It's that time again when Stamford elects a new mayor to lead the city for four years. Shortly after current Mayor Michael Pavia (R) announced last winter that he will not be seeking reelection, a number of candidates on both sides of the aisle declared their intentions to ask for your vote. Soon after, the field grew but by the end of the summer things got a bit clearer.
On the Republican side, former Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele will be able to focus on the general election, since his party opponent, Jerry Pia, didn't gather enough votes before the deadline to force a party primary.
On the Democratic side the primary election on September 10 will be between David Martin, who won the Democratic Town Committee endorsement in July, and State Representative William Tong.
Two independent candidates are also in the running - John Zito and Board of Finance member Kathleen Murphy.
This is an important time for Stamford. The choice Stamford residents make on November 5 will have an impact on the city for years to come. And, as is our tradition this time of an election year, we interviewed the major party candidates to keep you informed. Stamford Plus magazine's Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, Naiden Stoyanov, spoke with Mr. Fedele (in the spring), Mr. Martin and Mr. Tong (in the summer) to try to find out more about their personalities, their vision, where they stand on the issues facing our city, their views on education, taxes, development and other subjects of the day.
We thank these three candidates for graciously taking time from their busy schedules to talk to us about their agenda.
This is our interview with Republican candidate Michael Fedele. Part of this interview appeared published in the Fall 2013 issue of Stamford Plus magazine. For your convenience, the parts that appeared in print are in italics. We hope that these interviews will further help you make your choice.
And don't forget that there are many other important elected positions up for grabs this fall, so please make sure you stay informed and vote wisely.
Note: Interviews were edited for brevity and grammar
CEO of Stamford-based Pinnacle Group, former Lt. Governor, former state representative and former Stamford board of representatives member, Republican (photo/canaiden)
SP:Why are you running for the office of Mayor of Stamford?
Mr. Fedele: Well, if you look at my government involvement in politics and government, it has never been a career for me. One would obviously say, "If that was the next stepping stone, that's what you would do." But it wasn't a career. I've always gotten involved when I felt there was something to be said and done and that goes back to when I was on Stamford Board of Representatives. I didn't like what was going on in education back in the 80s. I ran and got involved and then I came back to my business. In the 90s, I ran for the Connecticut General Assembly. I didn't think I was going to spend 10 years there. I did, and then came back to my business.
And then, in 2006, Governor Rell asked, "We're looking for a Lieutenant Governor candidate." I brought many of the same traits, actually, that make me a very strong mayoral candidate: strong business background, I have a legislative background, having worked on both sides of the aisle and my life story—all great values that are great in a candidate. And then I became Lieutenant Governor and then obviously I tried for Governor. That didn't pan out. And for the last 2 1/2 years I've been back home with my family, my business, and life's been good.
When Mayor Pavia decided he wasn't going to run, I looked at the challenges and opportunities that Stamford has and it's something I would like to try.
SP: Every time you take a sabbatical from the political scene, what makes you look back into it and go back? Mr. Fedele: Well, if you think about our founding fathers when they wrote the Constitution, they never imagined that we'd have career politicians. And I think that this is a problem, it's not unique Connecticut, that you have in Washington and that you have at state Capitol and sometimes, the municipal government. People have made this a career. So what happens is, I go on sabbatical, I climb the mountain, right? I refresh, recharge my batteries. I think of great opportunities. I take a step back. I'm not enthroned in what's going on all the time and it's a breather. I think if we had more people who did this, I think,as a country and not only as a state, we'd be much better off.
Think about it. I personally believe that people who make politics as a career, and I'm not saying everyone, really are looking at, "What do we do for the next election?" Instead of, "What do we do for the next generation?" That takes courage. It takes courage for someone to say, "You know what? I'm going to make the right decision. And that decision is going to be so difficult to accept, but I know it's the right one that it may cost me my election. Am I willing to do that? I am because it's never been a career. It's been public service.
