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Norwich Mayor Deberey Hinchey is easy to underestimate.
Sitting down with the city's top-elected official last week, a little more than a month after her swearing in, I found a person deliberate and realistic in her approach to tackling problems. However, her restrained, almost soft-spoken demeanor can raise doubts if she is up to the job of taking on the challenges her city faces - a long-struggling downtown, substandard housing in some of its neighborhoods, fiscal pressures.
Hinchey's election opponents may have made the same mistake in misjudging her.
Then a council alderwoman, Hinchey announced her candidacy for mayor nearly a year before the November 2013 election. She hired a political consultant, Vinci Group out of Manchester, to help guide her campaign. It attracted criticism - largely, though not exclusively, from opponents - but proved effective.
In the Democratic primary she defeated a popular alderman, and former Board of Education chairman, Charles Jaskiewicz. She then went on to topple incumbent Mayor Peter Nystrom, long a proven votegetter in the city, in the general election. Neither man took the defeats well.
Hinchey, a former clinical social worker for a visiting nurses agency, thus became the city's first woman mayor.
The powers of the Norwich mayor are quite limited. It is funded as a part-time position, though Hinchey pledged in her campaign to devote full-time to it. The mayor has a single vote on the seven-member council and no veto. Executive authority is in the hands of the city manager, who answers to the council. The charter sets economic development as the mayor's primary responsibility.
In meeting with The Day Editorial Board, Hinchey acknowledged the position's limitations and even embraced them. The city is better off run by a professional manager, she said. Hinchey has no desire to see the Charter Revision Commission, recently appointed to review and update the charter, make substantial changes in the mayoral position.
Within that structure, Hinchey is confident she can play a major role in shaping policy.
She has already had a meeting with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. Hinchey sees the potential for the Democratic governor, who has a philosophy of using direct state investment to encourage development, as playing a significant role in helping move some Norwich projects forward.
State assistance could help get the long-stalled project to convert the massive Ponemah Mill into luxury apartments moving again toward completion, she said. That project, in turn, could help revitalize the surrounding Taftville neighborhood.
The mayor is pushing for the state to relocate a state boat launch, now smack in the middle of the Howard T. Brown Memorial Park, location for several festivals and other activities, to a more logical spot further south on the Thames River.
She plans to be the face of the city in reaching out to Sysco, which is in the process of buying out U.S. Foods, to try to persuade it to keep in operation, and potentially expand, the U.S. Foods distribution center on Ottrobando Avenue. It is among the city's largest employers and taxpayers.
Unlike her predecessor, Nystrom, Hinchey has not been outspoken concerning the locating of former sex offenders in the city. Nystrom was livid upon learning ex-inmates, released from a state-contracted sex offender release program in Montville, had been set up with apartments in Norwich.
"That's not my style," said Hinchey when asked if she planned to use the bully pulpit of the mayor's office to criticize such relocations. "I don't think that is an issue that should play out in the press."
Instead, she plans to work with state officials to assure fair discharge policies are utilized.
We shall see. This may be one case in which a quiet demeanor is not such a great attribute.