The Choices For Mayor, And How We Got Them

The three men vying to be elected mayor of Waterbury on November 5th are from left to right, Independent Party candidate Larry De Pillo, Democrat incumbent Neil O'Leary, and Republican candidate Jason Van Stone.

                                            Column by John Murray

   Trying to understand the 2013 municipal election in Waterbury is as slippery as black ice on an early morning in February. It’s the most low-key mayoral campaign the Observer has covered in 20 years, but trying to dig out the reasons is as elusive as trying to catch the Loch Ness Monster. Why? Because perspectives change from one political camp to another, and grasping reality in politics is like snatching a fistful of fog, they both leave you empty handed.

   Is it a foregone conclusion that Neil O’Leary will be re-elected on November 5th? Is that why it’s so quiet?

   “Nothing is guaranteed in politics,” O’Leary said. “There has been very little excitement in the campaign so far, and that may translate into low voter turnout. We’ve worked very hard and I’d like to think the citizens of Waterbury like the job we’ve been doing, but does a lack of excitement worry me? You bet it does.”

   Is the Republican Party and Jason Van Stone running a stealthy campaign hoping O’Leary’s supporters will be asleep on Election Day? The GOP is outnumbered 4 to 1 by Democrats in Waterbury, and low voter turnout might be their best shot at picking off the incumbent.

   “I am running to win," Van Stone said. "We don’t have the resources that Neil O’Leary has, but we’ve been quietly knocking on doors for the past several months and focusing on our Republican base. If we can get our vote out, and there is low voter turnout, we can shock the world on November 5th.”

   Following the Republican mantra of smaller government, Van Stone believes Waterbury can become more business friendly. “Politicians don’t create jobs,” he said, “but they can create a better environment to create jobs. And the taxes in this city are too high. That’s the number one issue on the minds of the voters. Taxes.”

  And what about Larry De Pillo? He’s been on every municipal ballot since 1997, and this will be his sixth time running for mayor. De Pillo has won once in eight elections, and served one-term on the Board of Aldermen, but he has indisputably altered the political landscape in the city. De Pillo, no shrinking violet, helped launch the Independent Party in Waterbury ten years ago, and has been the most consistently outspoken community activist in the city for nearly 20 years. Why has he been so quiet?

   When I asked that question, De Pillo smirked, and accused the Observer of being in Neil O’Leary’s pocket. De Pillo said that O’Leary is a dictator and that everyone in the city is terrified of him.

   “He’s intimidated your newspaper and bought you off,” De Pillo said. “I’m the only one not afraid to stand up to the bully.”

   Hmmm, nice way to start an interview Larry, and after several minutes of a heated exchange, Larry apologized, and said, “Maybe I’m wrong.”

   After Larry and I calmed down, we continued our interview.

   “Some critics are asking why I’m running for the 6th time,” De Pillo said, “ and most of those people are lifelong Democrats or Republicans that hope Larry De Pillo and the Independent Party would just go away.”

   De Pillo said most unsuccessful mayoral candidates “vaporize into the atmosphere, but I’ve hung in there and most people are happy that I have done so. I see a difference between myself and Neil O’Leary,” he said, “and I’m determined to give the voters a choice.”

   And in the next couple of hours De Pillo was anything but quiet as he critiqued Neil O’Leary’s “dictatorship”, and told his side of the story of how the Independents and Republicans came within a whisker of forging a fusion ticket that would have created a rematch between O’Leary, and former five-term mayor, Michael Jarjura.

   If that had happened the race would have been an epic blood bath, and money would have flowed into the campaign as easily as water swirls down a drain.

   In a later interview Jason Van Stone refuted key parts of De Pillo’s story - back to that perception thing - but the end result was the same; the Independent Party and the GOP went separate ways, and instead of being partners posed for a realistic shot at toppling the Democrats from power, they are now pitted in a battle for relevance. Many political pundits, including former mayor Mike Jarjura, state the real battle of the 2013 election is a wrestling match between the two minority parties for scraps from the O’Leary machine. In essence it will be a race to see whether the GOP or Independents have more clout with the city’s electorate. One may be wiped off the political landscape, or they may divide seats on the board.

Jason Van Stone, left, listened intently to Larry De Pillo during a recent mayoral debate.

   It may be a quiet election cycle, but it’s an important one, and the results may reverberate for years to come.

   The Observer will utilize its web site www.waterburyobserver.org to zero in on specific issues during the final month of the campaign, but this article will focus on the back story of the campaign, and explore how and why we have the choices we have before the voters on November 5th.  We’ll begin the exploration with the incumbent.

