Will Olsen get New London miracle to beat odds, Trump factor?

The numbers are formidable, Martin T. Olsen Jr. knows. New London is a Democratic town. He’s a lifelong Republican, drawn to the party a long time ago, in the era of Ronald Reagan.

“He inspired me to get involved. I just think the guy was terrific. To me, iconic,” Olsen, 65, fondly recalls.

Times have changed. The current occupant of the White House is not so popular. Politics have grown more partisan. About one-third of New London’s population is Hispanic or Latino. With his demonization of those seeking entry into the country at the southern border, his harsh detention strategy, his aggressive enforcement tactics and refusal to provide protection for “Dreamers” (those brought into the nation illegally when children), President Trump’s approval among Hispanic voters sits at 15 percent, according to Gallup.

“The flame-throwing rhetoric that comes out of the president is not helpful,” Olsen acknowledges.

His long-shot bet is that in a local election, voters will look past the deep national divisions and give serious consideration to “Marty,” a New London guy who has long served the city in various volunteering and political capacities.

But the numbers are the numbers. The latest from the Office of the Secretary of the State show 8,596 registered Democrats, 1,583 Republicans, 6,607 unaffiliated and 235 members of minority parties. In other words, Democrats outnumber Republicans, the unaffiliated and minority party members combined.

Forget the numbers, Olsen urges voters, focus on the status of the city and on the issues.

“I want to be mayor to improve our city. I think we can do better,” he told me when we sat down last week.

Grow tax base

Interestingly, despite describing himself as a fiscal conservative, he never turned the discussion to detailed plans for trimming the cost of city government, an acknowledgement, perhaps, that there is not much to be cut. This is a cash-strapped, high-taxed city — with big urban expenses such as sizable police and fire departments — but dependent on a tax base hamstrung by the reality that about half the property owners are property tax-exempt nonprofit or government institutions.

Olsen makes the case for using the mayoral position more effectively to encourage entrepreneurship and grow the tax base. He said as mayor he would work with banks to provide incentive programs to get more of the city’s multi-family homes into owner-occupied hands. He wants to enlist the help of corporate sponsors to increase activity along the city’s waterfront and use it to draw people into the downtown.

Olsen sees improving academic performance in city schools as vital to a true New London renaissance, boosting home values and increasing the willingness of people to invest in the city. He embraces the ongoing transition to an all-magnet schools system, incorporating students from surrounding communities.

When incumbent Mayor Michael Passero this spring significantly cut the Board of Education’s spending request, Olsen, the lone Republican on the seven-member council, offered a motion to restore some of the funding.

“I didn’t even get a second for a vote. So, the Democrats protected the mayor. But this magnet school program is a regional program, and our neighbors are watching closely what we are doing here,” Olsen said.

This is Olsen’s second try for mayor since the city abandoned the city manager form of government in favor of a strong-mayor system. In 2011, Olsen failed to win the Republican nomination. Voters eventually chose Democrat Daryl J. Finizio as their first mayor under the new system. In 2015, Passero defeated Finizio in the Democratic primary, won the general election handily, and now seeks a second term.

Also in the race is Green Party candidate Frida Berrigan.

Olsen, chosen by fellow council members, was the last ceremonial mayor under the old council-city manager government. He has served six terms on the council.

Immigration

The candidate took a long pause when I asked if, as mayor, he would expect more cooperation by city police in helping federal immigration agents enforce immigration laws.

“When appropriate, the answer is yes,” he said, finally.

During his term Finizio signed an executive order barring city police from inquiring about the immigration status of individuals, unless tied to the matter being investigated. Last year the council went further, passing a resolution stating, “no city official shall question, arrest, detain or take other law enforcement action against an individual based only upon the individual’s perceived race, national origin, religion, or language ...”

Olsen voted against the resolution and condemned the sanctuary city approach.

“Immigration is a federal issue,” he told me. “And it should be dealt with in Washington. It is misguided being dealt with here, locally.”

Olsen would prioritize public safety and stress police visibility.

“A clean and safe environment, that’s another key. For better or worse we’ve got a bit of a sketchy reputation ... we can’t make believe it’s not there,” he said.

He also vowed to aggressively attack blight and illegal dumping in the city.

'Live, Work and Invest'

Olsen made light of the promotional slogan adopted during Passero’s tenure, “Live, Work and Invest.” Passero points to several large-scale apartment developments, increased occupancy of downtown apartments, and the potential of utilizing State Pier as a staging area for offshore wind development as indications a corner is being turned.

His Republican opponent sees more style than substance.

“When the largest signage you see are these window signs in vacant storefronts that read, ‘Live, Work and Invest,’ all that signals is that these are empty stores and there’s a lot of them,” Olsen said.

He criticized the incumbent for failing to use the office of mayor to build policy consensus, but instead dictating from the top down. Olsen pointed to the unpopularity of Passero’s proposed “pay-as-you-throw program” — city dwellers would have had to buy city-issued garbage bags for their trash, a move intended to encourage more recycling — and the mayor’s plan to rent space for city offices as examples that showed he was out of touch.

Olsen opposed the ideas, which faced significant opposition. Neither has been implemented.

The Republican said he would prefer development of a national U.S. Coast Guard Museum take place in the Fort Trumbull area, not on the waterfront behind Union Station as planned. The $20 million in promised state aid would be better used on a pedestrian bridge linking Fort Trumbull to the downtown than on a structure to cross the tracks at the train station, he said.

He expressed concerns about how a proposed $93 million deal to transform State Pier in support of wind development will play out for the city.

“We need a mayor who is willing to step up and protect New London’s interests. The state’s interests and ours may not be the same,” Olsen said. “But I am not privy to those discussions.”

It is healthy to have a challenger or, as in this case, challengers. An uncontested race for a major office is not healthy, democratically speaking. If nothing else, New Londoners will be provided with a debate of the issues and with a choice. 

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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