Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary and his wife, Kathy, after he was sworn in for his 4th term in 2019.
Story and Photographs By John Murray
Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary announced this afternoon that he will not seek re-election for an historic 5th term in office. O’Leary made the announcement at the Greater Waterbury Chamber of Commerce’s annual Mayoral Luncheon in front of 400 business and community leaders.
After 12 years at the helm, O’Leary is the longest continuous-serving mayor in Waterbury history. At 64 years of age, and with 43 years of public service in Waterbury, O’Leary said the city is in good shape and he wants to spend more time with his family and friends.
“I kind of made the decision in the Fall,” O’Leary told the Observer. “I’ve been thinking about retiring, and if I ran again I would be 69 years old at the end of that term. I couldn’t imagine that.”
O’Leary’s father passed away at 73 years of age, a grim reality that factored into his decision.
“I’ve been on call seven days a week for 43 years,” O’Leary said. “I really want to spend more time with my kids, and my brothers and sisters. It’s time.”
O’Leary looked over at his children, Patrick and Maggie, during the Democrat Convention in July 2011.
Stepping off the stage was not an easy decision for a man who has wielded enormous influence in Waterbury for three decades; first as a politically-connected detective who was best friends with the mayor, then as chief of police for five years, and most significantly, the mayor for the past 12 years.
“I really love this job,” O’Leary said. “I’ve spent my entire adult life here. But I just felt like I’m very comfortable that the city is in a really strong place, so the timing is good.”
O’Leary did purchase new golf clubs last Autumn, but he plans to continue to work, perhaps a 9-5 job, Monday through Friday, with evenings and weekends off.
“I’m not going anywhere,” O’Leary said. “I don’t plan to move out of Waterbury. I plan to be part of the fabric of the community, and I plan to be around in any way that I can continue to support this city, whether it’s on a board or commission, or just an advisor to whoever the next mayor is.”
O’Leary ticked off a few names that he thought might emerge as candidates to succeed him, and said he was comfortable that whoever wins, they would be able to continue the projects he has started.
O’Leary announced he was running for mayor in 2011 and ended the event by singing “Downtown” by Petula Clark.
During an interview before the 2011 election O’Leary stated if he won he would only serve two terms in office (which would have been a total of four years). Once in office, though, he discovered the process of structural change was painstaking, frustrating, and if he were to make real progress he had to continue grinding away. And what he managed to accomplish by staying an additional eight years in office is extraordinary.
Consider; a complete upgrade of the Waterbury train station, added passenger and freight service on the Waterbury-Bridgeport line, a renovation of the Green, a make-over of Library Park, building a new Public Works campus, helping transition the Howland-Hughes Company into Post University on Bank Street, upgrading the East Main Street corridor, investing in new playscapes and splash pads for every park in the city, and 75% of a Greenway through Waterbury is funded with the first section scheduled to open this Spring. O’Leary has also been instrumental in bringing community festivals and celebrations back into Waterbury; The Gathering, JazzFest, and Main Street’s annual beer and BBQ event.
O’Leary’s most enduring work, his legacy, will be his mastery of the Brownfield remediation process. Before he was even elected he traveled to Pennsylvania to a Brownfield Conference, and after being sworn in on December 1st, 2011, he hit the ground running.
With the help of Governor Dan Malloy, Governor Ned Lamont, and federal and state legislators, O’Leary has led the transformation a burnt shell of Nova Dye into a new ball field and park on Mill Street. The crumbling structures of Anamet on South Main Street were purchased by the city, demolished, the site remediated, and in the next few weeks a new project will be announced that will transform the South End. The Waterbury Button Company is also being demolished on South Main Street.
The demolition of the former Anaconda Brass Company along Freight Street will be completed this summer.
Perhaps the biggest success of his 12 years in office, and the one he has called his, “Aha moment”, is the efforts to clean up Freight Street and transform it into another downtown area nestled up against the western side of the train station.
“We got some things done and I’m proud of our accomplishments,” O’Leary said. “I’m in a really cool place. I’m very happy. I’m going miss this job, my office people, and my friends, but the truth is it’s time for the next the next chapter of my life.”