The unofficial start of the campaign season in Stamford is still months away. But, one thing about this year’s mayoral race is certain. Unless the incumbent, Dannel P. Malloy, does an unlikely about-face and abandons his ambition to become the next Governor of the state of Connecticut, someone else will be elected mayor of Stamford this coming November.
THE REIGNING CHAMP
Dan Malloy first took office in 1995 when he defeated two-term Republican Mayor Stanley Esposito. At the time, Stamford’s voters also approved an increase in the length of the mayor’s stay in office from two to four years, effective the next election cycle. So, when Malloy was sent back to the government center in 1997, he enjoyed double the number of days that any of his predecessors had to deliver on campaign promises to further reduce crime and boost investment in the city’s schools and infrastructure. Apparently, he used the time successfully, because Malloy ran unopposed for reelection in 2001 when local Republicans were unable to field a candidate.
In 2005, however, the GOP sensed an opportunity when the incumbent mayor attempted to both retain his office for a fourth term and enter the Democratic Gubernatorial Primary as his party’s endorsed candidate. After a false start, when their initial choice, Samuel Sigler, revealed that he had an arrest record, the Republicans convinced long-time Stamford resident Christopher D. Munger to step up to the plate. When Malloy lost his primary bid to New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr., he returned to face not one, but three opponents in the local race: Chris Munger, Green Party candidate, Darek Shapiro, and Achille Fiore who ran as a “petitioning candidate” (a registered write-in candidate) until he threw his support to Munger. Malloy held onto the title of mayor, but with the smallest margin of victory in his four campaigns.
As early as November of last year, there were rumblings from the Republican Town Committee that they would not only mount a serious effort to reclaim the mayor’s office for the GOP, but would begin to do so immediately. In apparent response, Malloy made public his intention to seek a fifth term as the city’s chief executive, while remaining coy about his plans for another run for Governor. By year’s end, Republican Michael Pavia had filed with the Town Clerk’s Office to form an exploratory committee and the game began to change. Soon thereafter, Malloy also submitted paperwork for a gubernatorial exploratory committee, stating that he would not stand for reelection if he decided to run for Governor. Board of Finance member Timothy Abbazia (D) followed suit by filing with the Town Clerk to test the waters for a mayoral bid. And then, Board of Representatives President David Martin (D) decided to skip the formalities and simply announced his candidacy for mayor in late February.
After fourteen years of Democratic rule under the leadership of Dannel Malloy, the very real possibility suddenly exists that the complexion of Stamford politics will change in 2009. Yet, each of the declared candidates has been involved in the city’s government for a good long time.
David Martin’s association with the Board of Representatives dates back twenty-five years and, along the way, has involved serving on quite a few of that organization’s committees. Among other positions, Michael Pavia can list acting as the Stamford’s Public Works Commissioner and Police Commissioner on his resume. And, even though he’s the youngest of the candidates at 46, Tim Abbazia joined the Board of Finance in 2001, after having spent four years on the Stamford Planning Board. Both Abbazia and Pavia have also logged time on the Board of Reps.
How would their administrations differ from a fifth Malloy term? And is change really necessary or even desirable? To get a sense of what the three declared candidates were thinking, Stamford Plus Magazine spoke with each of them individually to determine what they believe will be the deciding issues in this year’s election.
We began by asking what motivated the candidates to enter the race. Surprisingly, it wasn’t a desire to champion a particular cause or address any one problem. “I’m sick and tired of people liking me,” joked Mike Pavia, adding seriously. “I just want to do what’s right. I have a very clear perspective on what public service should be all about. I see the opportunity to take Stamford to the next level.”
The Democrats in the running sounded much the same tone. “We’re at a critical time in Stamford,” Tim Abbazia began. “I’m very passionate about the city. As a third generation resident, I feel that this is the best way for me to give back.” David Martin echoed Abbazia’s sentiments. “I think it’s important for all of us to give back to our community. Stamford needs somebody with my background, vision and leadership experience to lead us through these turbulent times and keep us moving forward. In a world of shallow politicians who don’t seem to want to solve problems, only to point fingers, I think I’m a somewhat different candidate,” he said.
So, what problem areas would Martin tackle first? “I don’t know that you can boil it down to three issues,” he answered. “My focus is on leadership and managing the city across a variety of dimensions, including public safety, education and, very importantly, economic development.” “It’s really all about the structural costs of running the city,” Abbazia said. “It’s about taxes, how we continue the development of Stamford -- which includes job creation -- and education, which drives the first two.”
