New face in New London is an old hand to politics

If Keith J. Robbins is successful in his return to politics and wins a New London City Council seat come November, the Finizio administration can anticipate plenty of questions.

"I'm inquisitive by nature. I want to know," said Robbins, 43, when I asked him about his penchant for asking questions that quickly, sometimes uncomfortably, get to the essential points of a matter.

It is probably a safe bet that no other candidate will match the depth and breadth of Robbins' experience in municipal government.

A Republican, Robbins served eights years, over four terms, as first selectman of Bozrah, which followed three two-year terms as selectman in that town. During his service as Bozrah's top elected leader, he spent time as chairman of the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments and president of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

He was a young chief executive, barely 30 when first elected first selectman. Robbins very likely would still be Bozrah first selectman had he not decided in 2007 to forgo re-election.

"It was time to go do something else," he said when he sat down in my office last week.

That something else was trying his hand as a town manager, hired by the Winsted selectmen to manage that town of about 7,700 in northwest Connecticut. The transition from the elected executive in charge to the hired manager did not go smoothly. Robbins faced several controversies during his 18-month tenure, including his decision to bypass the Civil Service Commission in hiring a couple of public works foremen.

When in the November 2009 election Democrats displaced the Republican administration that had hired him, Robbins resigned. "It just wasn't for me," he said.

A divorced father with one son who graduates high school this year, Robbins moved to New London two years ago and lives on Gardner Avenue. It is a return to family roots, he said. "My grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents are buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery," Robbins said.

As a Republican he knows he faces a tough challenge winning in traditionally Democratic New London.

"My views are fiscally conservative and socially inclusive," he said of his politics.

A salesman for Granite City Electric - his specialty is large-scale customers - Robbins has a politician's gift for making acquaintances easily.

"At the local level it's retail, selling yourself and what you stand for," Robbins said of municipal elections.

Opinionated, he has a self-confidence that can border on cockiness. He loves good cigars and thinks prohibitions on smoking in outdoor public places is inane and intrudes on personal rights.

Bill Vogel, Republican Town Committee chairman, said he expects Robbins will have no trouble winning the party nomination next month to run for council.

"With his experience and background he makes a really good candidate. He knows how to run," Vogel said.

Robbins said he is excited about the prospects of a National Coast Guard Museum to bolster a business sector, and restaurant scene, that he considers the strength of the community.

"The business community, in my opinion, is holding it together. It's a very active business community," he said. "They're trying their best."

The city's greatest problem, he said, is dependence on a property tax system that, because there are so many tax-exempt properties, does not generate adequate revenue. The challenge, Robbins said, is growing the tax base and figuring out ways to run government more efficiently.

"You can't continually ask the same amount of people to pay more money (in taxes)," he said.

Robbins said he would push for a charter change to require staggered Board of Education elections - with the seats of no more than a bare majority of candidates up for election in any one year. "Putting the entire board up for election every two years makes no sense. You need continuity and you need a vision and that works against both."

Could his run for council be a step toward a campaign for higher office?

"Obviously there is that potential," Robbins said, smiling. "But right now, right here, let's concentrate on winning the City Council election."

Paul Choiniere is editorial page editor.

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