Neil O’Leary
   There are only two options in most elections in America; stay the course, or change. The voters of Waterbury will decide on November 5th if they like the job Neil O’Leary has done the past two years, and if not, they will elect a new mayor. So what has he done?

   O’Leary and his economic development team have recruited 26 new companies to the city, and surprisingly, the former police officer has become a strong proponent of manufacturing.

   One of his first moves in office was to rescind a plan to use the former Chase Brass site as a Public Works campus (which would have taken the property off the grand list), and instead demolished a portion of the factory, and recruited a new manufacturing company from Norwalk to build a new facility there.

   While former mayor Michael Jarjura was reluctant to travel to promote the city, O’Leary believes this is a vital part of his job. He has attended two U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington D.C., and was appointed vice-chairmen of the manufacturing committee. O’Leary traveled to Idaho to scout out a new hospital built in Pocatello that resembled what was being proposed in Waterbury, and attended an urban design conference in Lexington, Kentucky, that prompted him to shift his focus from revamping the Green, to upgrading Library Park.

   The mayor made downtown revitalization a major focus of his administration, and despite an intense effort to hit a home run by facilitating a new $500 million hospital in downtown, and recruit Post University to expand into the vacant Sovereign Bank building, both efforts failed to materialize. Instead of home runs, they became thrilling warning track outs. (Baseball terminology)

   The revitalization of a decaying park system in Waterbury has been another theme of the mayor’s first two years. He has helped facilitate new playground equipment at Chase Park, and dramatically discovered an abandoned park on Scott Road that had 40 years of vegetation obscuring it from sight. A creative use of unemployed halfway house volunteers has cleared walking trails through the park, and in exchange the volunteers are being tutored, and several may enter a manufacturing training program that might lead to gainful employment.

   The mayor has been decisive on many fronts, and has sought creative and collaborative solutions to issues that have long haunted the city. He has waffled on other fronts, particularly regarding a promise he made two years ago to forego the $91,000 a year pension he earned from his 30-year-career in the Waterbury Police Department. O’Leary said he mistakenly made the promise so his pension wouldn’t become a campaign issue in 2011. “I made a mistake,” O’Leary said. “I made the decision for political reasons, and I hurt my family.”

  After five months in office he changed his mind and started collecting his pension. He was immediately hammered in a media fire storm, and within days O’Leary reversed course again, and said he had made another mistake, and he would honor his promise. This time around, in 2013, O’Leary said he would not make that same promise. If he is re-elected, he will re-activate his pension.

   “Most people in Waterbury know I earned that pension, and I’m going to take it,’ O’Leary said. “I left $180,000 on the table, and I’m not going to do that again.”

   In the past two years Neil O’Leary has brought a new style of leadership to City Hall. Following the ten-year reign of Michael Jarjura, who had a hands-off approach to managing city departments, O’Leary has waded into the details, and holds regular meetings with departments heads and his senior staff.

   The mayor calls it holding people accountable, but after having years of control over your department, the new style ruffled a few feathers, and directly led to the early retirement of Michael Gugliotti as police chief. Gugliotti balked at being told where to assign his officers, and when and how to discipline his men, and abruptly retired in late January.

   O’Leary denied he was micro-managing the police department, and said the collision between the two friends occurred from philosophical differences in how the department should be run.

   Whatever the truth, it was a collision that would not have happened if Mike Jarjura had been re-elected. And it came down to management style. O’Leary calls it holding people accountable, but Larry De Pillo describes the style as “a dictatorship”, and is making the O’Leary style a central theme to why he is challenging O’Leary for mayor.

   “Everyone has a different style,” O’Leary said. “I have shown and demonstrated through senior staff meetings and monthly meetings with department heads that I am committed to interacting with city employees more than previous mayors did. As far as being a dictator, the previous mayor was laid back and I’m not. I’m present every day from 8:30 am to 6 pm. We make decisions, and follow up and hold people accountable. Is that a dictator?”
  
The First Coalition
   In the 2011 municipal election Neil O’Leary won by 1700 votes, but if you added up the totals of Mike Jarjura and Larry De Pillo, the combined total would have defeated O’Leary.

   A coalition, or fusion ticket, has been explored almost every mayoral election since the surprising emergence of the Independent Party a decade ago. It really comes down to simply math – the Democrats outnumber registered Republicans and registered Independent Party voters combined, and with a three party system, the only real shot the minority parties have is in brokering a deal and joining forces against the Democrats.

  The kooky reality of the situation is that if the two parties can’t agree, they end up squaring off against each other, and become mortal enemies vying for minority seats on the Board of Aldermen, and the Board of Education. Two years ago local politics went bonkers as five-term incumbent Mike Jarjura was blocked from the Democrat nomination for mayor, so he nimbly switched parties and became a Republican.

