COLCHESTER – In the quiet, southeastern Connecticut town of Colchester, voters are used to peaceful local races, with disagreements about where to build sidewalks and how to fill empty storefronts.
But this fall, the race for first selectman has been anything but civil.
“I’ve never seen an election like this,” said Rosemary Coyle, a Democratic member of the Colchester Board of Selectmen who has been in local politics in Colchester since the 1970s. “Republican or Democrat, we’ve always all worked together, there’s never been anything this divisive or offensive.”
Incumbent First Selectwoman Mary Bylone, a Democrat, is facing off against Republican Board of Finance member Andreas Bisbikos in Tuesday’s election.
A small town of 15,000 residents, Colchester’s population of registered voters is 24 percent Republican, 31 percent Democratic, and 45 percent unaffiliated, and in last fall’s presidential race, President Biden beat President Trump, 56 percent to 43 percent.
But even if the community has always had voters on both sides of the aisle, residents said the personal vitriol feels new.
“People are losing friendships over it,” said Beth Mansfield, a 58-year-old Colchester resident who has lived in town all her life. “I’ve never seen citizens arguing the way they are now, and if you look at all of the posts on Facebook, it’s just nuts.”
Mansfield said she’s seen most of the bitterness on Facebook, with name-calling and divisiveness between residents of the close-knit town, and has avoided actual campaign materials from the candidates themselves.
“I’ve tried to pay less attention to the barbs traded back and forth between the two candidates, because if I knew more about what they were saying, I don’t think I’d want to vote for either of them.”
‘Things can get very heated’
Rob Tarlov, a Republican who chairs the town’s Board of Finance, has witnessed the sparring firsthand at weekly meetings.
“The volatility comes from both sides,” Tarlov said. “They’re both passionate people, and with the types of personalities that they have, things can get very heated.”
In one particularly tense Board of Finance meeting, Bylone expressed frustration with debate over the town budget to Tarlov, telling him, “we got elected, have some balls here.”
“Maybe it’s you who needs to grow some fortitude,” Bisbikos said. “Attacking public officials with that kind of language is totally classless.”
Tarlov attempted to calm down the Zoom meeting, noting that while he “didn’t like” Bylone’s statement and was “slightly offended,” he thought Bisbikos had “taken it too far.”
“All of our jaws were on the floor,” said Andrea Migliaccio, a Republican member of the Board of Finance. “What she said was highly inappropriate and put us all in an uncomfortable situation.”
Carol Vaillancourt, a former member of the police commission, and Deanna Bouchard, an administrator of a local Facebook page for the town, both said they felt Bylone had “bullied” them and other residents.
“I question whether she even cares about Colchester,” Vaillancourt said. “She’s done all of these things for Black Lives Matter, and I’m all for that, but she’s never said that everybody else’s lives matter, too. She’s separating the community, not bringing it together, and she talks down to people.”
Denise Turner, a Democratic member of the Board of Selectmen, strongly pushed back on any characterization of Bylone’s actions as bullying.
“I have no idea where the bully accusation comes from,” Turner said. “I don’t know if it’s just the climate of what’s going on in the country right now, but there is so much hatred and ugliness in the attacks against Mary. It’s disgusting, and I’m so sad that this is what’s become of Colchester.”
‘A Homophobic Caricature’
Bylone is married to a woman, and residents commenting on her campaign posts on Facebook have called her a “man,” a “butch,” and made explicit insinutations about her sexual preferences, a genre of harassment that Swyden, Bylone’s campaign manager, said is new to this race.
No one has made any accusations that Bisbikos, or anyone else running for public office, has made any homophobic comments about Bylone. Still, Swyden said it’s not hard to see how supporters of Bylone’s opponents become emboldened.
“Being mean is a slippery slope,” Swyden said. “They know she’s gay, and they create this narrative she’s this big, tough, mean bully who verbally abuses citizens. They’re playing into a stereotype, and it’s to their advantage to let that picture of her self-perpetuate, because as soon as you paint Mary that way, it’s okay for people online to say homophobic things.”
Bylone said she tries not to read comments on social media, but is still all too aware of the homophobia leveraged against her online.
At 66 years old, Bylone said she is able to handle homophobic attacks, and never anticipated that in her lifetime, she’d be able to legally marry her life and live openly as a gay woman. Still, she worries about the impact on other members of the community.
“Parents with gay children often come to me for advice, and when I see comments like this, I think about how that would affect parents in town,” Bylone said. “Are they worrying for their kids’ safety? Are there kids out there who see this and don’t feel safe?”
The Curious Case of the anonymous website
The negativity has played out on other parts of the internet as well. In Bylone’s first campaign, she shared information about her candidacy on a website, maryforcolchester.com. But when she went to update it for her reelection bid, she had lost ownership of the URL.