SP: Did your decision to go back to politics come first or do you see an opportunity in the mayor's race only? Mr. Fedele: I'm doing this because I believe I can bring something to the city of Stamford. It has nothing to do with politics. As you [previously] mentioned, I could run for Jim Himes’ seat. I could run for governor again, my name was mentioned. I could run for dog catcher, I mean there are a number of things I could do. But public service to me is the key component that drives me. And quite frankly, if I felt that there were other candidates, other Republican candidates, other Democratic candidates that could do a better job than I could, I'd let them do it.
SP: You didn't think about going back into politics until Mayor Pavia said, "I'm not going to run." ? Mr. Fedele: That’s correct.
SP: Then, you said, "Well, you know what? This is a position that I like to go in." Mr. Fedele: That is correct. I was approached in fourth-quarter by other candidates in the Republican ticket. I was approached by Republicans in the town committee and was asked, "We'd like you to run for mayor." I said, "Look, we have a Republican mayor and it seems like he's doing a good job. People in Stamford seem to like him." I was very happy with that. Then, in January, when Mayor Pavia decided he was not going to run again, I said "Gee, here's an opportunity to get back into public service but I have something to bring back." It's not just for the title.
Let me tell you, if I had to have titles my business card would be a billboard. From my business perspective, from my political, from the social things that I've done that's not what I'm about. What I'm about is serving the public, giving back to the community as that community has been so kind and has given back to my family. My public service started in second grade. We came here when I was three and I went to school. Everyone spoke Italian in my household so I spoke Italian at home and then in the neighborhood as a young man, we spoke English. When I went to kindergarten, I caould speak English and also Italian. In second grade I was called to Mr. Callahan's office at Stevens School to interpret for a family who was registering their children in fourth and sixth grades. Now, I was concerned because I behaved myself and getting called to the principal's office... I would never ... Mr. Callahan said, "No Michael, nothing to worry about." And quite frankly, I performed that role for many years and that family is the Salvatore family. Mario Salvatore, who used to have a restaurant down on Ridgeway ... They just opened The Brass Rail so these are people who still live in the community, still people that I interact with and to me, that was my exposure to public service, having something to lend and helping.
SP: What is your relationship with the Republican Party here in town? With Mayor Pavia it has been a little dicey. Mr. Fedele: Well, I think my relationship with the Republican Party statewide and municipal is fine. Look, I think people know who I am. I've lived in this community for 55 years. I've worked in this community for that long and I've served this community. I think what you see is what you get. I don't play games. I tried work with folks. I give people the benefit of the doubt and I think it's a good relationship we have.
SP: Wouldn't you ever consider running as an Independent? Mr. Fedele: No, I'm a Republican. I'm a Republican all the way. During elections I'm a Republican. When I get in office I serve the people and I can tell you in my legislative career, municipal, state, and executive branch career, I've never served the majority. My party has always been the [minority]. 18 years of public service, I was always in the minority, right?
I always got things done because once the election is over with… that's our system of government, we have to run as a party. Once the election is over, it doesn't matter to me if you're a registered voter or not a registered voter, you still have a job to do and it's important that we get that job done.
SP:Do you think that the city is moving in the right direction? Mr. Fedele: I think the city, in many cases, is moving in the right direction. I think, in some cases, it has to take a pause and look at where we're going. If you look at what's going on economically and from economic development component, I think we're making great progress. However, we have to balance our economic development efforts with the community efforts. ...
The uniqueness of Stamford is in as much as we're a big city, we're a small town, a town of neighborhoods. And we need to maintain that balance. With that said, economic development is very important not only to Stamford but to all the surrounding areas. Now, in my announcement a week ago this past Saturday [Editor's note: this interview was conducted at the end of April] I had the endorsements of the First Selectman of Greenwich, New Canaan, Darien, obviously Mayor Pavia, and Mayor Moccia and Danbury's Mayor Boughton. Mayor Moccia couldn't make it, but [the rest,] why were they there? Because they realize how important Stamford is not only to Stamford but to their communities, as Stamford goes.