The fiery collision between five-term mayor Michael Jarjura, left, and Neil O'Leary, right, set off explosions across the local polical landscape in 2011. A rematch in 2013 would have been another titanic showdown.

   Immediate efforts went into creating a fusion ticket with the Independent Party, with Larry De Pillo as an aldermanic candidate, and it appeared a deal was made. It would have been a formidable challenge to O’Leary and the Democrats, and looking back at the numbers, it appears that Jarjura had an excellent shot of being re-elected as the top of a coalition ticket.

   The deal splintered at the last second when De Pillo refused to cross endorse Democrat Town Clerk Chick Spinelli on the Independent Party ticket. She would have been endorsed on the Democrat slate, the Republican slate and the Independent Party slate, and she couldn't have lost. De Pillo insisted the voters have a choice. “This is suppose to be an election,” De Pillo said at the time, “not an appointment.”

   A man driven by fierce principals, De Pillo walked away from the coalition deal and ran for mayor himself. His decision baffled Jarjura and much of the political infrastructure of Waterbury. By walking away from the coalition ticket it was perceived that De Pillo was handing the election to O’Leary, and losing the alderman seat he had occupied with relish the previous two years.

The Promise
   During the final two months of the 2011 campaign De Pillo took the high road as O’Leary and Jarjura clobbered each other on a daily basis. And in the final weeks O’Leary and De Pillo appeared to be quite friendly with other. O’Leary told the Observer in late October 2011, “I’ve gotten to know Larry these past few months, and I really like the guy.”

   O’Leary liked De Pillo so much that the day after he was elected mayor he announced on WATR that he was going to hire De Pillo to be part of his administration. Later, in the WATR parking lot, I witnessed the two men shake hands right in front of me, and O’Leary promised to find a role for De Pillo in his administration. De Pillo was being acknowledged, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen Larry happier.

   Several weeks after O’Leary took office I ran into Larry and asked him how things were going. He was frustrated, he had been trying to reach O’Leary, and wasn’t getting a call back. In mid January I asked O’Leary what he was going to do with De Pillo, and he said he had been advised by several people in his administration not to hire him.

   I challenged the mayor to live up to his promise and to find a role for Larry. I have long admired De Pillo’s dogged pursuit of information, and his years as a quality control expert in manufacturing would bode well as a hatchet man for O’Leary. I suggested cutting Larry loose on city government to try and find excess fat, department by department. There would be a lot of tightened sphincters when Larry De Pillo walked into a room, and he could report back his findings to the mayor.

  O’Leary agreed, and brought Larry into his office the next day and offered him a role as an independent contractor analyzing projects, and departments. His first project was the wastewater treatment plant, and O’Leary told De Pillo to call him in three days and they would hammer out the final details. When Larry called back he couldn’t get through. When he tried to set up meetings, the mayor’s schedule wouldn’t allow it. After trying for two months, De Pillo got the picture – something had happened, and he was being stonewalled.

   Months later O’Leary told me he was strongly cautioned about bringing De Pillo into his administration, and had decided against it. Bizarrely, the mayor never had the courtesy to call Larry up and tell him the news directly. Feeling disrespected, De Pillo grew angry and began to speak out with increased passion (and anger) against issues and projects at the Board of Aldermen meetings, and on public access TV.

   De Pillo had been scorned (for the second time. Jarjura did the same thing to him in 2001), and he was pissed off. At times he and O’Leary would stand next to each other at Board of Aldermen meetings and ignore each other. I suggested several times to the mayor to pick up the phone and explain the situation to Larry, but he never did. Just a few weeks ago I told the mayor one of the mistakes of his first term in office was the way he handled Larry De Pillo. After hedging and rebuffing my comments for 20 minutes, he finally admitted, “Maybe I should have called the guy.”

   Duh.

   And now he’s O’Leary’s most outspoken political opponent, calling the mayor a dictator, a tyrant, and is in vocal opposition to every project the O’Leary administration starts.

   “Larry is against everything,” O’Leary said, “and I’d argue his cynical spiel is hurting the city. He’s become mean and offers little more than borderline hatred.”

   It might have something to do with a broken promise.

GOP Strategy
   While Neil O’Leary and Larry De Pillo were banging heads much of the past two years, Jason Van Stone, the Republican Town Chairman, had the task of trying to unite the Republican Party and offer up a homegrown mayoral candidate.

   “Four years ago we cross-endorsed Mayor Jarjura, and two years ago we had a newly minted Republican (Jarjura) on the top of the ticket,” Van Stone said. “Many people in the Republican Town Committee thought we should offer up a candidate with long standing in the party.”

