Rob Hotaling won the gubernatorial nomination of the Independent Party on a contested tie-breaking vote Tuesday night that denied Republican Bob Stefanowski a cross endorsement and second line on the November ballot.
Hotaling, a bank vice president endorsed by the minor party’s state central committee, and Stefanowski were locked in a 79-79 tie when the party’s chairman, Mike Telesca, cast a tie-breaking vote.
The Stefanowski campaign is expected to challenge the vote in court, alleging that Telesca ignored party bylaws that called for a second vote in case of a tie.
“There was no revote,” said Chris Russell, a senior advisor to the Stefanowski campaign. “Instead, Mike Telesca took it upon himself to create a rule that allowed him to be a tie breaker.”
Hotaling accepted the nomination as Patrick Sasser, the manager of Stefanowski’s campaign, and others screamed at the outcome.
“I understand there’s a lot of emotion,” Hotaling said. “Bob still will be on the ballot in November, right? And now we have more voter choice, and that’s what this is about.”
Stefanowski’s allies complained that Telesca voted twice — once on the ranked choice paper ballots, then in a tie breaker. The party also failed to print Stefanowski’s name on the ballots, despite him filing the necessary paperwork, Russell said. Supporters were able to write in Stefanowski’s name.
“We believe based on how they’ve operated from the beginning — Mike Telesca — this was a plan to keep Bob from winning this nomination, come hell or high water,” Russell said. “That was the plan, and he executed his plan tonight. We just don’t believe it was legal.”
Telesca said the tie-breaker was meant to reflect the will of the party’s state central committee.
The loss is a blow to Stefanowski, who was cross-endorsed by the Independent Party during his first run in 2018. Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, has been cross-endorsed by the Working Families Party, as he was in 2018.
Cross endorsements have become an important feature of Connecticut’s gubernatorial elections, which tend to be close. In 2010, the votes cast for Democrat Dannel P. Malloy on the Working Families Party line were the margin of victory.
In 2018, Stefanowski won 624,750 votes on the Republican line and 25,388 on the Independent line. Lamont won with 676,649 votes on the Democratic line and 17,861 on the Working Families line.
The caucus Tuesday night at a community center in Guilford, a shoreline community where the Independent Party has largely supplanted Republicans as the minority party, ended in drama and the expectation of a trip to court.
“It’s probably the hottest spot for the Independent Party right now,” Telesca said of Guilford.
The party is familiar to litigation, much of it arising from factional politics between groups in Danbury and Waterbury. The feud kept the party from endorsing anyone for U.S. Senate in 2016.
In 2018, Stefanowski won 43 of the 64 votes cast at the Independent Party caucus in Waterbury. A week earlier, a trial judge sided with the Waterbury faction led by Telesca, concluding that he had properly filed bylaws in 2010 that established the Waterbury faction as a statewide party.
The decision was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2019.
On Tuesday, Stefanowski hosted a reception for Independent Party members at his home in Madison before the caucus, which he briefly visited, checking in with staff who monitored the credentialing of voters and the balloting.
There were three gubernatorial candidates vying for the nomination: Hotaling, Stefanowski and Ernestine Holloway. Stefanowski led Hotaling, 79 to 75, with Holloway getting four votes. But winning the nomination required 80 votes — 50%, plus one.
In the ranked choice voting, Hotaling picked up four votes for a tie.
Hotaling is the married father of four and a senior vice president at Webster Bank, born in Liberia in 1978 to an American father serving as a Peace Corps volunteer and a Liberian mother. They left for the U.S. after a violent coup in 1980.
He became the choice of leaders of a party that once routinely cross-endorsed Republicans for statewide office but is intent this year on trying to establish a separate identity. Republican gubernatorial candidates were cross-endorsed in 2014 and 2018.
“It’s a turning point for this party,” Hotaling said.