I think from an economic development perspective, we're moving in the right direction. However, we have to put a balance in place to make sure what we do still maintains those characteristics of a city and town. In education, I still think that we have a lot of work to do to close the achievement gap that we have here, yet Stamford has a world-class university, the University of Connecticut right in downtown. How do we do that? Committed as mayor to sit on the Board of Education meetings because the mayor sits as an ex officio at those meetings, to attend them, I don't get to vote but I get to talk and get to listen and give my input, to help close that gap. My hope is by the end of my first term that we would have made big progress in closing that gap so that more and more kids can get there given that opportunity. So, I think education is important, also public safety: number one, very important.
Stamford and the size of city that it is, is the safest city in the northeast in cities of 100,000 or more, and number 15, I think, nationwide in public safety. We need to continue to make sure that our police, fire, EMS have the best services and tools and training available so that our citizens in this world that we live in are protected and also that it makes Stamford the place that people want to go to. I think those are opportunities that we have there. And the big opportunity and challenge is how do you do all that and still keep taxes low?
I think what you need to take a look at there is efficiencies and how we can possibly reallocate and spend money in a wiser fashion. I think you also have to work very closely with state government which obviously is running out of money and the federal government which is out there and [you have to] fight for that money. I think for too long Stamford could have done a better job in trying to get the funds that it needed from both areas. I'm going to be a very proactive mayor. I know the legislative parts of the state government. I've served there for 10 years. I know the executive branch. I served there for four years.
What you get in Mike Fedele is someone who is a seasoned legislator, a seasoned executive politician, and someone who knows the names, the places, where people are, and how to get things done. I'm not a stranger. When I go to the capital, people remember who I am.
SP: What part of the direction that Stamford is going you don’t like right now? Where would you say we can turn around? Mr. Fedele: I don't think [anything] is so terrible that we have to turn the car around? I think there are some things we can do better. I think there are some things that we can balance better. I think we need to improve upon things. Education was one of the things I talked upon, economic development [is another] and continue to grow it. It's a building block process.
SP: You mentioned the South End. Your potential opponent, David Martin just came out against the boatyard in the South End [Ed. Note: Reminder, this interview was conducted in the spring of 2013]. Can you talk to me a little bit about your opinion on the South End developments overall as well as the boatyard itself? Mr. Fedele: If you look at what's going on in the South End and you look at what happened to Stamford in the 60s with urban development, I lived through that. I was a child here. The same arguments were there. There was an expose at the Palace Theatre about three years ago where they showed all of the F.D. Rich Company. Where they had the Rich family being brought out and tarred and feathered on a pole. There were people … Because they displaced thousands of families through eminent domain, but look at downtown Stamford today, alright? And I can tell you, there were as many people that were against it as there were for it. The good news is it worked.
It worked beneficial to Stamford because you have to ask yourself, "Would UBS, RBS, Purdue Pharma, what has occurred to the downtown with the DSSD, with the balloon parade, Alive At Five, all those things going on, the restaurants, if we hadn't done that? Let's look at the South End.
The South End, if what was going on down there wasn't happening, you would have Pitney Bowes world headquarters and some manufacturing, possibly. Pitney Bowes moved all their manufacturing out of there. All the manufacturers that were supporting the lock businesses from the old Yale and Towne world moved out of there. The power company moved out of there, so what you had was an empty area, neighborhood with contaminated ground. From that perspective, what has occurred at the South End is very positive. However, some of the things that occur in the South End probably were done a little too quick and not through the process.
In my administration, irrespective of civil law or criminal law, it will be followed. Irrespective if you're a big builder, small builder, a big crook, or a small crook, the laws would be followed and the process will be followed.
SP: What is your assessment? Do you think that there was a lack of transparency in the process? Mr. Fedele: I don't know about all the specifics but I would say to you that probably, and BLT. I think they will be the first to tell you also, probably could've done a better job in communicating what they were trying to do. I'm talking about the specific boatyard situation. That being said, you need to listen to the boatyard people. We have a boating community here, w'rea shoreline city and town so we need to listen to them and understand how we can address and satisfy what they are looking for. I can also say, this is that balance part I was telling you about, you’ve got to look at the South End, the jobs that are coming; the housing that's going to support those jobs, the Waterside school that is down there, the retail, the restaurants.