Mike Pavia was also quick to zero in on the management aspects of the mayor’s office. “If you look at the organization of government and recognize that along with opportunities there are shortcomings, you require hard work and effort to bring about the greatest level of service with the limited funds that we’re facing,” he stressed.
“I think the economy is probably the most pressing issue,” Pavia continued. “We’re suffering from the consequences of a very bad down cycle. People in government are looking at how they are going to make their budgets next year and still deliver services.” David Martin pointed out that balancing the city’s books is a perennial issue. “And every year there are more challenges. But, what’s even more important is that we ensure economic opportunity for all. It won’t matter if we manage the budget and everyone is unemployed,” he said.
Tim Abbazia thought Stamford’s corporations will continue to contribute to the city’s economic wellbeing. “We happen to have a combination of factors -- our proximity to New York City and a well-educated workforce -- that bring businesses to downtown,” he stated. But, Mike Pavia felt that we needn’t be quite so generous in our effort to lure them here. “In years past, corporations had incentives and concessions that were passed on from the state as well as the city, such as a full tax deferment,” he recalled. “With Stamford being recognized for all of its strengths and resources, I’m not so sure that we need to go that route anymore.”
As one of the creators of the Downtown Special Services District, David Martin was mindful of the pressure the city’s restaurants and other entertainment venues are feeling. “One of the first things that families cut back on are how many times they’re going to go out to see a movie or eat at a restaurant,” he explained. While Abbazia acknowledged the importance of supporting commerce at the city’s center, he’d like to see equal time given to the surrounding areas. “My focus is going to be on putting more value toward our neighborhoods,” he revealed. “More attention needs to go to there than toward major commercial development.”
Of major concern to voters from every corner of Stamford is how the next mayor might lighten the burden of property taxes. “I don’t like ‘em,” Martin readily agreed, while explaining that property tax relief was largely contingent upon changes in how the state funds local, regional and state governments. Abbazia returned to the theme of restructuring the city’s delivery of services. “We have to look at how we can make it more efficient,” he said. “We also have to look at other sources of revenue. For example, there’s the idea of enabling Stamford to put a tax on hotel rooms – a slight tax that’s generally placed on non-residents. These are the types of things that we need to explore.”
Mike Pavia felt that attention to fiscal responsibility would also serve to reassure at least one of the city’s voting blocks: senior citizens. “One way to keep older people in Stamford that are worried about their taxes going up and up and up, is to let them know that someone is taking a proactive approach to managing government,” he said. David Martin referred to the efforts of Board of Representatives as an example to the city commitment to its seniors. “This year we passed a revision to the Senior Tax Abatement Program, increasing the benefits to the lowest income seniors by 50% and allowing seniors to have greater real estate values,” he reported. “As a result, I think the total benefit to seniors will almost double this year over last.”
The issues of improving the city’s infrastructure and meeting its transportation needs met at a literal crossroad when the discussion turned to Stamford’s streets. Having been the Public Works Commissioner, Mike Pavia is sometimes still approached by residents with complaints. “Wherever I go, all I hear about is potholes and the condition of the roads,” he laughed. Fortunately, Pavia believes strongly in investing in infrastructure. “Bricks and mortar; roads, bridges, sidewalks and public buildings. That’s where the main brunt of capital financing should be directed,” he insisted.
“We have to double or triple our investment in our road system,” Tim Abbazia said. “It’s one of those issues where, if you take care of the little things, the big things won’t seem as challenging. We need a better systematic approach. For example, when we do a job like a catch basin and dig up some road, we should do a full replacement of it. That makes the process more cost effective.”
David Martin would also like to improve the method by which the city decides which roads are repaved first. “When citizens come in, we need a way to take what they say is needed for their road and put it up against the other projects that we’re thinking about,” he explained. “They may not agree with the decision, but they’ll be able to see that we’re trying to establish some cost and fairness priorities.”
An area that the candidates each identified as particularly important was education. “Whether you have children in the school system or not, it weighs on everyone’s mind,” stated Pavia. But, their emphasis seemed to be less on the need for reform than on building up an already successful system. “I have three-year-old and a six-year-old,” Tim Abbazia offered, in reference to his personal experience with Stamford schools. “My six-year-old is in kindergarten at Rogers School and he loves it. They have teachers that are very dedicated and very capable.”
Where Abbazia would like to see an upgrade is in getting more three- and four-year-olds a preschool education. “So that when they enter a traditional school system they are on more equal footing,” he explained. But the difficulty behind getting any new or expanded programs into Stamford’s schools would appear to be linked to securing increased funding from the state. “They fail to see Stamford as an urban school system,” Mike Pavia stressed. “They think of us as a corporate Mecca. But, we also have people with special educational needs that require extra dollars and don’t get them.”
