawmaker, Frey was a member of the Republican National Committee and a Trump delegate to the 2016 national convention.

Ridgefield has a long history of voting for Republicans in presidential races, interrupted by a refusal to support arch-conservative Barry Goldwater in 1964 and a willingness to give Barack Obama a try in 2008. Ridgefield was back in the fold in 2012, supporting Mitt Romney.

Trump was crushed here in 2016. He carried just 39.73% of the vote, even though registered Republicans then outnumbered Democrats by nearly 1,000 voters — 6,266 to 5,286. It was a harbinger of things to come.

Some time earlier this year, Democrats became the majority, at least after the unaffiliated. The Democratic voter registration stood at 6,489 on Friday, while the GOP rolls fell to 5,473. Unaffiliated voters are the biggest bloc, with 6,913.

Voters did not punish down-ballot Republicans in 2016.

To the contrary, voters split their tickets and gave Republicans stunning gains in state legislative races, forcing an 18-18 tie in the Senate and leaving Democrats with their smallest House majority in three decades.

The punishment would come in 2018. A blue wave reached unexpected corners of Connecticut as nearly 200,000 more voters turned out than is typical in mid-term elections. They did not come out to help Republicans.

In Fairfield County, Democrats unseated three Republican state senators, including the one who represented Ridgefield for a decade. Republican House members lost seats in Greenwich and New Canaan.

In Ridgefield, Frey hung on, beating Berger-Girvalo, 52% to 48%. She was hoping for a rematch this year.

Mark Pazniokas: Mark is a co-founder of CT Mirror, a frequent contributor to WNPR and a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer and contributor for The New York Times.
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