Story and Photographs By John Murray

   The first televised mayoral debate in Waterbury history occured last night inside the Waterbury Magnet Arts School (WAMS), was hosted by the Waterbury Neighborhood Council,  broadcast on Channel 96 and moderated by Fox TV journalist Laurie Perez. The candidates are from left to right, Democrat incumbent Neil O’Leary, Independent Party’s Larry De Pillo, and Republican Jason Van Stone. The debate lasted two hours and highlighted sharp differences in candidates for the audience inside WAMS to see, and for the viewing audience throughout Waterbury to hear.

  The two-hour debate covered a host of neighborhood issues ranging from electing aldermen by district, repairing sidewalks, fixing parks, economic development and city hiring practices.

  Illustrating the power of incumbency, Mayor O’Leary announced during the debate that the effort to bring Post University into downtown was not dead, and De Pillo accused O’Leary of using the debates to make news (last week the mayor made an announcement about negoiations between Waterbury Hospital and Vanguard Health Systems during a debate at the WOW Center on Walnut Street).

   Van Stone and De Pillo clashed on many issues during the debate, but both men have been in agreement in their sharp criticism of O’Leary’s effort to facilitate a new $500 million hospital in downtown Waterbury with a merger between St. Mary’s Hospital and Waterbury Hospital. O’Leary is clearly annoyed at the criticism, and has repeatedly stated he did everything within his power to make the deal happen. O’Leary has said the merger, which would have been a once in a generation opportunity for Waterbury, was harpooned by the Archbishop of Hartford who derailed the merger over abortion and women’s health services banned by Catholic hospitals.

   The debate inside WAMS Friday night was informative, and should be looped on cable access Channel 96 over the weekend. It is worth watching as Waterbury decides which of the three candidates it wants to lead the city for the next two years.

   In his sixth mayoral bid, Larry De Pillo leaves few people neutral. He is either viewed as a a champion of the oppressed and a pitbull fighting entrenched political power, or a naysayer who finds conspiracy in every issue, and opposes all initiatives to move the city forward. De Pillo is a relentless worker who digs into the minutia of contracts and proposals, and drives his political opponents batty. He is also a candidate for the Board of Aldermen on the November 5th ballot, which his two mayoral opponents say, “doesn’t pass the smell test.”

   Mayor O’Leary, left,  has been astonished and perplexed by accusations made by Larry De Pillo in every debate (there have been six so far) in the past two weeks. O’Leary claims De Pillo is making up details, and is flat out wrong in his critiques of the O’Leary administration. “How can you believe anything coming out of his mouth,” O’Leary said. “He’s just making stuff up.”

   De Pillo has accused O’Leary of skirting boards and commissions to pile-drive projects forward without proper permission.

   Last night De Pillo accused O’Leary of hijacking the Waterbury Greenway Project, and upending years of work by an advisory committee (which De Pillo is a member of). O’Leary listened to the accusation, and rebutted that he has provided leadership to the project, and has hijacked nothing.

The audience inside WAMS was comprised of community leaders and political insiders.

   O’Leary strongly defended his record of economic development in the past two years, and said he has worked hard to champion Waterbury during trips to Washington D.C., Kentucky, Las Vegas and Idaho. On several issues O’Leary simply agreed with GOP candidate Van Stone, but not once with De Pillo. O’Leary also wasn’t afraid to say he didn’t know the answer to questions about Aldermen by District, and implementing a corporate ethics ordinance into the City Charter. O’Leary said he was open to exploring both options.

   Van Stone was concerned that electing aldermen by district would be divisive and not serve the city well by “pitting neighborhoods against each other.” As a member of a previous Charter Revision Commission, Van Stone had proposed a hybrid solution that would have elected some aldermen at large, and some by district. Van Stone said the proposal was shot down by Democrats.

   De Pillo has long been an advocate for electing aldermen by district, and said that if he were elected mayor he would convene a new Charter Revision Commission to explore implementation.

   Van Stone is concerned that implementing a corporate ethics ordinance would send the “wrong message” to businesses, and De Pillo enthusiastically endorsed the concept. O’Leary, as stated above, needs to do more research on the issue.

   Van Stone and De Pillo collided over several issues. most notably in a back and forth about giving preferential treatment to Waterbury residents when hiring city employees. Van Stone said he would hire the best and most competent teachers, firemen and police officers to city jobs. If they were from Waterbury – fantastic – but residence wasn’t as important as qualifications. De Pillo vehemently disagreed, and said if he were elected mayor he would work hard to give Waterbury residents additional bonus points in the civil service process. Van Stone accused De Pillo of pandering for votes. O’Leary said he was in favor of hiring residents for city jobs, but qualifications had to trump residency. 

   Jason Van Stone displayed a sharp wit during the debate, and appeared most at ease communicating with the audience. He is a marketing specialist for a local corporation and is polished and well spoken. De Pillo is more like a punch in the face. He is direct, at times aggressive, and not afraid to tangle with anyone. De Pillo’s opponents concede that he is tenacious, but are quick to point out that Larry spends a lot of time battling phantom opponents. O’Leary can also be witty, sometimes long-winded, but is in command of his facts, and is proud to defend his administration’s track record.

  The election is on November 5th.