In Norwich, Nystrom sets agenda for a new reality

One interesting thing about Norwich Mayor Peter A. Nystrom’s State of the City Address on January 6 is what it lacked — any warning about holding the line on spending and taxes.

Nystrom has a long, mostly successful political history in Norwich. That is remarkable, because he is a Republican.

The 62-year-old mayor’s political experience includes several years of service on the City Council, as a state representative from 1984-2002 and, from 2009 to 2013, as mayor. Nystrom’s biggest defeat was failing to win re-election in 2013, losing to Democrat Deberey Hinchey.

From that point on Nystrom was a man on a mission to regain the mayor’s seat. The first step was to lead a Republican insurrection focused on the tax and spending increases approved by the council’s Democratic majority during Hinchey’s first two years in office. It worked.

With Nystrom the top vote getter, Republicans took five of the six council seats in the 2015 election. The mayor, Hinchey, held the seventh seat. Nystrom, the clear party leader, was elected council president. It would make for a difficult final two years for Hinchey, with Republicans pushing their fiscal austerity agenda — in Hinchey’s opinion to the point of eroding necessary services and undermining the school system.

She did not seek election to a second term.

In 2017, Nystrom completed the comeback, winning his second term as mayor, again with a Republican majority on the council.

But no longer. In November, Democrats took four of the six council seats. Adding in Nystrom’s council vote, Democrats have a 4-3 edge.

Which brings us back to Nystrom’s address. It contained one sentence about controlling spending. One.

“First we must continue to acknowledge that controlling growth in government spending locally is important,” he said.

Times have changed.

Nystrom is a political pragmatist. He wouldn’t have succeeded in a Democratic-leaning city if that were not the case. The fire-breathing tax cutting rhetoric that fueled the Republican victories and Nystrom’s return as mayor was a departure from his political persona. It made sense at the time, politically and practically. Spending and tax increases in Norwich were getting out of hand, hindering development potential.

But this is a new reality. In Norwich the mayor is not a strong position, with only one vote on the council and no veto power. He must lead by persuasion. It made sense, then, that Nystrom emphasized issues on which he can find common ground with the new Democratic majority — rebuild the schools, invest in the neighborhoods, attract private capital.

Which doesn’t mean this Mayor Pete won’t use the bully pulpit his office provides to push back on fiscal excesses; it just means he recognizes he must focus on building relationships, not drawing lines.

He called on the new council to back public-private initiatives.

“I feel that we need to help the private sector invest in (our) neighborhoods,” Nystrom said.

The mayor held out as an example the $3.4 million bond voters approved in 2010 during his first term as mayor. It provided various incentives for developers to renovate, rent and open shops and offices in the downtown. Nystrom pointed to it attracting $12 million in private investment and said 34 small businesses had located downtown.

The mayor proposed a similar program — he didn’t give a price tag — this time to attract investment in bringing properties up to code in the city’s neighborhoods. He called on the council to take advantage of state and federal programs providing investments and subsidies to transform industrial brownfields, encourage renovation of blighted properties and direct aid to distressed districts.

It all sounded, well, Democratic.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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