   Overtures to State Rep. Selim Noujaim were rebuffed, and then GOP eyes turned again towards Mike Jarjura. Would he run again? Van Stone wasn’t sure, but he said the GOP strategy was to try and broker a deal with the Independent Party, form a coalition ticket, and then try and sell it to Jarjura.

   Van Stone said he is uncomfortable talking publicly about private negotiations the GOP conducted with the Independent Party, but felt compelled to counter the version Larry De Pillo had shared with the Observer in an effort to set the record straight.

   Van Stone said talks began with De Pillo, and they agreed that Jarjura should be the top of the ticket, and they negotiated how the nine board of aldermen candidates would be divided. Van Stone said he was fine with a 6-3 split, especially since the GOP has seven current aldermen, and the Independent Party has none. Van Stone said De Pillo asked for a 5-4 split, and Van Stone agreed to bring the idea back to his town committee (who rejected it). De Pillo’s version is they had a deal on a 5-4 split, but at the last minute the GOP tried to change the deal to make it a 6-3 split.

   De Pillo told the Observer he believes that Neil O’Leary brokered a deal with some of the GOP to harpoon the coalition, a notion that both O’Leary and Van Stone strongly refute.

   “I didn’t realize I had such power,” O’Leary laughed. And Van Stone said De Pillo is too into “conspiracy theories.”

    With no coalition, Jarjura wasn’t interested in running, and De Pillo said it had been agreed that if neither Jarjura or Noujaim ran, that the GOP would run Larry De Pillo at the top of the ticket. Van Stone refutes this, and the GOP decided to run Van Stone as their best shot at defeating O’Leary, and perhaps more realistically, keeping their minority seats on the boards. One of Van Stone’s first moves was to reach out to De Pillo and the Independents to seek a cross-endorsement.  Van Stone’s name would appear at the top of the Independent slate, and De Pillo would be free to run all nine Independent aldermen candidates.

   “If O’Leary were behind the break up then why did I ask Larry to cross-endorse me afterwards,” Van Stone said. “We still could have beaten the Democrats, and he said no, and decided to run himself at the top of the Independent Party ticket.”

   Clearly, it’s back to the perception thing. Who knows what the truth is between the two versions, but the bottom line is that Larry De Pillo walked away from a coalition deal a second time that would have given Mike Jarjura and a fusion ticket a realistic shot at winning the November 5th election.

   “Everyone thinks Neil won a huge victory in 2011,” Van Stone said, “but the truth is he didn’t even get 50% of the vote. If we put together a coalition we can beat him, but Larry blew it up again over something almost everyone else thought was a good deal. Two years ago he got hung up on a non-policy position. It was silly and I’m not sure why. Ego? Is the Independent Party a De Pillo cult? I don’t know, but that’s between Larry De Pillo and a therapist to figure out.”

   Do Jason Van Stone or Larry De Pillo have a realistic shot to unseat a powerful and well-financed incumbent? History says no, but in Waterbury anything is possible.

   Both De Pillo and Van Stone have mini-parachutes attached to their mayoral bids. De Pillo has also managed to place his name on the ballot a second time, and will be both the mayoral candidate, and a Board of Aldermen candidate on the Independent Party slate. O’Leary, Van Stone and Jarjura have all predicted De Pillo has an excellent chance at being re-elected to the Board of Aldermen, although Van Stone said running for two offices at the same time, “doesn’t pass the smell test.”

   Van Stone is currently serving a four-year term on the Board of Education, and if he loses his mayoral bid, he will still be an elected official for at least two more years.

The Watchdog
   Larry De Pillo is mad this election cycle. Is it because of O’Leary’s broken promise, or is it something else that has him all riled up?

   “I don’t like bullies,” De Pillo said. “And Neil O’Leary is a bully. He comes up with a lot of great ideas, I’ll give him that, but he doesn’t like to follow procedure. He has an idea, and then he just goes ahead and does it. Municipal government is designed to work slowly, and Mayor O’Leary doesn’t care for that, so he charges ahead with his ideas. Dictators are very efficient, but history shows us that dictatorships always end in ruin.”

Larry De Pillo, middle, listened to Neil O'Leary's economic development successes before attempting to tear the mayor's record to sheds.

   De Pillo is sharply critical of the way the Board of Aldermen has been run the past two years, and said there has been little to no opposition to O’Leary’s administration. “The checks and balances are gone,” De Pillo said, “no one is asking questions.”

   When De Pillo was an alderman from 2009 to 2011 he would single-handedly add 60 to 90 minutes to every meeting as he vetted proposals and projects and relentlessly asked questions.