I see this in the next 10, 15 years. It's going to be what Stamford URC was many years ago, a revitalization of that area. That's positive because Stamford has always been known as a place where you can get jobs. There will be jobs. There will be housing. There will be, I believe and you can walk down there now, a very beautiful shoreline community eventually. It's in the process. Should things have been done differently from the developer? Yes.
SP: And from the mayor's office perspective as well? Mr. Fedele: Well, I can't speak to the mayor’s office because I wasn’t there from the transparency perspective. What I can tell you in a Fedele administration …
I'm very transparent. There's nothing to hide. I can also tell you, you can take that argument from the gubernatorial perspective. Should Mayor Malloy have told Mayor Pavia the day before the Bridgewater announcement that that was happening? Why was he kept in the dark? If you're looking at transparency, transparency goes a long way. I would tell you that in my administration, we will be a very transparent administration. We will communicate with the residents. We will use new ways of communicating with the residents and the developers.
Remember, everybody's in this to win it, right? How do we win as a city? How do residents win as a city with respect to jobs and keeping taxes lower and creating better educational opportunities with these partnerships that are occurring? How does that happen? It happens because of smart planning, a buy-in by the whole community. Now, I'm also going to say to you, are we going to be able to make everybody happy? Of course not, it's never that people are 100% happy but I think that you have to meet people halfway. And everybody has to walk away from the table feeling that they did something. Something they gain something they got from it and in my administration, what you see is what you get.
I had a very transparent administration. When I was Lieutenant Governor, people would show up and say, "Hey, can we speak to the Lieutenant Governor?" "Come on in. Let's talk. Pull up a chair. Have a cup of coffee." That's what I'm doing today. I've beenwalking about talking to people. I've met with the boatyard people. I've met with the BLT people. I don't have to, but I have. I want to understand.
I think the problem we have is at times we politicize these issues. Now that you've mentioned one of my opponents, first, he's been there for two years on the Board of Finance. If he was concerned about it, he should have spoken up earlier.
Number one, number two, let's not politicize this. Let's roll up our sleeves. Let's say: OK, what's in the best interest for our community and how do we get there relative to where we got to go. Here's what the mayor will do. I would bring the Board of Finance people. I would bring the Board of Representatives people. I would bring anyone who votes on this issue along with the parties involved in the issue and work out and try to say, "Okay, here that we need to do. Here's where we got to go." Understanding, and again I'm doing it from a historical perspective because it's not like it's happening on the first day. I'm picking up something on a train that’s already left the station.
I 'm going to say, OK, let's clear the air. Let's talk about what's the best interest for our community and our city and how do we help satisfy some of these issues. You are never going to get everyone to agree on something, but we have to look. Again, I'll go back to history because I'm a student of history. You can't change history but you can deftly learn from history.
Let's look at the URC. Those challenges and issues were there. There were claims of non-transparency. There were claims of this, this, this, and that and today, I think you can all agree, that Stamford in the city and town that it is because of what occurred during that period in the 60s and 70s. One could argue that, but it's there. I can tell you that there are a lot of cities in the state of Connecticut that would love to trade places [with Stamford], Waterbury, New Britain, Bridgeport, New Haven, Hartford, and I can go on and on.
Stamford, again, location, location, location … Location doesn't guarantee you anything. You have to utilize that location to develop it.
SP: While we're on that subject, after the great recession it was unclear if UBS would retain its strong presence in Stamford. With incentives from the state, they actually stayed. However, some think that it won’t be long before they go away. How important is UBS’ presence in Stamford and not only UBS, but other large businesses in the city, and how willing are you to make concessions on behalf of the city in both taxes or any other incentives to bring companies into the city and to retain them here? Mr. Fedele: First and foremost, I think it's important that we make all our companies feel important here and as much as to your point as taxes and incentives are important, the quality of life issues are important. The safety of the city is important. The educational system is important. Where do I get my workers from to fill these jobs that I have?