But voters taking a quick look at the site might think otherwise. Upon first glance, the web page appears to be owned and operated by the Bylone campaign, with her name in the upper left hand corner, an invitation to stay connected by sharing contact information in the upper right hand corner, and tabs labeled report card, about, issues, and media.
With high-resolution headshots of Bylone and a homepage titled “Mary’s Story,” a casual reader might only realize something is amiss when actually getting into the body text, all of which is virulently anti-Bylone.
The site has specific policy criticisms of Bylone’s administration, but also veers into the personal, with quips like, “We’re not sure Mary has ever encountered a lie she didn’t like,” and “If Mary were Superman (a laughable idea), integrity would be her Kryptonite.”
The website’s about section includes this line: “Calling Mary’s tenure as First Selectwoman the Dark Ages of Colchester would be a massive disrespect to the Dark Ages.”
Only if readers scroll to the bottom of the homepage will they see a small disclaimer: “This website is, in no way, affiliated with the Mary For Colchester campaign.”
But who is the site affiliated with?
In an interview with CT Examiner this summer, Bylone said her opponent was directly responsible, allegations Bisbikos denied in letters threatening legal action to both CT Examiner, for printing the claim, and Bylone herself.
“Mr. Bisbikos does not operate your former website as you claim, [and] Mr. Bisbikos does not own your former website,” reads the letter, sent on Bisbikos’ behalf by Donald Brown, an attorney with Gold Coast Lawyers, which closed with the threat to pursue a course of legal action “aggressively at your peril.”
But while Bisbikos claims not to operate or own the site, publicly filed financial disclosures do reveal connections between the candidate and the webpage.
‘The law is very clear’
A Political Committee registration form filed with the State Elections Enforcement Commission in February of this year created the “Connecticut Conservative Foundation,” with the PAC’s treasurer listed as Ihor Rudko, the father of Taras Rudko, a Republican member of Colchester’s Board of Selectmen and the husband of Marli Rudko, the treasurer of the Bisbikos for First Selectman campaign.
According to the Connecticut Conservative Foundation’s July 12 financial disclosure documents, the organization has received donations from just two individuals: Taras Rudko and Andreas Bisbikos.
Both candidates made their donations at the end of April, and the PAC reported making a purchase on May 28 for “annual web services” from EasyDNS Technologies, a Canadian internet service provider offering private website ownership.
Three days earlier, according to public domain registration data, an anonymous, Canada-based customer purchased maryforcolchester.com
Andreas Bisbikos, along with Taras, Ihor and Marli Rudko, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
According to Robert Russo, a former Republican State Senator and elections lawyer, a candidate for local office can create a PAC to do their dirty work – as long as they aren’t working in concert.
However, if the candidate coordinates with the PAC, it becomes a campaign finance violation.
“The law is very clear,” Russo said. “The PAC cannot coordinate its activities with a campaign, because candidates aren’t allowed to use PACs as an end run to get around having their name attached to their campaigning.”
That potential cooperation is at the core of a complaint filed with the State Elections Enforcement Commission about the website.
“The activities surrounding its creation and the paper trail recorded in state election files is too coincidental,” reads the complaint, which was filed by John Malsbenden, a member of the Colchester Ethics Commission, and lists Monica Swyden, Bylone’s campaign manager, as a witness.
According to Joshua Foley, a staff attorney for the State Elections Enforcement Commission, a PAC-created website campaigning against a candidate would also need to have written disclosures on the site clarifying the name of the PAC and its treasurer, disclosures nowhere to be found on the Colchester site.
Foley said determining coordination between a candidate and a PAC can be tricky, but state law gives some examples of clear-cut cases of cooperation, like shared personnel between a candidate and a PAC.
“A contribution by a candidate in itself would not be coordination, if it’s just dropping a check and putting it in the mail,” Foley said. “But, for example, if the same person works for both the campaign and the PAC, or if the candidate suggests how to spend the money and then the PAC does it, that would be presumed to be working in concert.”
The SEEC is unable to comment on receipt or status of pending complaints until an investigation is determined to be necessary, but Russo said he anticipated that this situation would be clear-cut for the agency.
“Anybody familiar with state election law would know that this would end with an SEEC complaint,” Russo said. “I assume that they will investigate this and that it’s going to end in someone being fined.”
Kevin Reynolds, the election law attorney who wrote a letter on behalf of the Colchester Democratic Party responding to Bisbikos’ threat of legal action, said he also thought SEEC will choose to investigate.
“PACs can make expenditures in a race, but they have to disclose who is spending that money, because not disclosing who is paying for a campaign website is a violation,” Reynolds said. “If independent expenditures aren’t truly independent, that undermines the entire campaign finance structure we have.”