To an observer of Waterbury politics, the recent municipal elections were of special interest, to say the least. The process offered a rare glimpse behind the curtain shielding the true workings of the power system from the eyes of residents. The last time we had been given this opportunity was four years ago, when a call to arms was sounded by the cabal in power. The same occurred immediately after the Democrat primary this year. This happens only when the decades old system finds itself in mortal danger.
It is naive to assume that Waterbury politics are merely based on a tacit agreement between Democrat and Republican parties – big business has been a silent partner for decades. Our city may be deep in debt, filled with brownfields, decrepit structures and deep potholes, but we are also a conduit for funds yielding large profits to a select few. Over decades the city closets have filled with skeletons and successive administrations have kept them secret, knowing that a takeover by someone other than a “team player” might have disastrous effects on the profitable setup. Larry DePillo’s repeated challenges to the system were augmented this year by Karen Mulcahy’s. Even if their respective efforts have failed to broach the defenses, they have left the system badly shaken.
Waterbury’s residents have been frequently accused of apathy. In my article in the November issue of the OBSERVER I pointed out that, historically, people in many countries have become addicted to “stability”, even though it may be robbing them of their rights and fortune. The roots of the problem are the same here. To many voters, especially the seniors, change represents uncertainty. This angle was pursued by the Jarjura campaign, with obvious success.
What has bothered me ever since the exit of the Giordano administration has been the preferential treatment of his associates. Garrett Casey retained a key position for the longest time and has been a key figure in organizing the recent Jarjura election campaign. Nick Augelli and Cathy Awwad presided over the financial collapse of the city, respectively as the president and majority leader of Giordano’s Board of Aldermen. Tom Ariola, one of the architects of our fiscal disaster, remained gainfully employed by the City until his recent indictment. Had Governor Rowland still been in power, he would have also thrown his weight behind Mike Jarjura. Thus, any future challengers of the existing system better be aware that the incumbents will use every means in their arsenal to protect it.
This game is being played right in front of our eyes. Our former governor, a couple of mayors, high officials and business leaders have meekly gone to jail, to avoid revealing the magnitude of what Mayor Jarjura calls “malfeasance”. I am certain that our judicial system is aware of what is going on, but those in power are either politically involved themselves or would rather look the other way so as not to cause any higher ups being implicated.
However relieved the cabal may be following the narrow escape, they should not fail to read the writing on the wall – the mindset of the city populace is changing. As the traditional structure is dwindling, the unwritten rules of the game will also lose their power. During the Giordano administration we witnessed a fracture in the Republican party, with Nick Augelli and Cathy Awwad being ousted from the Board of Aldermen. The challenge by Karen Mulcahy has recently fractured the Democrat Town Committee.
The outcome of the Democrat primary last September must have literally knocked out the breath from all the aspirants to the mayoral position. Everybody had to scramble and shore up their platforms to face the unpredictable bundle of energy named Karen Mulcahy.
Each of the mayoral candidates showed a distinct character. Mike Jarjura has always been a consummate bureaucrat, intent on playing it safe. His four years of administration have been typified by a group effort of building a structure insulating him from direct leadership and, hence, eventual responsibility. His great personality showed in contacts with individuals or small groups, but he has avoided acting as a leader. The City Charter was customized to fit this type of organization, allowing Mike to be shielded by the Board of Aldermen, the Waterbury Development Corporation (WDC), the Board of Education etc. Jointly with the Oversight Board, consultants were hired, studies conducted, lawyers retained and legal proceedings carried on, without accountability to the residents. Admit it, has there been an audit? Had Mike Jarjura lost the election, a black hole would have been created where responsibility would have been expected. Part of the support given Mike Jarjura had to do with keeping the status quo and keeping things under wraps for at least another two years.
During the past four years the Jarjura administration has not created a viable economic development plan. They cannot take credit for the Wolcott Street development , or revival of the Colonial and Waterbury Plazas. These are driven by the current lack of similar facilities in other Valley towns. Should Naugatuck build the proposed Renaissance Place, or a new development take place in Southbury, we would lose a lot of shoppers. The housing boom, touted as economic development by the administration, is not only temporary but also imposes a heavy load on the already strained infrastructure; it does not create permanent jobs.
What would have changed had Jarjura lost to either of the credible challengers, Larry DePillo or Karen Mulcahy? Knowing both individuals, I am certain that either of them would have assumed the leadership position from the front. Both would have been faced with problems extending beyond the scope of a two year term. Thus, they would have only one year’s time for productive work, before having to face the re-election campaign. They would have also have to deal with a loss of some key staff members.
Karen would have had to mend not only the Democrat party and face continuing opposition from the diehards within, but also deal with the Republicans. She would have also have to deal with a fractured Board of Aldermen. Here, the “tailored” City Charter would have proven a poor fit. To get things done, she would have had to compromise and lose the inertia of her platform on reorganization, Charter revisions etc. Not an easy thing to do.
Had Larry DePillo won, he would have had to face a united Democrat – Republican front, both in the city and Hartford, eager to protect the traditional system. As opposed to the sudden and meteoric rise of Karen, Larry’s political platform has been known for years. In his previous campaigns he had promoted water as a resource for pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. Having it bottled has been a logical expansion of the theme, in view of the irrefutable sales figures. People may agree or disagree with Larry on the water issue, but the potential cannot be denied. His economic development plan would certainly have steered the city toward that and other industries, which is the only way to go.
As for the Independent party itself, the election has proven its support among the voters. It ought to continue as a focus for many disgruntled taxpayers, who otherwise lack clout against the prevailing political system.
During the campaign some people speculated that “fusion” might occur between the Mulcahy Democrats, Republicans and / or the Independents. Had this happened, Mike Jarjura would have been toppled, bottomless war chest or not. The egos of leaders involved, the differences in priorities and the lack of a joint plan for the aftermath of such victory precluded any such happening.
As for the Republicans, I’m sure that they could have come up with a more realistic platform and candidate. Tom Tremaglio’s “plan” was based on wishful thinking. We all know that the premise “we must…” , on which the platform had been built, would not have got Waterbury in shape. Unfortunately, being elected Mayor does not come with a magic wand. At least the voters have seen through the muddle and elected two good individuals for aldermen.
James Ayash, the new kid on the block of Waterbury politics, has made a good impression, even though he could not offer anything definite. At least he has proven that he can articulate realistic issues; while he hones his political skills, he should lend his voice to speaking on issues at the aldermanic meetings and such. If Ryan Bingham, a 22-year old without any political past could be elected mayor of Torrington, why not treat Jim Ayash with more respect? His star may be rising.
The Concerned Citizens Party’s showing in this election should not merit a mention. In my opinion they should have stayed out of the fray and saved themselves the embarrassment. Of course, Mr. Zdonczyk, a resident of Wolcott long banned from speaking before the Board of Aldermen, has at least gained a voice by proxy. He seems to consider it a victory of sorts.
It is unfortunate that the issue of Aldermen-by-District has suffered another setback. One would think that responsible people would not have brought it up with another racial twist. We badly need a fair representation of the diverse makeup of our city, but it must be created on a constructive platform. We do not need district representatives tearing at each other over race, faith or morality. We need a new aldermanic system in which representatives of diverse neighborhoods would work in harmony, in the interest of the entire city. Let’s face it, the well -being of any one quadrant should have a positive effect on other three. If anything, the brief revival of the idea has demonstrated that nothing has been learned from the lessons of the past.
Let me close by wishing all a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and Kwanzaa! May the year 2006 be kind to us. And say a prayer for our troops and those who form the line of defense for the freedom and privileges we enjoy.