Correction, 5:51 p.m.: Toni Williams was born in Mississippi.
NORWALK, Conn. – Mayor Harry Rilling’s only challenger to date drew support from up to 40 people Wednesday in an early-season campaign launch at BJ Ryan’s BanC House, in Norwalk Center.
“My name is Lisa Brinton and I am running for Mayor to give Norwalk residents their voices back,” unaffiliated candidate Lisa Brinton said to the crowd. “This campaign is called Lisa for Norwalk because I will represent the people of Norwalk, not party or special interests. As an independent candidate, born from a bipartisan, grassroots movement, I believe we can steer a better course.”
Video by Harold Cobin at end of story
Brinton ran for Mayor in 2017 in a four-way race against Rilling, the Democratic incumbent, and got more votes than Republican candidate Andy Conroy. She has been seeking the Republican nomination but hasn’t spoken to the Republican Town Committee since January, she said.
The crowd featured a mix of Republicans, including Ernie DesRochers, Josh Jewett, Charles Yost and Patrick Cooper, as well as Democrats and unaffiliated voters. RTC Chairman Mark Suda was not present. Republican Board of Education member Bryan Meek is Brinton’s campaign treasurer.
It’s “hard to tell” if Norwalk Republicans will endorse Brinton, former Council member Rich Bonenfant, a Republican, said.
“You know, she is very enthusiastic, and she wants to go for it,” Bonenfant said. “So far, I haven’t seen anybody else like looking for it. So, obviously, the Party is going to put out feelers, who else is interested. At this point, maybe it’s early, I don’t know, I don’t see a whole lot of people lining up.”
Brinton on Wednesday said she’d steer Norwalk in a nonpartisan fashion toward its brightest and best future. She came to Norwalk 20 years ago and became an education activist after retiring early to focus on her sons, spending six years on the school data management team, she said. She became interested in Zoning five years ago due to an issue in her neighborhood.
“The Mayor campaigned six years ago on these issues and at that time, I supported him. But sadly, things have only gotten worse,” she said.
Issues of concern she cited include contractor yards in South Norwalk, an “over capacity prison in a family neighborhood” on Quintard Avenue, and the need to protect the shellfish industry from the construction of a new railroad bridge over the Norwalk River.
“My plan would not include paying for the IMAX Theater three times over with public money or tearing down the Garden Cinema because we won’t hold a bank responsible for poor lending, or admit city responsibility for a bad development,” she said.
The Connecticut Department of Transportation, as part of the aforementioned Walk Bridge project, is funding the replacement of the Maritime Aquarium’s IMAX Theater; in a separate issue, the City is negotiating with Citibank to restart the stalled Wall Street Place development (known to many as “POKO”) and the proposed deal may involve developer JHM Group buying the Garden Cinemas and tearing it down so that the property can be used for parking.
Brinton mentioned “millions spent on legal fees, frivolous lawsuits and settlements” that would be “better spent improving residential quality of life, the schools, or helping small business,” and criticized the reorganization of top-City staff, passed this year by the Common Council.
“City Hall must implement reforms based on national best practices, not just simply adding another layer of management,” she said. “Process is the nuts and bolts of the government machine and decision making must be fact-based.”
“My administration would look for staff, commission and Board members with expertise in commercial property, land valuations, risk assessment and project management.
Why? Because land funds 90 percent of our city. We must do better. In my administration, land use will cease to be a political game where the few pick winners and losers,” she said.
“This means a leader who supportive of small business and a sense of community rather than more fortress apartments,” she said, drawing applause.
Brinton’s last campaign featured many comments about the high percentage of Rilling campaign donations that came from developers.
She concluded her remarks by requesting that supporters donate to help her “make Norwalk, the sixth largest city in Connecticut, the best city in the state.”
Among her supporters was former Common Council member Matt Miklave, a Democrat who was part of a four-way Democratic Mayoral primary with Rilling in 2013.
