Story By John Murray
The Waterbury Observer has confirmed that Waterbury Mayor Michael Jarjura is switching political parties and will head the Republican ticket in November. The official announcement was originally scheduled for Wednesday, May 25th, but when two top GOP lawmakers – Tony D’Amelio and Selim Noujaim – couldn’t make it, the press conference was re-scheduled for May 31st, at Waterbury City Hall.
Jarjura is the incumbent five-term mayor and has won ten general elections in Waterbury, all as a Democrat. A sixth Democratic nomination for mayor was derailed by a promise Jarjura broke to former Waterbury Police Chief, Neil O’Leary, who stepped aside in 2009 when the mayor vowed it would be his last term.
Two years later Jarjura has changed his mind.
Neil O’Leary hasn’t.
A scuffle inside the Democrat Party quickly went O’Leary’s way, and in early February he had effectively won the support of the Democratic Town Committee, and the endorsement of the top two Democratic aldermen – Paul Pernerewski and Tony Piccochi. A promise was a promise, the thinking went, and Mike Jarjura was being held accountable for his promise.
Shockingly, and almost overnight, Mike Jarjura had the Democrat rug yanked from beneath his feet. He was the captain without a ship. Rumors swirled that Jarjura was trying to land a job in Governor Dannel Malloy’s administration, or might return to help run the family produce business, Jarjura Farms.
Jarjura’s political career appeared over, but instead of limping off the playing field he’s snarling and getting ready for battle. It was six years ago that a lethargic Jarjura lost a Democrat primary to Karen Mulcahy. The loss aroused a competitive fire in Jarjura and he stormed back to win an historic write-in campaign that convinced 8000 voters to scribble in his name with a #2 pencil.
The victory was the fifth time in United States history that a candidate won election to major political office with a write-in campaign.
The circumstances are different, but Jarjura’s response to being backed into a corner is the same – he’s going to fight.
“I’m tired of getting screwed by the Democrats,” Jarjura said. “And really, who has abandoned who? It’s time to do what I need to do.”
During a one-hour interview with the Waterbury Observer on Thursday, May 26th, Jarjura said everything but an outright declaration of his intent. He said he would make his decision official during a press conference at 10:30 am, in City Hall, on Tuesday, May 31st.
Two sources inside the Republican Party told the Observer that Jarjura was offered the top slot on the GOP ticket, but only if he switched political parties. The sources confirmed that the Republican Town Committee was adamant that Jarjura become a Republican, and they also confirmed that Jarjura appeared to have no problem with switching. The sources also said that the current Republican nominee for mayor, Bryan Baker, has agreed to step aside if Jarjura accepted the arrangement.
While reluctant to say the “R” word during the Observer interview, Jarjura admitted he has no chance of winning the Democrat nomination for mayor, and has explored options from staging a Democrat primary, to running as a petitioning Democrat in November, to joining forces with either the Republican or Independent parties, or both.
“Why do I have to rush out of City Hall,” Jarjura asked. “I’m young. I’m only 50 years old.”
Jarjura said there are several versions of what happened in the closed door meeting two years ago with O’Leary and party leaders. “Everyone has their own version of what happened at that meeting,” Jarjura said. “And I have the right to change my mind.”
Citing solid city finances, no controversy, and major projects underway, Jarjura said there is no reason why voters shouldn’t return him to office. And he openly talked political strategy.
“If I run as a Republican we’d be a powerhouse in the East End with Selim and Mike Jarjura,” he said. “The 71st district has always leaned Republican, and with Tony D’Ameilio, Jerry Padula and Mike Jarjura we’ll be tough to beat. The election will come down to the 73rd district. That will be the battleground. They have the Napolis, the Corbetts, Paul Pernerewski and Jeff Berger. It will be a great battle.”
Neil O’Leary said he’s excited about the campaign, too, and looks forward to giving Waterbury voters a choice in November. “All we can do is share our vision of the future and make sure the voters know what the differences are between the candidates. Then it’s up to the citizens.”
With Jarjura out of the Democrat field, O’Leary still has to contend with former aldermanic president, J. Paul Vance Jr., who came within a whisker of knocking off Jarjura in a primary two years ago. When Vance was asked what the Jarjura switch means to his mayoral aspirations, he said “Nothing. This doesn’t change a thing for me. Before it was a small group of people making a deal, and now this is just another small group of people making another deal. The only backroom deal I make is with my son over how late he can stay up.”
Vance plans to seek the Democratic nomination this summer, but if he doesn’t get it, he said he is considering running in November as a petitioning Democrat.
Jarjura and Vance both acknowledge that O’Leary had a blazing start to the 2011 election campaign, but both men believe O’Leary has already peaked. “I’m hoping to peak in November,” Vance said. “This shouldn’t be a coronation for anyone.”
Republican State Representative Tony D’Amelio said it was thrilling news to hear that Jarjura was going to make the switch to the GOP. “Mike has always had strong Republican support in Waterbury,” D’Amelio said, while taking a break Thursday night at the State Capital. “We cross-endorsed Mike last election. He’s fiscally conservative and his views line up with ours. This move makes perfect sense.”
A further twist in this already interesting 2011 mayoral campaign hinges on the Independent Party and its leadership, Mike Telesca and Larry De Pillo. During the interview with Jarjura on May 26th he said the deal making might not be over yet. While nothing is close to being ironed out, Jarjura said there were overtures being made by Republican Party Chairman, Bill Harris, to the Independent Party, to form a hybrid ticket between Republicans and Independents to challenge the Democrats.
Independent Party vice-chairman Larry De Pillo confirmed that while there had been “friendly discussions from time to time about forging a combined ticket, there had been no formal talks yet.”
De Pillo said the formal conversations would occur when he and Independent Party Chairman Mike Telesca meet with Republican Chairman Bill Harris. “That hasn’t happened yet,” De Pillo said, “but we are willing to meet with both the Republicans and the Democrats.”
Jarjura said, “There are no surprises in Waterbury politics. Waterbury has never been about political party. In this city it’s about people.”
And Jarjura’s political rebirth could signal the rebirth of the GOP in Waterbury, which has been disoriented and ineffective since the last Republican mayor, Phil Giordano, was imprisoned on federal sex charges in 2001.
Perhaps Tony D’Amelio summed up the GOP position best when he said, “Who do the Democrats think they are trying to decide the 2011 race two years ago in a backroom deal? That offends me as a voter. Having Mike Jarjura on the top of our ticket is good for the Republican Party. I’m happy, This is a great thing for Waterbury.”
And it will be interesting.