A message to the citizens of Waterbury from John Murray, the Publisher and Editor of The Waterbury Observer......
There has been a lot on my mind the past few weeks as the Waterbury Observer has risked its objectivity to champion systemic change in Waterbury municipal government. I’ve published the Observer for 21 years and the newspaper has never endorsed a political candidate for public office. It was our original intent to provide information to our readers and encourage them to vote. At various times in the past two decades we have been referred to as the Bergin Gazette, a Democrat rag, in the tank for John Rowland, too close to Phil Giordano and a Neil O’Leary mouthpiece.
Publishing an independent newspaper in Waterbury, a city where politics is a bare-knuckled brawl, is a tough business. Whoever is in power gets a lot of attention and coverage from the Observer, and whoever is out of office believes we’ve sold out. At any point in time there will be politicians that love us, and politicians that resent our very existence.
During the past month the Observer has decided to hurl itself behind the concept of electing aldermen by district in the city. This is an endorsement of the neighborhoods and the people who live in them. We view it as the people versus the political machines.
The issue of electing aldermen by district has kicked around Waterbury for decades, and like the Energizer Bunny, it hasn’t slowed down. It was on the ballot in 2000 and was narrowly shot down 11,100 to 10,800 in a contentious and racially charged vote. The Waterbury Neighborhood Council waged an effective campaign to present the issue to voters as a neighborhood issue that would bring direct accountability into every neighborhood in the city. In the current at-large model of electing aldermen 50% of the city has no direct representation on the board, while several neighborhoods have three and four aldermen. The issue is one of fairness.
In the last few weeks of the 2000 campaign, feeling threatened by a loss of power, political insiders from both parties opposed the initiative and smeared the concept as a minority issue, and whisper campaigns (always effective in Waterbury) inferred that the blacks and Hispanics were trying to take over the city. It was ludicrous, but the dirty tactic worked, and aldermen by district lost by a whisper.
The Observer is a very small business and for most of the past decade it has been a one-man operation, me. In the past few years, in-between travel and volunteering, my daughter Chelsea has been a tremendous help selling ads and distributing newspapers. She has now decided to climb aboard full-time at the Observer, so the newspaper has two full time staffers, a major growth spurt. We are a father/daughter team creating a community newspaper in Waterbury. When the Observer hurls its weight behind an issue we don’t have an army of employees behind us, and we have a fraction of the distribution of the Republican-American newspaper. What we do have, I believe, is a credibility and trust with the community. In championing the aldermen by district concept we are opposing both political party machines and throwing our support to the neighborhoods in the city. We are with the people.
Why? Because we believe that the political process in the city is rigged to help the powerful – not the neighborhoods - and that the current model is more beneficial to special interests, developers, banks and the two political machines in the city. This is not meant as a swipe towards current Mayor Neil O’Leary or the 15 current members serving on the Board of Aldermen. Our distrust of the political system is not targeted towards any individual, but towards 100 years of disservice to the community. Three of our past six mayors have been indicted, and municipal government in Waterbury appears to be under constant FBI scrutiny. Allegations of contract steering, bribes, mafia infiltration and police corruption have floated around for decades. In the 2011 election one of the candidates was accused of being a landlord for a sex slave operation. The culture of politics in Waterbury for 100 years has been undeniably wicked. The political scene in Waterbury is littered with shakedown artists, con men, and unscrupulous wheeler-dealers whose only goal is to feed at the public trough. Information is power, and most of the players have the goods on the other players, and they exchange favors to keep everyone in the game.
If you truly believe that the political process in Waterbury has served the people well for the past 50 years, stop reading, and cast a no vote on aldermen by district on November 4th.
If you are unsatisfied with Waterbury politics and the fact that half the population has no direct representation on the Board of Aldermen, pour yourself a cup of coffee, and plunge onward.
Neighborhood groups mobilized to oppose a trash to energy plant in the South End of Waterbury. A shining example of people rallying together against the machine.
Right now the aldermen are elected at large and their ultimate loyalty is to their political party, not to the people. Aldermen by district is a better concept to govern a city that has a long history of systemic corruption. There is not another city in America that we have been able to find that elects its aldermen at large, with a minority set aside. When voters walk into the voting booth you get to vote for 9 aldermen, yet 15 are elected. For most of the past 100 years there have been 9 Democrats on the ballot, and 9 Republicans, and 15 end up in office. That is an 83% chance of getting elected. Unlike most other cities and towns in America, in Waterbury, if you get your name on the ballot, you have a ridiculously excellent chance of being sworn into office. The candidates are vetted by the political machines and loyalty is paramount.
One candidate for the board of aldermen in 2011, Raechel Guest, went through the screening process and told me she answered the questions from her heart. She was presented a few scenarios and asked how she would vote. Her answers were independent and honest, and apparently not in lock step with the Democrat Party thought process. One of the questioners, Ron Napoli, a former aldermen and mayoral candidate, told me later that Raechel was a very impressive candidate, but she was “politically naïve” when she told the questioners that she would vote her conscious. Despite being a highly educated candidate living on Wood Street in the North End of the city, Raechel was passed over as a candidate. Why? She was too independent.
