Three-way race for mayor in New London
New London — There is a three-way mayoral race in the city this year, with some diverging views on where the city should be headed and just how it should get there.
Incumbent Mayor Michael Passero wants four more years to continue what he says is a city on the rise. Republican City Councilor Martin “Marty” Olsen says he can do better without sidestepping City Charter to do so. Green Party member Frida Berrigan wants to shift the narrative to the underrepresented population.
Prior to his election in 2015, Passero spent 31 years as a city firefighter while working part time as a labor attorney. He spent three terms on the City Council before mounting a mayoral challenge to Daryl Justin Finizio. Finizio, in 2011, became the city’s first elected mayor following a City Charter change that replaced the position of city manager.
Passero, 63, later defeated Finizio in a Democratic primary and Republican Bill Vogel in the general election.
Passero is counting on his constituency to recognize what he said has been a marked boost to the city’s economic health since he took office. He points to not only the commercial developments underway, such as Bob’s Furniture and a housing complex off Bank Street, but also to infrastructure projects that have led to improvements of city roads, sidewalks and parks.
Passero said he also has managed to raise the city’s profile, earning greater recognition from the state, which by extension has led to more money flowing to the city.
“We’ve never enjoyed this kind of influence,” Passero said in a recent interview. “We are a presence in Hartford and fighting for every dime we can get for our city.”
He said state funding has helped boost the city’s commitment to local infrastructure improvements and revamping of city parks.
Passero also credits his work with state housing officials and the New London Housing Authority in abandoning the federally subsidized high-rises known as Thames River Apartments and relocating its residents. The state recently announced a $2 million commitment toward demolition of the housing complex, which was a longtime black eye for the city.
Olsen voted against the purchase of the Crystal Avenue property and warned of the potential cost to the city. He argues the city still doesn’t have a plan for the land.
Olsen, 65, a former owner of a construction business who holds degrees in economics and business administration, sees himself as accessible and responsive to needs of residents.
Prior to this latest two-year term, Olsen served on the council from 1987 to 1991 and was re-elected in 2009, serving as ceremonial mayor before becoming a petitioning mayoral candidate in 2011 — the year Finizio surprised his opponents and was elected to office. He also served on the council from 2013 to 2015.
Olsen, at times critical of what he says is the mayor’s tendency to act without “doing your homework first,” has called into question city projects like the overbudget Greens Harbor drainage work on Pequot Avenue that he says Passero decided to pay for without City Council approval — something he said goes against the city's charter. Costs of the work there ballooned from $1.9 million to $3.7 million. The city has requested state funding to offset the difference but picked up the cost in the meantime.
While Passero argues an additional appropriation for the project wasn’t needed, Olsen claims it is another example of the mayor skirting city rules.
“The one thing the mayor has done that I think is inherently wrong is continue to hire directors that don’t live in New London,” Olsen said. The city’s parking director, chief administrative officer, public works director and director of the Office of Development and Planning all live outside the city’s borders.
The city charter requires department heads live in the city. Olsen said he is not opposed to opening the charter to review that provision but said, “as it’s written right now, we’re breaking the law.”
Passero defends his hires and said the professional staff in his administration is a large part of the city’s success.
“I’ve hired the best. I believe it is also my responsibility under the city charter to do my job to make the city successful. I’ve been up front about that. I think the argument is a complete canard. This is nothing new,” Passero said.
Among his many new hires was Jeanne Milstein, the former state Child Advocate hired to the newly created position of Human Services director. Not only has she helped coordinate work with the city’s many social service agencies, but Passero said she has helped tackle the opioid crisis. He also credits Parking Director Carey Redd, another new position, with not only helping to boost revenues but easing parking concerns so prevalent in the past.
Olsen said he knows how to run a business and said he is not even sure he would need a chief administrative officer if elected.
“Since we’ve changed our government, the cost to administer our government has increased. In the mayor’s office, you might say we’re paying twice for the same position. We had one city manager. Now we have two,” Olsen said.
The new mayor’s annual salary, thanks to a vote by the City Council, will increase from $86,000 to $110,000.
Meanwhile, Berrigan stands in contrast to the two major party candidates as an outsider to city politics and apparently undeterred by a paperwork filing mishap that led to her name not appearing on the election ballot.
Berrigan, 45, is the daughter of Elizabeth McAlister and the late Philip Berrigan, both nationally-known peace activists. She is an office manager with Fresh New London and involved with the nonprofit Community Land Trust.
She said one of her focuses and motivations for running for office is poverty in the city.
While the city has focused its energy on outside investment, which is not necessarily a bad thing, Berrigan said it should not come at the price of residents who cannot afford, for example, the high-end residential developments under construction.
“As a relative newcomer to politics and to New London, I didn’t see poverty and economic disparity as central to the platform of either of the candidates,” Berrigan said.
She argues that her campaign as a write-in candidate will help change the conversation.
“I live on the poor side of town. I am happy and comfortable there. But we don’t factor very much in the city’s redevelopment plans or its allocation of resources,” she said.
Berrigan, who resides with her family on Connecticut Avenue, said the fact that a segment of the population is too often overlooked leads to a lower level of engagement and lower voter turnout from “people who aren’t being listened to.”
“I want to turn out people, engage people who are kind of just like ‘meh,’ turning that ‘meh’ into ‘whoo!,’” she said.
That can be achieved, she said, by door-knocking in the areas of the city not normally the focus of candidates.
“I’ve been told I’m doing a lot of dead lifting and that’s not the way to win,” Berrigan said. “We’re running to win but we’re also trying to boost voter turnout ... to create new voters.”
Berrigan said she also wants to help change the stereotype of Green Party members as “eco-minded, tree-hugging type of white constituency.” Her aim is to reach a more diverse audience.
“Conservationism, environmental sustainability and equity are issues for every single one of us, not just middle-aged white people,” she said.
“Let’s reframe some of these environmental issues so they speak to the whole of our community,” she said.
One example, Berrigan said, is Green Party advocacy of the city providing a safe, walkable city with robust public transportation. She said she wants to recast the message to recognize that those same issues are important to people who walk, ride a bike and take the bus “because it’s a necessity in their lives.”
All three candidates advocate for the city's fair share when it comes to the massive $93 million overhaul of the state-owned land at State Pier — the proposed hub for the offshore wind industry. The Connecticut Port Authority is finalizing a deal with Eversource and wind giant Ørsted.
The candidates, all of whom have views on a host of other issues, are scheduled to square off at a debate hosted by The Day on Oct. 10. Doors open at 5 p.m., with the debate starting at 6 p.m., at C.B. Jennings International Education Magnet School, 50 Mercer St.
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