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New London - Nearly every Friday morning for the past few months, Republican City Councilor Rob Pero and his supporters have stationed themselves at a busy intersection to wave yellow-and-black campaign signs and encourage people to vote for Pero for mayor.
But just after 7 a.m. on this crisp Friday morning in October, the first really chilly morning of fall, the candidate is not among the volunteers stationed at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument at the foot of State Street.
"Babysitter problems,'' said Bill Vogel, chairman of the Republican Town Committee.
That the candidate is missing does not deter supporters; there's an easy camaraderie among the nine sign-wavers, whose ages range from 20-something to mid-80s.
"I've known Rob all his life,'' said 86-year-old Margaret Ramus as she dabbed her nose with a tissue and held high a "Pero for Mayor" sign. As the mother of six and the head of Little League at Mitchell Park for more than 40 years, she knows most of the six candidates running for mayor.
"I think Rob knows what he's doing,'' said Ramus, whose daughter, Barbara Major, is running for re-election to the city's Board of Education. "I think he will do better than anyone else who's running.''
Eventually Pero shows up, but no one seems to mind that he's late. It's understood that while he's passionate about the city, his strong connection with his family takes precedence over a public appearance.
"Rob's family plays a big part in his life,'' Vogel said. "It's not unusual for Rob to have one or two, or all three, of his children at campaign meetings."
Pero, 42, has the most experience in government, serving 16 years on the City Council, of the six candidates for mayor.
"Being on the council for 16 years, I understand how a councilor thinks,'' he said. "People can disagree, but we have to work together to try and solve problems."
To those who say little in the city has changed during Pero's tenure, he begs to differ. During the past two years, Pero, two other Republicans and a Green Party candidate have held four seats on the council, putting the Democrats in the minority for the first time in 20 years.
Pero also points to programs and initiatives that occurred during the past two years, including reducing taxes slightly; negotiating a 10-year extension to the city's water contract that resulted in a $2 million upfront payment to the city; televising City Council meetings; working with Home New London to make $100,000 available for housing assistance; and raising $40,000 to support events on the downtown Parade.
Process, not drama
Vogel, who met Pero about 12 years ago, said the candidate's knowledge of the city is second to none.
"Rob is almost a genius when it comes to New London's inner workings and its inner mechanisms,'' said Vogel, who has backed Pero as the Republican candidate for mayor from the start. "He can talk on at length on anything associated with the city.''
For Pero, creating policy and working through problems is what he does best.
"I'm a meat and potatoes guy. I like process,'' he said. "I don't like a lot of drama."
But the youngest of six children of half-Italian and half-Irish descent has been known to raise his voice occasionally at City Council meetings.
"Emotion is part of who I am,'' he said, adding that he is better now at controlling his emotions than he was at 26, when he was first elected. "I'm emotional, but I think I've learned how to channel my emotions.''
Pero said he knows he has detractors, but he thinks that's because he takes a stand on issues, like voting to sell half of Riverside Park to the neighboring U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
"I've taken positions that are unpopular because I believe they are in the best interest of the city,'' he said, adding that bringing up issues that may be unpopular also spurs public discussion.
Although Pero thinks the Riverside property should be sold and the money reinvested in the remaining park area, the matter has been left to the city's voters to decide.
Pero said he would also like to see the National Coast Guard Museum find a home in the downtown area, where he says the arts community is leading the way to revival.
While Pero voted 10 years ago in favor of the economic development plan at Fort Trumbull, which included granting the New London Development Corp. the powers of eminent domain to take properties, he admits that today he might have done things differently. But he said the city has to move forward. He now supports the Stillman proposal for housing at Fort Trumbull, including tax abatements to help the project get started, and an overall vision of the property presented by residents and the Yale Urban Design Workshop.
He also said he thinks the NLDC should continue to oversee development in the Fort Trumbull area.
"Abolishing the NLDC is playing to emotions,'' he said of his opponents' calls for dismantling the agency. "It's very complicated. ... It will take a lot of time and legal maneuvering to get rid of them," he said.
Time, money and effort that would be better spent on the city, he added.
High name recognition
Pero is an investigator with the state Department of Consumer Protection, and his former boss, Jerry Farrell, said Pero was always given complicated assignments that needed someone who could sort hype from fact and make a rational decision.
"He wasn't someone who was going to make a snap decision. He always looked at the facts before reaching a judgment,'' said Farrell, who served on the Wallingford Town Council for 16 years. "I think he'll make a good executive officer. He'll try to work with everyone. In his deliberate nature he's careful and thoughtful. On top of that, he cares passionately."
Pero also has the advantage of name recognition. Although four of his five challengers are lifelong residents of the city, the Pero name is synonymous with Ocean Beach Park, where many residents hung out and worked as teenagers.
"Everywhere I go, everyone knows my dad,'' said Pero, whose father, Anthony, now in his late 80s, managed the beach for more than 40 years.
"I had a good mentor in my dad. I watched him for so many years,'' said Pero, who remembers going to work with his father, folding chairs and sweeping up after events at the Gam building in exchange for a cold soda.
Pero said his father, who lives with him part of the week and at his sister's house the rest of the time, taught him to finish whatever he starts and to listen to people and learn from them.
Pero said he had a paper route when he was 8, and remembers chatting with his customers about current events.
"We were always reading the paper," he said, "and seeing what was going on in New London."