Not every candidate goes through this same litmus test, but the ones outside the box do. And once an alderman is sworn in their allegiance, historically, is more to the political machines than the people. The number of 9-6 votes that have occurred the past 100 years is numbing. On local issues of great importance there is scant difference between a Republican and a Democrat. The skirmishes inside municipal government are more about power and control than ideology.
Former GOP alderman Tom Tremaglio has repeatedly said the current system is dysfunctional. He told the Observer in 2005 when he ran for mayor that aldermen need clerical help to effectively perform their duties. Huge packets of information are presented to the aldermen minutes before they are expected to cast a vote on a project. Their votes are guided by party leaders, and in most cases by the mayor, be it a Republican or Democrat in office.
There is not raucous debate at the Board of Aldermen as most of the issues have been hashed out behind closed doors and in caucus rooms.
And if the aldermen owe their job security to a political machine, who or what does the machine owe its allegiance to? The machine loyalty is to ethnic groups and neighborhoods that support them, to lawyers and developers who donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to their campaign war chests, and to the unions and city employees who deliver the vote on election day.
Mayor O’Leary told the Observer last month that if unrepresented neighborhoods want more respect, they need to vote. That is an old school concept. When half the city has no direct representation on the Board of Aldermen the looming question is why? It’s become a city of haves and have nots. There are tens of thousands of Waterbury residents that have been systematically disenfranchised. They have little or no reason to vote because they have been cut out of the process.
Back in the 1980s community development money earmarked for the inner city was used to purchase a new fire truck in Town Plot. In the past 100 years money targeted for inner city infrastructure has been siphoned away and invested in roads and sidewalks in the more affluent neighborhoods.
In the 1990s David Gilmore was hired in a community development project to identify and demolish blighted homes. Gilmore went around the inner city and created a huge collage of homes in need of demolition. Gilmore had a budget to mange and he used the money to tear down homes. In the middle of winter Gilmore received a phone call from Mayor Mike Bergin’s office asking how much money he had left in the account. When he said zero, he was scolded, called on the carpet, and eventually fired. The money was needed for sand and salt to plow the streets and revealed a technique municipal leaders had been employing for decades – swipe the money targeted for the hood and provide better services to the neighborhoods that vote.
This process kept the mil rate down, kept the affluent neighborhoods happy, kept politicians in office, and directly led to a downward spiral in the inner city. With no direct representation on the legislative body of Waterbury, the neglected neighborhoods had no voice in the process. There was no one to champion their neighborhood issues, no one to champion them.
Whether they vote or not, every neighborhood and every person in Waterbury deserves direct representation on the Board of Aldermen.
While wrestling with this issue of fairness and accountability I had the unique opportunity to travel to Boston on November 1st to listen to the Dalai Lama speak about compassion and the need to develop our minds and hearts. The Dalai Lama was the spiritual and political leader of Tibet when his country was invaded by China in the 1950s. The Chinese murdered more than one million monks and nuns and destroyed 6000 monasteries in Tibet, forcing the Dalai Lama to flee to India where he set up a government in exile. Instead of launching an armed struggle with China, the Dalai Lama has been steadfast in trying to resolve the conflict with compassion and peace. In 1989 the Dalai Lama was awarded the Noble Peace Prize for his non-violent approach to Chinese aggression. Now 79, the Dalai Lama continues to travel across the world to teach about compassion and the need to develop our inner spirituality.
I have met the Dalai Lama twice in India, and attended several of his public talks in New York City. I’ve read some of his books, listened to his audiotape, “The Art of Happiness” about 100 times. The man inspires me. As I sat listening to this gentle and loving man talk I found myself applying his concepts to the issue facing Waterburians on November 4th. The Dalai Lama told the crowd the true path to happiness wasn't about material wealth, money and power; but an inner development where we can treat each other with compassion, and that we are all the same.
“Everyone the same,” he said, “We all want the same thing. We all want to be happy.”
After pouring himself out for more than an hour the Dalai Lama said that if anything he said could be of help to please use it in our lives. He paused, and said if his message didn’t resonant, “fuck it”. He then waved his hand at the crowd and walked away from the microphone.
The audience gasped. Did the Dalai Lama really just drop the F-Bomb? Then several thousand people burst out laughing and erupted in spontaneous applause.
On the way home I thought a lot about the message I'd just heard, about the need for all of us to watch out for the least among us. When I got home I googled Dalai Lama and the F-Bomb and found numerous references to a speech he gave at Brown University where thousands of people had heard one of the most respected and philosophical beings on the planet utter, “fuck it.”
Upon further reading I found that the Dalai Lama had not said, “fuck it”, but had actually said “Forget” in a thick accent, and it had sounded exactly like the F-Bomb.
After pouring myself out this past month trying to champion aldermen by district and explain as best I could the need for fairness and equality in every neighborhood of Waterbury, I leave you with this thought – I hope you vote for change on November 4th, I hope our argument to return power to the neighborhoods resonates and that you vote yes on question #3 on the ballot.
We’ve given it our best shot and hope that whatever credibility The Waterbury Observer has built in the past two decades means something to the citizens of this city. And lastly, I’m no Dalai Lama, if you choose to do nothing to defang the political machines that have strangled Waterbury, fuck it.