Game On

Column By John Murray

Waterbury Mayor Michael Jarjura is seeking a record sixth consecutive term.

(Editor’s note – the following observations by John Murray were sharpened by dozens of interviews and conversations with political insiders throughout Waterbury)

  After serving ten years as mayor of Waterbury one might think that Mike Jarjura had a firm grip on the local Democratic Party – his party – but you’d be wrong. As we careen towards election day 2011 Mayor Jarjura faces a revolution within the Democratic Party – much of it his own creation.

   Democrats in Waterbury are a lively bunch. In-fighting is common and expected, but the storm clouds/wrecking balls heading Jarjura’s way are filled with years of frustration and broken promises, and this time they aren’t going away. Three times in the past six years Jarjura promised to not seek re-election if a political rival holstered their ambition and supported him.

   Three times – in 2007, 2009 and 2011 – he has broken that promise.

   As a consequence Jarjura now faces stiff competition within his own party, and many political insiders believe the mayor now has little shot of securing the top slot on the Democratic ticket in November. But don’t shed any tears for the mayor, he is a wily politician, who if he stays in the race will almost assuredly seek an historic sixth term in office by circumventing his political party and running as a petitioning candidate on the November ballot.

    Jarjura is a fiscally conservative Democrat who attracts Republican and unaffiliated votes in the general election. His Achilles Heel has been primaries, which he has lost twice.

   “ In a three or four person race in November I like my chances,” Jarjura said. “I could beat them with a #2 pencil.”

   The pencil refers to Jarjura’s historic re-election in 2005 when he became the fifth man in U.S. history to win a  major political office in a write-in campaign. Jarjura had lost a primary to Karen Mulcahy, petitioned to get on the November ballot, then handily defeated four opponents when the voters went to the polls with a #2 pencil and wrote in his name.

   Promises aside, most Democrats, including his top two rivals, Neil O’Leary and Paul Vance Jr., fully expected Jarjura to not seek re-election in 2011. Solidifying that belief was the mayor’s actions in 2010 when he was briefly a candidate for Governor, and Lt. Governor, before zeroing in on the State Comptroller slot. Jarjura didn’t get the nomination at the Democratic Convention but went on to primary the eventual winner, Kevin Lembo, a move that infuriated the eventual gubinatorial winner, Dannel Malloy. When it was time for Malloy to choose top Democrats to work in his administration, several sources said Jarjura wasn’t considered because Malloy didn’t view him as a team player.

   Simply put – Governor Malloy is not a fan of Mike Jarjura.

   Undaunted, Jarjura made overtures to Malloy allies in Waterbury to try and help secure him a state job. The overture was rebuffed. With his state options cut off, and with no safe landing spot, Jarjura declared in January he was seeking a sixth term in office.

   “I love Waterbury,” Jarjura said, “I look forward to continuing to serve the citizens to the best of my abilities.”

   Jarjura said it is his right to change his mind, and he believes that he is the best choice to continue to lead Waterbury in these tough economic times.

   O’Leary said Waterbury has had enough of Mike Jarjura. “We can’t continue to have a mayor who is happy with the status quo,” O’Leary said. “Waterbury is begging for someone to restore collaboration between our government and the community. We need strong leadership to achieve this. It’s time to get this city moving again.”

Neil O’Leary singing “Downtown” at his mayoral announcement.

   In 2009 O’Leary stepped aside after a high powered meeting with Jarjura and top Democratic leaders. “At that meeting, in front of a lot of people, Mike Jarjura begged me not to run,” O’Leary said. “Mike promised he would fully support me in 2011. We share a lot of friends and I didn’t want to put them in an awkward position, so I waited for two years. For what? He hasn’t done anything for the city and now he’s putting a lot of our friends in the bad spot I tried to avoid.”

   Frustrated, and angry, O’Leary declared his candidacy for mayor on February 6th in front of 500 supporters. Several current aldermen have already jumped off the Jarjura wagon and declared their support for O’Leary.

  During a recent interview with the Observer, Mayor Jarjura stated he was proud of his accomplishments as mayor. He said he had stabilized Waterbury’s finances, implemented standard accounting practices, renovated City Hall and was still the best man to run the city of Waterbury. Jarjura was also clearly upset with O’Leary’s looming candidacy, and repeatedly referred to O’Leary as “the anointed one.”

   A comment that confounds O’Leary because he says “it’s Mike Jarjura who anointed me.”

   All of this back and forth makes Paul Vance chuckle.

   “Sometimes politics is more about the drama than what we are going to do with the city,” Vance said. “Both Mike and Neil have broken promises to me. So what if Mike broke the promise he made to Neil in 2009, their deal was stupid anyway.”

