Two Popular Aldermen Tangle In State’s 73rd District Race

Democrat Ron Napoli Jr, left, and Republican Steve Giacomi

Story and Photographs By John Murray

    If you held a crystal ball and peered into Waterbury’s political future it would not be surprising to see a mayoral showdown in the next decade between Republican Steve Giacomi and Democrat Ron Napoli Jr.. They are young, popular and ambitious, and both men were indoctrinated early into the political process as boys visiting their father’s political headquarters.

   Political pundits can put down that crystal ball because the showdown is now in the 73rd District as the two men tangle for the right to replace legislator Jeff Berger, who is retiring after serving 18 years in Hartford. At stake is the right to represent the Bunker Hill, Robinwood, Overlook and Waterville neighborhoods in the state legislature, but the results of this contest could reverberate across the political landscape in Waterbury for decades to come.

   Napoli is 43 years old and has lived in the 73rd District his entire life. He is a history teacher at Wilby High School in Waterbury, is currently engaged to Lysa Margiotta, and has served on the Board of Aldermen for five terms. Napoli is President Pro Tempore of the board, which means he holds the second most influential post behind Paul Pernerewski, who is the President of the Board of Aldermen. The Democrats have a 10-5 majority on the board.

Ron Napoli Jr. has promised to seek car tax reform in Hartford.

   When you shake it all out Mayor Neil O’Leary holds the most sway in the city as the top ranked elected official. O’Leary, Pernerewski and Napoli are Democrats, and they hold the most influential positions inside the decision making process inside Waterbury City Hall.

  Giacomi, a Republican, is 40 years old and is a business teacher at Oxford High School. Steve and his wife Kayla have a one-year-old daughter, Avery, and the couple is expecting a son. Steve is the Republican Minority Leader on the Board of Aldermen and has served on the board since 2011.

  Giacomi and Napoli have different roles on the board; Ron’s is basically to support Mayor O’Leary’s initiatives and proposals, and Steve’s role is to challenge the process and he has been a vocal opponent of the O’Leary administration for the past few years.

   Both men are vigorous campaigners and have been knocking on doors throughout the district for months. Giacomi has a map in his headquarters on Watertown Avenue that shows every street he has walked, and the district is almost completely colored in by magic marker. Napoli has tested the leather on the bottoms of his shoes as well as both candidates shake hands, try to answer any questions, and tend to constituent problems as they campaign through the neighborhoods.

   Both candidates clearly state that the #1 issue on voter’s minds is the state of the economy in Connecticut and the high rate of taxes. How they would address these concerns is where the candidates begin to create space between themselves.

   Depending on which expert you talk to Connecticut either has a spending problem or a revenue problem, or perhaps a bit of both. The Republican mantra across the land is to ease restrictions on business and to tighten up spending, and not surprisingly Steve Giacomi falls right in line with that philosophy.

   “The state has been mismanaged for years,” Giacomi said. “We can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing because it isn’t working.”

Steve Giacomi said he will not focus on car tax reform, but on reducing all taxes in Connecticut.

   Giacomi is against any initiative to install tolls on state roads and simply calls it another tax. Napoli said there is a serious infrastructure problem in Connecticut that must be addressed and he was open to listening to the argument for tolls as a revenue producer. Both men have read the report released last March from the Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth (Webster Banks’s Jim Smith was co-chairman of the commission), and both men have sought counsel from Smith. Giacomi has met with Smith to talk specifics and Napoli is the process of setting up a meting to discuss the commission’s findings in detail.

   Smith told the Observer that the commission’s work was non-partisan and that he would not endorse any candidates running for the legislature. Smith said he supports anyone who is interested in the commission’s work and conclusions, and he has met with every candidate for governor, many state representatives and civic organizations.

   “We are trying to advance the work of the commission without being political,” Smith said. “And we hope to keep the ideas we developed in the election debate. We are going to be hard to shake.”

   Neither Napoli or Giacomi state they have the solution to the fiscal crisis in Hartford, and both want to keep an open mind to learning and implementing recommendations from Smith’s commission.

   A looming and contentious issue for the next legislative session to consider is legalizing recreational marijuana in Connecticut. Napoli believes pot is a gateway drug and is “very concerned” about the opioid crisis that is ravaging the country.

   “The opioid problem doesn’t discriminate and got me to rethink the issue,” Napoli said. “I tend to link drug use to addiction, but I’m a teacher and I’m willing to listen and learn as the debate unfolds.”

   Giacomi said he is open to the legalization of recreation marijuana in Connecticut and said he had been swayed by passionate arguments from friends that made him reconsider his stance.

   Napoli has promised to tackle the motor vehicle tax issue as his top priority in Hartford. As it stands now car owners in Waterbury pay considerably higher taxes than a suburban resident who owns the exact same car. “It’s not fair to the residents in Waterbury,” Napoli said. “And I will continue to fight for change in the way we are taxed.”

   Retiring legislator Jeff Berger led the fight for car tax reform in Hartford, but the program the state implemented a few years ago ran out of money and has become an unfunded mandate. Napoli wants to explore ways to find ways to fund the program (which evens the playing field on car taxes) by plumbing around in the exemptions and credits list, which he said may potentially have considerable funding dollars.

   Giacomi said that all sounds nice, but his focus will be working to lower all taxes in Connecticut. “Having the city subsidized in car tax payments by raising the sales tax is not true tax relief,” he said. “All we’re doing is raising a tax to lower a tax.”

   If you’re an undecided voter in the 73rd District how are you going to make a decision on which candidate to support on November 6th. Is there one issue that will make or break your support? Tolls? Car taxes? Marijuana?

   To Giacomi it’s simple, “Put all the good guy stuff aside,” he said. “Do you want a leader with a background in business who is willing to fight, compromise when needed, and not be another member of the pack? That’s me.”

   To Napoli it’s also simple, “I know this district because I’ve spent my entire life here. I had a newspaper route and know the people. My Mom and Dad still live in the neighborhood. I attend all the neighborhood meetings and organize clean-ups with my students every year to improve the quality of life here. I’m a neighborhood guy.”

   A candidate with a finger on the pulse of the neighborhood? Or a fighter with a business background?

   In the end it may come down to a few dozen votes one way or another. Who knocked on more doors, who made more telephone calls, who had more lawn signs or who had a better debate on WATR. If you pick that crystal ball back up and peer into the night of November 6th, one of these two fine young men will be deliriously happy, while the other will feel a Mike Tyson punch in the gut.

   Registered voters in the 73rd District, it’s your choice, and all of Waterbury will feel the ripples of your decision in the years to come.