All of that is a very key component of what we need is a city to keep companies here and to attract companies. Mayor Pavia showed [at the State of the City address] a video and one of the people that he interviewed on the video was the president of Starwoods who moved down to the South End. He said that they looked at Atlanta. They looked obviously in Stamford. They looked at staying where they were at which I think was in White Plains, Westchester. They looked in London, a number of different places, and they chose Stamford because Stamford provided them all the different pieces that they needed at all the different levels of employees, young for the downtown, suburban for the middle aged people, and so on and so forth, the transportation component and all that.
All those things make up that decision. A lot of folks think it's only taxes and money and yeah, the bottom line is that it's important, yeah, but also, they're not going to move. I can tell you that Bridgeport will give you a lot of incentives to move to Bridgeport. Are businesses moving there at the speed that they want to move to Stamford? The answer is no, so I think that's important but you bring up a very good point. If you go back 20 years, 25 years, the major employers in the city of Stamford were not UBS and RBS. They were Pitney Bowes and Clairol and other manufacturers, but what's happened? There has been a transformation and kind of the same thing happened with the Yale and Towne Manufacturing to the Research City and so on.
Think about what would have happened if Stamford didn't take advantage of one location and its ability to attract financial services. Where would those people who were displaced by those jobs go to work? That's why I said to you that Stamford has always continued to reinvent itself. Today we’re a financial center, who knows what we are tomorrow? But we can't have blinders on and say this can be done.
And say, "Well, no, this is what we are today and this is all we're going to be." I think that’s why it's important when I talk about economic development and moving forward in a balance because there is a balance in what we do because a good leader can find the jobs for today but a great leader looks for the jobs for tomorrow. And that's what the mayor needs to do. That's why the mayor needs to be working with the state delegation. Who wants to come here? How they want to come here? How do we build upon that?And working with all those other things that are important.
You could give the biggest company in the world all the incentive in the world, if you put them in an area that's not safe, if you put them in an area that they can’t get an educated workforce, if you put them the area they're not happy living in and they do not have quality of life, they're going to go somewhere else and I think Stamford has done a good job at all those balances.
SP: On taxes, you have come out strongly on the record that you want to get taxes lower in the city. How do you maintain the same levels of services while decreasing the revenue stream? Mr. Fedele: Well, what I said was, "I want to keep taxes low." Okay, not lower. I want to keep taxes low. I think the way we do that is we go in and take a look at where we can do a better job in a more efficient way. We start taking a look at more creative ways of how we spend our money. And the people who have the best, sometimes those best ideas, are the people that are doing it, doing the work. You do that. We see that in corporations all the time. "How can we improve your job? Oh, and by the way, by improving your job, how do you do that [improve efficiencies]?"
I look at my own business. I've been in business for 30 years. We, from an administrative perspective, haven’t added one more body than we had when I first started business, but what we've done is we've invested in technology. I'll give you an example. Where salesmen used to write out a form, send it in, someone would take that form, into the order, process the order, do that. Now, what do they got? They have a tablet or a Smartphone. They call up the customer. Boom, all of the data is right there already filled in for that customer. They entered the order, boom, boom, boom, boom. It's done and it's just processed.
SP: Have you made a preliminary assessment where those savings might be coming from? Mr. Fedele: I'm right now in the process of looking at the budget, the line items, trying to get an understanding for the different departments, and seeing where we can have those savings, where those things can happen. I think we can do more in some cases with less. I know some people are going to say, "That's crazy." It happens every day. It happens everyday. Now, there are some areas where you may not be able to do that, such as public safety, but what we may be able to do is implement technology that makes us do more with less. Those are the kind of things as mayor you need to look at and also work with the folks in government center.
