Mayoral candidate Martin Olsen says New London needs to focus on its schools

Buy Photo Tim Martin/The Day Candidate for mayor of New London Martin Olsen in the kitchen of his New London apartment Sunday.

New London - Martin T. Olsen cites the property his family has owned for nearly 100 years as launching his journey as a petitioning candidate for mayor.

The land, on a private lane off Ocean Avenue and anchored by a massive maple tree, is where his grandfather, Tobias Olsen, started a contracting company that Olsen ran until he closed it in 1999.

Among Olsen's prized keepsakes is a sign with an old-style phone number - 8431 - that hangs in the garage beneath the carriage house apartment where he lives.

As a kid, Olsen played baseball with friends on the land. He would later be a star on the high school football team and is now a member of the New London High School Football Hall of Fame.

In 2007, he returned to the neighborhood after a divorce and 10 years of living on Rogers Lake in Lyme.

The land is how Olsen got his start in politics. In 1984, a zoning dispute erupted over a planned road behind his property, and Olsen thought the city was ignoring him.

"I wasn't getting the response I wanted," said Olsen, 57, standing in his driveway on an unseasonably warm day earlier this month.

Eventually, the life-long Republican, who voted for Richard Nixon at 18 and has a row of books devoted to Ronald Reagan, started attending council meetings, and three years later found himself on the city council. After returning to New London, he returned to the city council, where he has served since 2009.

Olsen is counting on voters seeing him as the candidate with deep New London roots who can nevertheless stand outside the city's divisive political culture.

"I feel strongly we need to break away from partisan politics and elect someone whose interest is the community," Olsen said during an interview in his kitchen. "Partisan politics has brought us to where we are today."

His time as mayor, Olsen said, would be defined by involving the community in fixing some of the city's problems - especially when it comes to the city's schools, his key issue.

Green Party City Councilor John Russell, who met Olsen in 2004 through their work in the Kiwanis Club, calls him a "consensus builder."

"I've never seen him angry," Russell said. "He's a man of passions, but he's always under control. He sees the bigger picture rather than squabbling."

Decides against primary

But governing is not the same as campaigning, and Olsen is not above taking shots at the front-runners he must outdistance if he is going to win election.

Of Rob Pero, Olsen said the GOP candidate's pledge of "no tax hike for two years" is "irresponsible."

He accused Democratic candidate Daryl Justin Finizio of having "a populist view" of the future of Fort Trumbull in calling for the dismantling of the New London Development Corp., which Olsen said could "scuttle" planned condominium development there.

Olsen also took write-in candidate Councilor Michael Buscetto III to task for embarrassing the city this past summer by complaining that people were misusing the fountain at the Parade.

"You won't see me promulgating a Whale's Tail fiasco," Olsen said. "That was a one-man operation."

Olsen decided to run as a petitioning candidate in the spring, after he "assessed the field," and after the GOP leadership anointed Pero as its nominee.

He claims that Republican Town Committee Chairman William Vogel threw his support behind Pero "before the ink was dry" on the charter change voters approved at the November 2010 polls to create a strong mayor position.

Vogel, however, said that Olsen told him in the fall of 2010 that he was not interested in running for the office.

Olsen also eschewed a primary challenge against Pero, the popular city councilor who has held his seat for 16 consecutive years.

"It's conjecture, but it's a reasonable judgment that Marty felt he did not have the support to beat Rob," Vogel said.

Olsen's first tenure on the council was hardly a placid one. He engaged in a highly public battle with then-director of public works Melvin Jetmore, who accused Olsen of agreeing to install a storm drain in front of a resident's house in exchange for campaign contributions.

A Board of Ethics investigation cleared Olsen of wrongdoing.

Coming home to an old problem

Olsen backs police Chief Margaret Ackley, who has accused Buscetto - a write-in mayoral candidate - of meddling in police department business. Olsen also thinks that the police department is adequately staffed.

Olsen was one of three councilors who voted not to sell a portion of Riverside Park to the Coast Guard, and he supports the concept of a community center.

But Olsen's main campaign issue and his passion is the school district, which he said is initially what prompted his family to leave the city for Lyme when his daughters reached middle school age.

"My wife was never enthused about the New London public schools," Olsen said.

Since returning to New London, Olsen has been a mentor at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School and has taught classes about the city government.

"What's transpiring in the schools is a travesty," Olsen said. "It disturbs me that we have an acceptance of mediocrity and failure."

Olsen, who has been an adjunct professor of economics at Mitchell College and other colleges, said that if elected, he would take the mayor's ex-officio seat on the Board of Education seriously and use it to influence and promote school policies.

And Olsen thinks that a better school system would spur more outside investment in the city.

"What we've got is a stop sign with the schools," Olsen said. "It impacts everything."

Olsen said he wants the district to implement some of techniques used by the 20-year-old Harlem Children's Zone in New York City, which takes a holistic approach to fighting the effects of poverty.

In all, Olsen wants voters to consider his experience as a citizen and a city leader.

"If you compare me to any of the other candidates, my breadth and scope is wider, vaster and deeper than any of them," Olsen said. "I have the life experience they just don't have."

s.chupaska@theday.com

Editor's note

During the coming week, The Day will publish profiles of all the candidates who hope to become New London's first strong mayor: Martin T. Olsen Jr., petitioning candidate; Daryl Justin Finizio, Democrat; Rob Pero, Republican; Lori Hopkins-Cavanagh, petitioning candidate; Andrew Lockwood, petitioning candidate; and Michael Buscetto III, write-in candidate.

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