New London Mayor Passero: Campaign money has to come from somewhere

New London Mayor Michael Passero admits it is probably not good optics to keep a campaign donation from someone his city is negotiating with to lease space for 25 years at an estimated cost of $19 million.

Three weeks ago in my column, I raised the issue of the appropriateness of some of the donations the Passero re-election campaign received at a March 25 fundraising dinner at Tony D’s restaurant in the city. That affair helped the campaign bring in $24,260 for the first campaign finance reporting period, which ended April 10.

Among the questionable donations was $1,000 from Jason Julian, whose business is in negotiations with the Passero administration to lease space at Shaw’s Cove for city offices. The mayor argues it makes sense for the city to vacate a couple of buildings it now uses for offices, avoiding the cost of fixing and maintaining them, and instead rent space. Under his plan, City Hall would be renovated and remain the seat of government, with the mayor’s office, the Council Chambers, and perhaps the voter registrars and probate court offices remaining.

It’s proved to be a controversial proposal. The City Council picked the Julian property as the best option after a request for proposals process, but talks on a lease could yet break down, be abandoned due to public opposition or be rejected by the council.

In any event, Passero announced that donation would be going back to Mr. Julian.

The mayor noted, correctly, that he has no legal obligation to do so. While the state law prohibits a gubernatorial candidate from taking donations from contractors doing business with the state, the legislature has imposed no similar prohibition at the municipal level.

But it looks bad.

Passero said his bright line will be to not accept donations from any entity or individual taking part in a request for proposal process or in active contractual negotiations.

His Honor, however, will not be returning the $5,000 his campaign received from Downes Construction — five $1,000 donations from five Downes officials. The New Britain company has partnered with another contractor to carry out the $98 million renovation of the city’s high school and adjacent construction of a middle school as part of the plan for an all-magnet-schools public education system.

As noted in the prior column, it seems to me that when problems arise with a project like that — and don’t they always? — citizens want to be assured the administration is acting in the city’s and the students' best interests and is not swayed by some friendly donations it received.

Passero said he found the suggestion he would be swayed by donations insulting. He also contended that returning Downes’ donations would send things down a slippery slope, making it hard to accept many donations.

“A lot of people do business with the city, or may do business with the city, and if you say you cannot accept any of that, how do you fund an election campaign?” he rhetorically asked when we talked.

And to be fair, governors can seek public financing for their elections to avoid having to lobby for special interest money, an option not available at the municipal level.

But it is not like the mayor could not find donors. The Passero for New London campaign has already accepted plenty of donations that do not raise any red flags, including from fellow Democrats in New London and other communities, from local businesses, and from labor groups that do not have contracts with the city.

Given that the incumbent Democrat is considered a shoo-in for a second term — Republican City Councilor Martin Olsen has hinted at running but has not made it official — one wonders why the emphasis on large fundraising.

His strong election standing gives Passero the luxury of running a squeaky-clean campaign when it comes to which donations he solicits or accepts. For whatever reason, he is opting instead to look at the purse, not the perception.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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