We've got a great bunch of people that are city employees. We've got a great bunch of people in uniform services and I think sometimes they get a bum rap because of a few rotten apples that you get anywhere, corporations, and other parts of government, and so on. I'm going to be a mayor who's hands-on. I'm going to be a mayor who's going to go out and talk to people. I've already driven down to the dump and spoken to people who worked there and say, "Hey, how are you? I’m Mike Fedele." They say, "We know who you are." I say, "Well, what's going on here? What's that thing do? What's this do?" I mean, you have to do that.
I think there are two things. One, it shows that you're interested in knowing what that person wants to do and it makes that person feel comfortable in saying, "Oh, by the way, while you're asking, maybe we can do this." For so long, you know they talk about the Glass Ceiling.
I think there is in government that glass ceiling, like people are untouchable. I'm not. I go to the community, I participate in not-for-profits...
I did the soup kitchen. We used to do the soup kitchen with my wife when I was Lieutenant Governor. People would come to me in the soup kitchen and say, "Look, Governor, thank you for being here but you know what? I don't want to come here every day to eat. I want you to give me a hand up and not a handout." For too long in government because you don't go there and talk to these people, we think all they want is someone to continue to feed them. No, they want to be able send their kids to school. They want to have a good job. They want to buy a house. They want to be proud of who they are.
Unfortunately, something along the way didn't make them that. You are not going to see that if you stay in your office everyday and surround yourself with people who are going to tell you what you want to hear. You're going to see that when you get on the street and you walk down to your neighborhood and you sit there and have a cup of coffee and talk to folks and they'll tell you what's going on.
SP: You mentioned public safety being one line item in the budget that you wouldn't necessarily touch. Is education another one? Also, what do you think the education system in Stamford has seen and what job have they done? Mr. Fedele: As I mentioned, the first thing I would do is utilize my role as an ex officio on the Board of Education so that I'm not hearing or seeing things second and third hand. I'm there when the board meets to add my input and listen to what they have to say so I have a good clear fresh perspective of what's going on, that's number one.
Number two, as I also mentioned, we have to close the educational gap. How is that done? I don't think it's our role alone. I think we work with corporations, as I've mentioned to you, and I know GE has been very involved in the city of Stamford. We work with the Superintendent of Schools. We work with the city administration. We work with teachers. It's interesting. Sometimes we make other folks the bad guys in the system. We work with them to see what the issues are. Some of the issues, as you may know, are not just the education system, it's the whole family social value.
I'll tell you a story… I came from an immigrant family. My parents didn't speak English. I come home from school. I'd have to do homework. My friends were outside playing stick ball. They'd say, "Michael, come outside and play." I'd say, "Well, I have to do my homework." They would say, "Well, your father and mother can't read. They wouldn’t know if you did her homework." I said, "No, they probably wouldn't." My father knew the difference between an A and F.
He knew the alphabet, so the point is that we have to look at all the resources that are available to us and how we can help students, how we can get them excited about who they are. What better person to do that than someone like myself who came here with the shirt on my back and with dreams of an opportunity that this great country gave us? And that's why I think not only is that great for people who are in that system but also for our immigrant population here.
For too long they have not felt comfortable in dealing with Republicans. Well, I'm one of them. English was a second language. I'm a naturalized citizen. They came here in many cases for the same opportunities that my parents came here, for an opportunity. What was the opportunity? The opportunity of equal education and just the chance, just a chance at the hand up not to hand out.
The only difference … I remember speaking to a Latino Chamber of Commerce here in Stamford. I walked in as Lieutenant Governor and I had my tie on and I probably looked more like an Englishman than I did an Italian. I walked in I said, "What do you and I have in common?" They all looked at each other and they said, "Nothing." I said, "Everything." The only difference was geography. I came from Italy and many of them came from Latin America, South America and I said, "Our language." Which is very similar also, Spanish and Italian. Then they clapped, "Wow, we didn't realize that." I want those same opportunities for those people. I want opportunities for all our children, all my grandchildren from a selfish perspective because if I can create those opportunities for them, I've created them for my family.
SP: Mr. Fedele, thank you for your time and good luck!