   “I run to ask questions because I want to make a difference,” De Pillo said. “If the aldermen don’t want to participate in democracy they should get off the board. There is currently no opposition to Neil O’Leary. None. Either the board members don’t care, or they are intimidated by Neil O’Leary.”

   O’Leary shrugged his shoulders when told about De Pillo’s description of him.

   “Larry can call it fear or intimidation or whatever else he wants to call it,” O’Leary said. “I think it’s respect. We have a wonderful line of communication with the Republican aldermen and openly share information with them. We show them respect, and they appreciate it. As far as the fear he talks about, most employees in any job in America act a little different when the boss is around, and when the voters of Waterbury hired me in 2011, they hired a boss who is going to be around all the time. I like to hold people accountable.”

   And O’Leary said it’s the relentless negativity of De Pillo that irks him. “Where would we be as a city if we followed Larry De Pillo?” O’Leary asked. “He said no to the Palace Theater, he said no to the Rowland Building, he said no to moving UConn downtown, he said no to renovating City Hall, he’s said no to every new school, and all Larry ever does is say no, no, no, no. The job of the mayor is pulling people together, not tearing them apart.”

During a debate in the NOW Building, conducted by the Waterbury Chapter of the National Conference of Black Women, one of the questions asked each candidate to name one thing O'Leary has done right in the past two years. When De Pillo said O'Leary was right in bringing economic development into the Mayor's Office, O'Leary crossed himself, and gave a quick thanks to God. It was the first positive thing De Pillo had said about his administration in nearly two years, and O'Leary fully embraced the moment.

Transparency
   Mayor O’Leary has a rigorous schedule and shares more information with the local media than any mayor in decades. His schedule of appointments is e-mailed daily to the Republican-American newspaper, and to the Observer, and the flow of information out of his office is unprecedented, a virtual torrent.

   In ten years of the Jarjura administration the Observer had no information about his schedule and received less than a dozen press releases, about one a year, and they usually arrived around election time. In stark contrast the O’Leary administration has shared (some say controlled) information with surprising openness.

   In the past two years the Observer has received hundreds of press releases and e-mails from mayoral staffers Geraldo Reyes and Saranda Belica about flag raisings, ribbon cuttings, press conferences, community forums, and visits from various political leaders and dignitaries. O’Leary’s office has a solid presence on Facebook and Twitter, and Belica helped overhaul the city web site and pull it into the high-tech age.

   The extraordinary flow of information has made it much easier to cover the overt goings on in City Hall, the photo ops, the good news, and made it possible to know where the mayor of Waterbury is at most times of the day. The openness has resulted in greater coverage by the Observer in print, on our web site, and through social media, which has raised eyebrows in some political corners of Waterbury – mostly notably Larry De Pillo’s.

   If you rewind the past 20 years some of the harshest and most damaging articles written about Neil O’Leary have appeared in print in the Waterbury Observer, and an especially flattering one directly led to a two-hour special on NBC Dateline about the controversial rape of Donna Palomba. We have always tried to be fair.

   But fair and objective are not words often used to describe anything to do with Waterbury politics, a world that thrives on whisper campaigns and libelous flyers. Former Governor John Rowland often described city politics as a “contact sport”, but I would go a step further and say at times it more resembles a UFC cage fight – where choking, hair pulling, and eye gouging is all legal.

   And in the end it doesn’t matter what polls say, or what’s written in the Republican-American, the Observer, or what’s uttered on WATR radio or in the many debates that will unfold in the next month.

   Ultimately the fate of the three candidates will be decided on election day, and the age-old attempt to rat hole the Observer as the Bergin Gazette, or pro-Giordano, or pro-O’Leary, or as a pot smoking liberal rag sheet will be up to our readers to decide. There is no unbiased journalist alive, but a good one works hard to keep his opinions to himself, or clearly states his opinions in a column (like this one), and provides readers with information. That’s what the Observer has always tried to do.

   All that matters on November 5th is which candidate has motivated more voters to cast a vote for them. It doesn’t matter if it’s a one-vote mandate, if it’s exciting, or if 15% of the registered voters turn out at the polls. It’s democracy. If you like the job the incumbent is doing, he’ll be re-elected. If you don’t like what Neil O’Leary has done in the past two years, you’ll pull the level for Jason Van Stone or Larry De Pillo. If enough people pull those levels we’ll have a new mayor on November 5th.

   But if you’re looking for a hard clean truth in the Waterbury political process, you’ll have greater success grasping a handful of fog. Try it sometime, it will help you gain a deeper understanding of politics - it’s visible, elusive, and always changing.