Republican Olsen to challenge Passero in upcoming mayoral election

New London — Republican City Councilor Marty Olsen plans to formally announce a challenge to incumbent Democratic Mayor Michael Passero on Monday, ending speculation about whether Passero would have competition in the upcoming municipal election.

Olsen has scheduled a 6 p.m. gathering at Castillo’s Hair Salon at 205 Montauk Ave. for the announcement.

Olsen, 65, may not have formally announced his run for mayor but has more than hinted at his candidacy over the past few months. He had filed the appropriate paperwork to become a candidate on March 11.

By City Charter, a mayoral run rules Olsen out as a candidate for City Council. He is the only sitting Republican councilor and over the past three elections the top Republican vote-getter.

He acknowledges Passero has a jump-start on campaign fundraising and a large pool of registered Democrats to draw from but said, “I’m running to win. I understand this is going to be an uphill battle.”

“We do this not because it’s easy. We do it because it’s hard,” he said, borrowing a line from former President John F. Kennedy.

Olsen said some of his priorities include changing the perception that New London is not a safe and clean city, improving the city’s relationship with the school district and making decisions that acknowledge the views and concerns of residents.

He said part of the work in changing the perception of the city is “having a leader who is promoting community pride.” 

While he has at times been one of the school district’s harshest critics, Olsen said education is at the top of his priority list and he voted against the education budget this year because he thought it wasn’t enough money to support the ongoing efforts to improve the district. 

He is frustrated, however, with the progress of a multimillion-dollar school construction project that is years behind schedule and still without a final completed design.

The north campus portion of the two-phase project is expected to be completed in 2024.

“It’s costing us money. These bills keep piling up and we have very little to show for it, which in turn erodes our bond,” Olsen said.

He said construction delays compounded by the recent school scandal have jeopardized millions in state magnet funds.

“We’re running a regional program here and our neighbors are watching what we’re doing here. If they don’t think we’re being serious about education, why would they send their kids here?” Olsen said.

Among other issues, Olsen said as mayor he would bring community members into any major city decision, something at which he claims Passero has not done a good job.

“I’m an advocate of trying to get stakeholders on board, whatever the issue is, ahead of time, not rolling things out without discussing things with people who are going to be impacted. I think that’s been a failure,” Olsen said.

As examples, Olsen points to ideas pitched by Passero that ultimately failed, including the community center at the former Edgerton School property and the pay-as-you-throw garbage disposal system. He said the current city office consolidation idea is also facing pushback.

“You’ve got to do your homework first. I think there needs to be better leadership across the board. When we moved to this mayoral form of government eight years ago, one of the main arguments was we need a point person to pull things together,” Olsen said.

A New London native and New London High School graduate, Olsen’s political career includes a four-year-stint on the City Council between 1987 and 1991. He returned to the council in 2009 and was its ceremonial mayor when the city changed its form of government to an elected mayor.

Olsen ran as a petitioning mayoral candidate in a field of six in 2011, opting not to primary fellow Republican Councilor Rob Pero that year. Democrat Daryl Justin Finizio won the election.

Pero is now the chairman of the Republican Town Committee.

“We have a good candidate. I served with Marty for a term on the City Council and he certainly has an understanding of how policy works in the city,” Pero said.

Pero said he has not yet heard from any other Republican who has expressed interest in a mayoral run and said Olsen has broad appeal that makes him a viable candidate.

It’s unclear if other challengers from other parties, such as the New London Green Party, might emerge.  

Passero, a retired city firefighter and labor attorney, was not surprised by Olsen’s impending announcement. He issued a statement on Friday.

“Our city thrives because of the diversity of its people and opinions,” Passero said in the statement. “I have a strong record to stand on and I welcome any and all challengers who have ideas on how to make New London stronger. I look forward to a spirited debate with candidates on how to keep New London's growth and momentum going for another 4 years.”

On the economic development front, Olsen said he recognizes there have been projects pitched since Passero took office but said celebrations might be premature.

“I’m the eternal optimist, it’s not money in the bank until they break ground,” he said.

Olsen said to help attract visitors, he is pitching the idea of connecting historical sites throughout the city, something akin to “our own Freedom Trail.”

“Let’s have a Whaling trail,” he said. “New London should become a destination location.”

He supports the pedestrian walkway from Waterfront Park to Fort Trumbull but said he is not in favor of a state-funded $20 million pedestrian bridge to the future Coast Guard Museum if it means the city will be left maintaining it.

Olsen is in his second term on the council since the city changed its form of government. He served from 2013 to 2015, lost by three votes in the 2015 election and was elected back in 2017.

Olsen has run a contracting business, holds an associate degree in business administration from Mitchell College, a bachelor’s degree in economics from Connecticut College and a master's degree in business administration from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He long has been involved with the New London Kiwanis Club, tutors students at the high school and hosts a cable access show.

“I feel I have the background, the skill set to do a good job. I’ve run a business. I’m involved in the community and a long track of serving the community,” he said.

g.smith@theday.com

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