Story and Photographs By John Murray
Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary doesn’t listen to a lot of music, but if he did, a song by the Brittish punk band, The Clash, would aptly describe the tangle inside his head the past month. The song is titled, Should I Stay Or Should I Go.
Today is decision time for O’Leary who will announce his plans for re-election during a 1 pm show on WATR radio. For months he has been undecided whether he was seeking re-election. The issue has bounced around his head like a tennis ball at Wimbledon until he made the decision to not run on Tuesday. Senior advisors were told, and O’Leary began making a long list of telephone calls to top political leaders in Connecticut.
The Observer had three sources that confirmed the mayor was out, and when we reached out to him for comment, he texted back Tuesday night that he had “NOT” yet made a final decision. He said he was struggling to find the right thing to do.
Insiders said O’Leary had made the decision not to run, but when a powerful political opponent, Michael Jarjura, heard the news and started reaching out to major fundraisers, O’Leary immediately reconsidered.
Friends and family have advised O’Leary to find a less demanding job, but he is hesitant to walk away from the dozens of projects he has initiated just as the dominoes are starting to fall. O’Leary’s uncertainty was expressed before the suicide of his close personal friend, Christopher Corbett, the deputy chief of the Waterbury Police Department.
During the eulogy at Corbett’s funeral on June 16th, Mayor O’Leary described Corbett as a brother and a son, and was devastated by loss and grief. If O’Leary were 50-50 about seeking re-election before Corbett’s tragic death, it would not be surprising if the event tilted the scale towards finding a new and less stressful path.
For more than 30 years Neil O’Leary has been a public servant in Waterbury as a policeofficer, board of education commissioner, and for the past three and a half years, the mayor. O’Leary is exhausted, and for the past few months he has been exploring the political ramifications if he decided to not seek a third term in office this November.
O’Leary’s main concern is who would replace him. Who was going to shepherd the ongoing state and federal projects worth more than $50 million? Who was going to continue his intense focus on downtown revitalization?
The man Neil O’Leary wants to succeed him, Board of Aldermen President Paul Pernerewski, is unwilling to run until he is fully invested in his state pension (two years from now). O’Leary, seeking a viable alternative, was unsuccessful in an attempt to recruit former ESPN executive Chuck Pagano to throw his hat into the political ring. If O’Leary didn’t run, who was the most likely candidate to be the next mayor?
And the overwhelming choice by most political insiders is former five-term mayor, Michael Jarjura, the man O’Leary ousted in 2011. During that campaign O’Leary and Jarjura scorched each other with personal and professional allegations, and the former friends waged one of the nastiest elections in Waterbury history. Jarjura accused O’Leary of being a bully who was under investigation by the FBI, and O’Leary accused Jarjura of laziness, being a landlord of a brothel, and using the office of mayor to forward his personal business interests as a developer.
Former five-term mayor, Mike Jarjura, right, is poised to re-enter local politics.
It was a slugfest, and despite a thaw the past four years, considerable animosity still exists between the two men. Adding to the problem for O’Leary is the issues that could pop up under a sixth Jarjura term. For starters, Jarjura has a strained relationship with Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy who has partnered with the city in the “Waterbury Next” project. The Jarjura- Malloy problem started in 2010 when Jarjura broke his word to Malloy and primaried Kevin Lembo for state comptroller. Jarjura then tried to leverage a state job from Malloy to not run for a sixth term (clearing the way for O’Leary), but Malloy rebuffed the overture (delivered by O’Leary). Ten months later Jarjura switched parties from Democrat to Republican and many of his former colleagues no longer trusted him.
In the past two months Jarjura switched back to the Democrat Party and has announced his intention to seek a seat on the Board of Aldermen this November. Jarjura wants back into politics, and if O’Leary doesn’t run, many expect Jarjura would run for mayor, and win.
Additionally, the centerpiece of the O’Leary administration has been revitalizing downtown Waterbury. There are a dozen projects on the cusp of popping and there is a concern that Jarjura would take his eye off downtown and focus again on East End development projects.
Insiders have told the Observer that Governor Malloy has encouraged O’Leary to seek a third term. O’Leary met privately with U.S. Senator Chris Murphy yesterday afternoon after a Brownfield tour and it is unknown what counsel or encouragement Murphy gave to O’Leary. The mayor looked tired yesterday and admitted he hasn’t been sleeping much as he wrestled with his decision.
Kevin Del Gobbo is O’Leary’s right hand man in city government and he told the Observer yesterday he had advised O’Leary to do what was right for the mayor and his family. Del Gobbo acknowledged the situation was in flux and has prepared statements for O’Leary that would cover either scenario. He may decide right on the spot during the radio show, Del Gobbo said, and O’Leary was prepared for either scenario.
So is Neil O’Leary in or out?
When you boil the issue down it comes to this –running for a third term might not be best for Neil O’Leary, but to many in the city, and the Governor, it’s in the public’s best interest. We suspect that at 1 pm today, Neil O’Leary, seeing no viable and palatable alternative, will announce his intention to seek re-election in November.