Independence for Montville chairman folds party, but won't abandon crusade against 'foolish spending'

Jim Andriote talks about the Independence for Montville party and town politics during an interview at Herb's Deli in Montville, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Jim Andriote talks about the Independence for Montville party and town politics during an interview at Herb's Deli in Montville, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

Montville — Plenty of the staff at Herb’s Country Deli recognize James Andriote’s face.

They just aren’t quite sure of his name.

They recognize him, of course, because for more than three decades Andriote has played the role of gadfly, perennial candidate, letter writer and third-party agitator in Montville politics. At age 66, he’s lived here since he was 4.

He is Montville.

But in the past few years his Independence for Montville party, which once supported eight or 10 candidates for local boards and the Town Council, has been whittled down to just Andriote, and maybe former mayor Howard “Russ” Beetham, if you’re being generous, though Beetham is in his 80s and appears to be mostly retired from town politics.

And so in January, facing a pile of paperwork and the hassle for re-registering Independence for Montville with the state as a political party, Andriote, the chairman of the party for 20 years, called it quits. 

And though Independence for Montville is no more, Andriote has no plans to give up. He’ll run for the Town Council as a Republican later this year. And he’ll keep sounding the battle cry that has kept him on the ballot and in the pages of the newspaper all these years: “no more foolish spending.”

Andriote came to Montville as a child, when his father moved the family from Norwich to run a bar on Route 32. His political career, fittingly for a town where water and sewer infrastructure have been a constant plague, began with water problems.

“It started when I bought my first house in Montville Manor,” he said over coffee at Herb’s last week.

The wells in the Manor would go empty in the summertime, and the Florida-based developer that built the neighborhood didn’t care. So, Andriote said he joined the homeowners’ association, quickly became the president, and “tried to get the town to do something with the water.”

From there he joined a group focused on the prevalence of local contractors sitting on the Planning and Zoning Commission and approving projects they could benefit from. In 1979, he joined the Democratic Town Committee, and ran for the Zoning Board of Appeals.

The son of a staunch Republican, Andriote said his choice had nothing to do with political philosophy or association with the national party.

“The Democrats were the most popular party in the town,” he said. "That’s how politicians do things here — “they just join a group because it’s a popular group. And that’s what happened. I joined the Democrats.”

He was on the Zoning Board of Appeals for eight years, and chairman for five. In 1993, several years after a Republican win that ended penny-pinching legend Howard “Russ” Beetham’s 18-year reign as the Democratic first selectman, Andriote ran for Town Council as a Democrat and won.

But his association with the Democrats, who have ridden the waves of raucous Montville politics and managed to stay on top for the most of the last several decades, was short-lived.

Andriote says he pushed against “foolish spending” in his two-year term on the Council, arguing against new cruisers for the police department and new fire trucks for the fire departments. But his fellow Democrats were little help in his crusade against spending, so it was time for something different. Independence for Montville was founded in 1996.

Andriote and his party have had successes over the years. The biggest came in 1999, when Beetham was elected for one term as mayor with the Independence party. Nearly a decade later, in 2007, Beetham was elected to the Town Council as a member of Independence for Montville.

Andriote ran for the Town Council several more times, never winning a seat himself. In 2009, his party took a new tack, cross-endorsing Republican candidates for the school board and six of seven candidates for Town Council in an effort to win back influence from the Democratic party members.

That tactic proved successful, splitting the Town Council between three Democrats, three Republicans and one member Independence for Montville party member, and installing a majority Republican school board for the first time in decades.

But not everyone approved at the time. Republican Town Council member Gary Murphy rejected the Independence for Montville support of his campaign, calling its members "dirty rats."

For Andriote, comments like that were the cost of challenging the two-party system.

“That was the thing in Montville,” he said. “They were just too passive. ... They did criticize each other to make the party look bad, so they could knock them out at election time. But it just died out. Nobody wants to criticize. I was the only one that ever came out and starting making waves.”

More recently, the Independence for Montville party has served as a vehicle for Andriote to launch ethics complaints against town officials and push for public support for anti-spending measures.

In 2014, Andriote filed an ethics complaint alleging the Town Council members’ vote in favor of smaller buffer space between vendors and businesses that sell similar products was illegal because it benefited Murphy, who owned a hot dog cart.

He later filed another complaint against Town Council chairman Joseph Jaskiewicz and then-town attorney Matthew Auger over who should have investigated his original complaint. An outside law firm hired to investigate Andriote’s complaints found that town officials did not violate town policies in either case.

In what could be considered the most recent victory for the anti-tax crowd in Montville, Andriote was part of a small but successful effort to convince town voters that an independent police department was not for them.

In an almost identical referendum to a 2001 effort that knocked down the town’s effort to leave the state police Resident State Trooper program, Andriote and a small group of people including Beetham led the charge to overturn the movement to an independent department again, with petitions on clipboards as their weapons and the town's transfer station as their battlefield.

“We were one of the biggest opponents,” Andriote said proudly.

A prolific writer of letters to the editor, Andriote has not let up on telling the readers of The Day of what he sees as rampant corruption and overspending in his town. His letters in the past five years, with titles like “Wasting taxpayers’ dollars in Montville,” “Montville devastation ahead because of Dems,” “Montville zero tax hike is too good to be true” and even “Day needs to improve Montville coverage” have not let up on the steady drumbeat that has kept him going through multiple decades: whatever it is, Montville can’t afford it.

The end of the party doesn’t mean Andriote is going to stop. He said he sees an undercurrent of support for anti-establishment candidates following President Donald Trump’s election and in backlash against the state’s budget woes.

“People don’t want to get involved for fear of retaliation,” he said. “I had Democrats support me when I was Independence for Montville. It was because I started speaking out and saying things. I go with what the town needs, not what the town wants.”

m.shanahan@theday.com

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