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Direct-mail appeal leaves bitter taste

By Bill Yelenak, Record-Journal staff
MERIDEN — A city resident who sent voters a letter saying that 83rd Assembly District candidate Robert Clermont didn't understand the city's Hispanic population admitted Friday that it had been done through a direct-mail campaign so that Clermont and supporters could not respond before a special election earlier this month.

Mildred Torres-Ferguson, who works in the office of House Majority Leader Christopher G. Donovan, and five other residents signed a letter, mailed it to 506 Hispanic residents of the district and attached an undated Record-Journal article with a Clermont quote underlined.

"I just remember being at the polls last year, and it struck me as kind of odd that we had a good number of people who were voting who did not speak English, which would lead me to believe that they are not citizens," read the underlined Clermont quote, which was from January 2002.

While one signatory, Hector R. Gonzalez, said Friday he had signed the letter at Cathy Abercrombie's campaign headquarters, Torres-Ferguson denied that claim. She said that while she may have asked people if they would sign such a letter at the headquarters, she said she drove to their homes to have them sign the letter. Torres-Ferguson, who worked on the Abercrombie campaign and is a member of the Political Action Committee JUNTOS, which financed the mailing, said it was a strategic maneuver.

"When I talked to some people from JUNTOS, they said maybe we should hold a press conference about it," Torres-Ferguson recalled. "Instead it was like, ‘No, strategically speaking, why do we want them to have the opportunity to defend themselves before the election?' "

Clermont, responding to Torres-Ferguson, said the letter misrepresented his comments and he hoped people had read the whole story, not just the underlined portion. He added that it was "unfortunate that they used the Hispanic people of the district to achieve their goal."

"The bottom line is they put out false information," Clermont said. "If they had read the article, they would have known the information to be false. All they would have to do is read further in the article."

If they had, they would have read:

Hours later, Clermont said that while he may have blundered his choice of words, his concerns remain the same. "The question probably could have been phrased a little better," he said in a telephone interview. "The concern I have is that our greatest right is the right to vote. To register your car, you have to be there in person and bring 14 forms of ID, your gas bill and your electric bill. But all you have to do is to check a form and you can show up and vote as a resident.

"People speaking any language other than English or that of a U.S. province may not be a citizen," Clermont said, referring to Puerto Rico and the territory of Guam.

The letter was never discussed with Abercrombie nor discussed with her campaign managers before being distributed, Torres-Ferguson said. She added that she chose not to tell Abercrombie or campaign managers Stephen T. Zerio and David Papandrea — who have denied having anything to do with it — because she knew it would be a story after the election.

Torres-Ferguson added that she does not believe Clermont is a racist and didn't say so in the letter. The intent, she said, was to alert Latino residents that Clermont does not understand the needs of their community.

The mailing cost between $350 and $380 and was financed by JUNTOS, not the campaign. The letters were copied at a Staples store, according to Torres-Ferguson, who said she received help with stuffing envelopes from volunteers. And while the Republicans attacked the letter as negative campaigning and a cynical political move, Torres-Ferguson said she believes people should "give us credit."

"This wasn't just a letter that was sent out to Latino homes and nothing done about it," she said. "We were organized, we had phoning, we did door-knocking. We really tried to get these 500 Latinos out to vote."

But Clermont and his supporters aren't giving anyone credit. They have recently grown increasingly irritated after the new information about the letter surfaced and they discovered phone calls impugning Clermont's character. Clermont said the callers identified themselves as being from the Abercrombie campaign.

They asked questions, campaign manager David Fordiani said, ranging from "Were you aware Rob's racist?" to "Were you aware Rob has criminal problems?" Another Clermont campaign volunteer, Kevin Danby, said he had heard that callers asked voters if they were aware the Record-Journal had endorsed Clermont, but Gov. M. Jodi Rell and U.S. Rep. Nancy L. Johnson had not. Danby, however, said he could not confirm whether those reports were true.

"I think that's an underhanded way to run a campaign," Danby said. "This is just so far off anything I could have imagined. It's just unbelievable."

Clermont remarked that he thought it would be nearly impossible that Abercrombie and her campaign managers did not know of the letter before it was sent to residents.

"One thing I've learned about local campaigns is there isn't much that happens in the campaign without being run through the candidate," he said.

Zerio, Papandrea and Abercrombie said they had nothing to do with the telephone calls. Torres-Ferguson said that while she and five others were behind the mailing, they did not make the calls. "I would have never called him a racist," she said adamantly.

One Democrat who did hear about the letter before its mailing was Democratic Town Chairman Frank Cirillo, who said he would have approved the letter. He believed the letter was "very appropriate" because the group that sent it was alerting voters to something Clermont had said in a newspaper article, Cirillo said.

Abercrombie cited a letter she considered negative campaigning sent out by Clermont supporter Leonard Suzio. Abercrombie said the letter stated that Clermont had already won in the Berlin section of the 83rd District.

Suzio provided a copy of the letter Friday afternoon. While it accuses Democratic leaders in the legislature of redrawing voting lines to "split up neighborhoods where the Democrats were losing support," it states that Suzio had only expected Clermont to win Berlin.

"I expect Rob to win the Berlin district, so a strong showing in Meriden is needed to put him over the top," Suzio's letter read. The letter does not mention Abercrombie.

While Torres-Ferguson claims she was the sole organizer of the anti-Clermont mailing, Clermont feels he's owed an apology, especially from Zerio.

"I think that he owes me an apology and he should take accountability for the campaign that he co-managed," he said. "We all want to take credit for those things that are good, but in doing so, you also have to share in the blame for those things that are wrong."



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