David Martin attributed much of the inequity to Connecticut’s Education Cost Share (ECS) formula. “Stamford is a very unique community,” he said. “We’re probably being short-changed, in terms of education funding, to the tune of thirty to forty million dollars a year. When you get down into the nitty-gritty, what you find is that the city gets the absolute minimum amount per student. It’s essentially equivalent to what [towns like] Darien, Greenwich and New Canaan get. But from an income ability-to-pay, we’re substantially less. We’re above the state average for affordable housing, for kids in school with free and reduced lunch programs, and yet we’re nowhere near the average in terms of the funding per student.”
The candidates were less emphatic when the talk turned to municipal support for the beleaguered local arts scene. Mike Pavia was, at least, sympathetic. “You’re talking to the father of an art teacher,” he said. “Maybe a group of people in the arts needs to come together to make viable suggestions as to how we can make things better.”
As mayor, Abbazia said that he would take advantage of his access to the decision makers in Hartford. “I would work very closely with the state to see them step up to the plate a little more – they’ve backed off for the last couple of years and it has caused some serious problems,” he claimed. “It’s a “waterfall” problem. You cut off the arts and people don’t go to the theater, they don’t go to the restaurants and it hurts the overall economy.”
Martin was bewildered by the cut back on funding from the state, particularly for organizations like the Stamford Center for the Arts. “I thought that was short-sighted and inconsistent with their funding of similar attractions in other parts of the state,” he pointed out. Still, Martin sees cause for hope in commercial entities like NBC Universal using the SCA’s underused facility to bring television production to Stamford.
Pavia would like to encourage more films to be shot in Stamford. He thinks that could happen by developing a management plan that simplifies the production process. “It’s very similar to building a building,” he explained. “You need permits, public participation and the government involved – you need to process everything. If we had a manual that streamlines all of that we could become a one-stop-shop.”
As a final challenge to the declared candidates, we asked how each would deal with two of the city’s contentious issues: the fight between Stamford’s volunteer and professional firefighters and the presence of day laborers in the downtown area. The first was a concern that they practically addressed with one voice. “We really need to take out personal feelings, get both sides to sit down and focus on providing the best quality fire protection for Stamford,” Abbazia said. “We all have to talk it through, compromising where we can.”
“There is purpose and strength to Stamford Fire and Rescue and what it can bring into the volunteer territories,” Pavia stressed. “And yet, there should be a complete understanding and respect for the charter provisions of the volunteer fire companies and the assets that they have. Once you recognize one another’s strengths, I think you have the seeds of an understanding that will maximize the potential of both.”
“It’s not a situation where one side wins and the other side loses,” Martin insisted. “This is about finding the protocols where the volunteers get the respect and support they deserve and the paid firefighters get the safety and standards that they deserve and the public gets the protection that it deserves.”
When the topic shifted to the day laborer situation, both Abbazia and Pavia were still forming their opinions. “I would have to look at it further,” Abbazia explained. “The issue of safety is first and foremost. The issue of immigration is a federal one.” “There are going to be day laborers probably for our lifetime,” Pavia said. “Does it raise problems? Absolutely. I think the answer here in Stamford is to have the city somehow work with private groups and charities to come up with a solution.”
David Martin, on the other hand, has been considering the issue for a while. “You have to attack this problem in a different way,” he stated. “A few years ago, the Eastside Partnership proposed that we put in an ordinance that establishes pick-up zones for people looking for employment. Then, you put out a notice to the contractors that do the hiring and tell them they will get a ticket if they try to solicit employees in a place other than the pick-up site.” Another idea that Martin offered was to have the city open a facility equipped with basic amenities, like a restroom, where day laborers could wait for employment.
The lack of any one of the things that we discussed emerging as the hot-button issue for the coming election can, perhaps, be traced to David Martin’s assessment of the shape that Stamford was in back when we spoke. “When you look at the details, you realize that we’re doing better than most cities,” he reported. “Our current unemployment rate is less than the state average and less than the national average. We have a Triple A bond rating that we’ve maintained when many other communities have been downgraded.”
Still, if the last presidential election is any indication, a lot can happen between now and November. The Democratic City Committee won’t meet to endorse either Abbazia or Martin until July. If a Democratic Primary happens, it won’t take place until the second Tuesday in September. And remember that in 2005 Republican Chris Munger wasn’t even in the race until four months before Election Day. Despite that, and raising less than a third of the money of the incumbent, he managed to finish within about a thousand votes of Mayor Malloy.