“I think Lisa has a lot of courage, a lot of political courage, and I admire that. I am looking for a candidate with vision, who can take our city in a better direction,” Miklave said.
It is indeed early for a campaign launch, Miklave said. Brinton announced her candidacy in December, which is unheard of.
“It’s not a sprint, it’s a long race,” Miklave said.
Brinton has never served in City government as an elected or appointed official.
“I think some of the people who have held the office have proven you don’t need a ton of experience to be Mayor of the City of Norwalk,” Miklave said.
Rilling is former Norwalk Police Chief, who served on the Zoning Commission before running for Mayor.
Norwalk needs a Mayor “who is a proper CEO-type person,” David Mapley said.
“Rilling is a good policeman, he’s not a town administrator,” Mapley said. “This is running a big business of 84,000 people. There’s some serious stuff going on, you can’t be a good cop on a beat and sit down and run the town.”
Mapley has a Facebook page, Norwalk Taxes Too High, and complained about the state of Bayne Street sidewalks. He spent the last four months in Europe and would like to retire and live here year-round, but he might need a job just to pay his property taxes, he said.
Rilling is “surrounding himself by yes people, creating jobs and the town budget goes higher and higher,” Mapley said. “That’s nonsense. Run the place properly. Run it.”
Norwalk Community Soccer Club President George Caceres said he believes that Brinton is really going to improve Norwalk.
“I support (Rilling) when he started,” Caceres said. “Unfortunately, what he promised me never came true – the gyms and soccer fields. It was all blah-blah-blah and it never was done. So hopefully Lisa has a better vision to help all the kids in Norwalk.”
Caceres said he was a registered Republican until former Council member Warren Pena talked him into becoming a Democrat. He’s returning to the Republican Party because “it’s useless to be a Democrat,” he said.
“I have been living in Norwalk since 1991 and I have seen this Redevelopment Agency running wild with no real focus,” unaffiliated voter Stephen Bentkover said. “I am sick to death about the Tyvek Palace. I am absolutely sick to death that the biggest art treasure we have in the city, the Garden Cinema, is going away. I see nothing but bloated bureaucracy. I am in the schools every week because I mentor a kid. I see a failing a school system that takes almost 60 cents of every dollar I pay the city.”
Bentkover said he is a lifelong unaffiliated voter because “neither party represents much of what I do, or what I believe. … If we can start with some small victories for independents locally, maybe it will build to a third party nationally, which is what I think America needs because right now, gotcha politics is just ridiculous.”
Brinton would have to get on the ballot as a petitioning candidate if she doesn’t win a Republican endorsement. If she were endorsed by a registered third party, Republicans could cross-endorse her, but she cannot be endorsed by Republicans as a petitioning candidate. The deadline for becoming a petitioning candidate is Aug. 7.
ConnCAN Statewide Outreach and Advocacy Manager Toni Williams, who no longer lives in Norwalk, attended the event.
“I participated in women’s campaign school at Yale. One of the rules of Campaign 101 is if you run and you don’t win, don’t take it to your head, and go again. I am very proud and grateful that Lisa as a woman is choosing to make her campaign happen,” Williams said.
Williams’s family moved to Norwalk when she was 7; she has a ConnCAN office on North Main St., and has many friends and family here, she said.
Pat Amundo said she is a registered Democrat who worked on Brinton’s campaign two years ago and will be more active in City politics this year.
Brinton “is raising the bar,” Amundo said. “She tried to do it last time, she is doing it this time: to bring much more professionalism and excellence and efficiency into the government. Absolutely need to refresh, reset and get Norwalk back to exactly what she said: the best city.”
Rilling announced in January that he’d be seeking a fourth two-year term. He won the 2017 election with 56 percent of the vote; Brinton came in second with 22.4 percent, and Conroy came in third with 15.2 percent. Petitioning Democratic candidate Bruce Morris took 6.3 percent.