J. Paul Vance Jr. lost a primary squeaker to Jarjura in 2009.

   Vance refused to back down from Jarjura in 2009 and challenged the mayor for the Democratic nomination. The Town Committee overwhelmingly supported Jarjura, so Vance took the fight to a primary and he came within a whisker of upsetting the four-term mayor.

   “I’m respectful of the Town Committee,” Vance said, “but it’s not the Town Committee that wins a primary.”

   While seeking the Democratic nomination in 2009 Vance said he received 12% support from the Town Committee, but in the primary he lost to Jarjura by six votes on the machines, and 178 votes in total.

   Vance filed exploratory papers in August 2010. He has staged no events and held no fund raisers. “I’m waiting to figure out the lay of the land,” he said. “I’m 37 years old and I’m not going to throw hand grenades at anybody.”

   Vance said he fielded an overture from the Republican Party about the possibility of running at the top of their ticket, but said he wasn’t interested. “I’m a Democrat,” he said.

   Bizarrely, it is not inconceivable that O’Leary wins the Democrat nomination and Vance and Jarjura go straight to the November election to challenge him in what could be a five man race. The other two candidates would come from the Independent Party and the Republican Party.

   Jarjura, Vance and O’Leary all stated the Democratic showdown could be staged in November’s general election. But who else might be on the ballot in November?

   Larry De Pillo has run four campaigns for mayor and might be eyeing a 5th. De Pillo is currently a alderman from the Independent Party. When the Observer contacted him for this story De Pillo explained that the Independents have a selection committee just like the Republicans and the Democrats. “My name will be in the mix, as will John Theriault and several other people,” De Pillo said.

Independent Party alderman, Larry De Pillo.

   Every election cycle fewer and fewer voters make the effort to cast a vote, and with a potential five man race in November, De Pillo said “there are not a lot of votes to go around. It would be a very tight race.”

   De Pillo, a former Democrat, said he understands the dilemma many Democrat aldermen face if Jarjura runs as a petitioning candidate in the general election. “That leaves the endorsed party candidates on the under ticket flying in the wind,” De Pillo said. “The aldermen will be looking for a home.”

   And some have already found a home with O’Leary. When Alderman Anthony Piccochi publicly come out in support of O’Leary, the mayor’s office promptly placed a call to the Republican-American newspaper to question a loan Piccochi had received from the Waterbury Development Corporation.

   The chilling message was clear – jump ship and there will be ramifications. In 2009 there were disturbing accounts of Mayor Jarjura manipulating jobs and appointments in exchange for promises of allegiance. It was political hardball, but in Waterbury a mayor often needs a stick to keep his supporters toeing the line. That’s not news.

   The Republicans are still reeling from the 2001 Giordano scandal and have had difficulty regaining traction and trust in Waterbury. In the 2009 election the Republicans chose not to run a candidate and cross-endorsed Mike Jarjura in an effort to get more Republicans on the Board of Education and the Board of Aldermen.

   Could Jarjura snag a second cross endorsement from the Republicans?

   State Representative Selim Noujaim is a prominent Republican, and according to many insiders he could mount a formidable challenge in a four or five man race, but Noujaim is focused on his family and has repeatedly said the timing is wrong for him.

   Other Republican names floated have been Jason Van Stone, Bryan Baker and Paul D’Angelo. Dennis Odle has run two mayoral campaigns, one as a Republican just months after Phil Giordano was arrested, and another six years later as the top of the Independent Party ticket. Odle is well respected in Waterbury political circles and has been a frequent business traveler to China. Is he still a Republican? Might he try a third attempt at the mayor’s seat?

   In the aftermath of the Giordano debacle many Republicans found a safe home working with the Independent Party. De Pillo said there have been talks about the Republicans and Independents “doing something together”, but “it hasn’t happened in the past ten years, and may not happen in the next ten years.”

   If the two parties joined forces, De Pillo said, the group would be as powerful as the local Democrat Party.

   So where does all this speculation lead us? Clearly into a riotous and potentially game changing 2011. Can Mike Jarjura win an unprecedented sixth term in office? Don’t count him out.

   Can Neil O’Leary parlay his tremendous accomplishments as Waterbury Police Chief into the executive seat in the newly renovated City Hall on Grand Street? Many political insiders say O’Leary is the the horse to beat.

   Can Paul Vance recreate the magic that inspired thousands of young Waterburians to support him in 2009? If he does he will be a serious threat in November.

   Can Larry De Pillo and John Theriault transform their crusade for better government into more votes in the general election? Don’t count them out either.

   And perhaps the biggest wildcard in 2011 will be what the Republicans do. Will they field a candidate? Or will they cut a deal to endorse one of the other candidates in the hopes of reviving their under ticket?

   It will be a wild and whacky year in Waterbury politics. Hopefully the drama will quickly subside and the candidates will begin to earnestly discuss city issues and the specific plans they have to lead Waterbury into the future.