Still feisty, Passero fights for a second term as mayor of New London

New London Mayor Michael Passero sees election to a second four-year term as an opportunity to complete a turnaround for his city that he says is now well underway.

“I put everything into the job, seven days a week, as many hours as I can keep myself awake and start the next morning. I’m fighting the clock. There is only going to be so much time to get things done,” he said.

A retired New London firefighter who obtained a law degree in his off hours, Passero said he came to politics only reluctantly to serve his native city. Having served on the City Council, in 2015 he challenged and defeated the incumbent Mayor Daryl J. Finizio in the Democratic primary. Passero then went on to win the general election easily in the heavily Democratic city. He thus became the second mayor since New London abandoned the city manager/council form of government and placed a directly elected mayor in the chief executive position.

He now hopes to become the first mayor re-elected since the charter change.

Passero is known for a short fuse. He can be quick to anger over criticism he considers unfair or information he judges as misleading. The mayor said he has learned to moderate that “temperament issue, I hope people have seen growth in that area.”

On the other hand, he adds, that’s one fire this former firefighter does not want to completely extinguish.

“Sometimes that’s a benefit in dealing with some of this nonsense I’ve had to deal with,” he told me when we sat down last week, the last of my three interviews with the candidates for mayor.

That temperament resurfaced when I referenced that his opponents in the race — Republican City Councilor Martin T. Olsen Jr. and Green Party nominee Frida Berrigan — both point to what they see as a lack of progress behind the slogan adopted by the Passero administration to drive its vision for New London: “Live, Work and Invest.” If anything, they both said when I talked to them, downtown has slipped in the wrong direction, with more empty storefronts and unabated blight.

“That’s bullshit, that’s just such bullshit. You know, as much as I love the job, I have to tell you, I detest and hate the process so much — it kept me out of it my whole life. I don’t know how I ever got dragged into it,” Passero said.

“Come on, what we’ve done is amazing,” he countered. “We have millions and millions of dollars in investment in the queue waiting to get going and we have millions of dollars in investment that is already happening.”

As proof he pointed to a growing grand list and an increase in the fund balance — the city’s rainy day fund — from a dangerously slim $2.5 million when he took office to roughly $13 million.

Growth in new housing construction and redevelopment can be seen in figures obtained from the Office of Development & Planning. Building fees grew from $337,470 in fiscal year 2014-15 to $639,000 in 2018-19. The numbers show $742 million in construction, most of it housing, tied to projects that have been completed, are under construction or in the planning stages.

So-called “Parcel J,” at the corner of Bank and Howard streets, had gone undeveloped for decades but soon will be the site of a 137-unit apartment building.

Yet the lack of redevelopment in the central downtown remains striking, with streets empty many afternoons and numerous storefronts vacant. Passero contends the boost in housing — as many as 800 units if all projects pan out — will be the catalyst that finally drives investment and recovery in his city’s downtown.

Passero counts among his major achievements his work with the New London Housing Authority and federal housing officials to close the squalid Thames River public housing high-rises. Residents were relocated using Section 8 vouchers. The city then obtained control of the property with the potential for it to become part of expanded development around State Pier.

The mayor is now in a fight with the state and private developers to make sure his city gets fairly compensated if, as proposed, State Pier undergoes a $93 million facelift to make it a hub supporting offshore wind-power development. Tax revenues to the city would be limited because the property is owned by the state. As host city, Passero says New London needs to be compensated as if the development were taxable.

Negotiations continue, but Olsen said the fact no deal has been announced shows Passero’s lack of pull in Hartford.

Passero has swung and missed on a couple of proposals. His “pay-as-you-throw" plan, requiring city residents to purchase garbage bags from the city for their trash, died in the face of strong community opposition. The administration did a poor job of selling the concept. It was intended to discourage residents from tossing recyclables into the garbage, with the resulting lower garbage collection saving taxpayers money. People didn’t buy it.

Also generating opposition was the mayor’s idea to close and sell a couple of buildings the city uses for offices downtown. New London would instead rent offices and focus resources on renovating and maintaining City Hall. Passero said he will revive the plan if elected, maybe sooner.

Most discouraging, he acknowledged, was his failure to meet a 2015 campaign pledge to build a community center. Early in his term a proposal to lure YMCA to build such a facility adjacent to Veterans Field failed to get the necessary council support.

“I see that as a personal, political failure on my part,” he said. “It was very early in my term. In many ways it got killed by my own party, which I had swept into office.”

Passero said his administration is continuing to look for a new opportunity to work with the YMCA.

The mayor backed a resolution intended to clarify that city police, in doing routine enforcement, are not to inquire about the immigration status of residents and only cooperate with federal immigration officers who have warrants.

Asked if that makes his a sanctuary city, Passero chose instead to describe how he sees New London.

"We're a city of immigrants, always have been. And we take care of everyone who is in this city," he told me.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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