NORWALK, Conn. – Former mayoral candidate Lisa Brinton formed a Political Action Committee (PAC) some months back, with money left from her unsuccessful bid to unseat three-term incumbent Mayor Harry S. Rilling. Now, “UDrive Norwalk,” her PAC, is moving forward, with a newly posted website and a Facebook page.
Last November, Rilling, a Democrat, won a fourth term with 55.5 percent of the vote, with 44.5 percent of ballots cast for Brinton, an unaffiliated candidate endorsed by Republicans. In 2017, running against four opponents, including a Democrat who netted 6 percent of the vote, Rilling won with 55.4.
“New to elections, but not politics, she narrowly lost the 2019 mayoral election to the 3-term, former police chief incumbent,” Brinton’s website states. “She believes responsible management should prevail over cronyism or partisanship and her goal is to increase voter literacy, so they can demand better accountability and professionalism from city officials.”
“We’re a Political Action Committee, because, you know, if I did anything, the City would come after me and call me names. This is political,” Brinton said, unveiling the website and its intricacies in a recent Zoom call with supporters, including real estate broker Jason Milligan, who arrived late.
“Did you announce you’re running for Mayor again?” he asked.
“No, I didn’t announce anything,” Brinton replied. “I’m still, I’m painting my house. I’m landscaping. I’m being very domestic right now.”
UDrive focuses on statistics, many bolstering the points Brinton tried to make in her two Mayoral runs. It’s a dashboard – better than the Mayor’s dashboard, she said, because it offers “benchmark metrics of comparing Norwalk to other cities and towns around Connecticut.”
“Simply put, they’ve got nicer graphs and graphics, but it’s a snapshot in time. It doesn’t give you any historical data. And it doesn’t compare to anybody else. And so it’s good for propaganda, but it doesn’t really tell you anything.”
Rilling did not respond to an email on Friday seeking a comment. His dashboard went online a little over a year ago, and was an original, local production. “This information was not chosen because it made us look good, but rather, it was what we felt the public would be interested in seeing,” he said at the time.
The website is not a prelude to another Mayoral run, Brinton said Friday. “This is me getting benchmark city data into the hands of residents, much like what I did with Red Apples and education reform a decade ago.”
REd Apples was an education reform group with a website that also presented much data. Brinton often says her activism began with her children attending Norwalk Public Schools. She told her UDrive supporters, “I was a perpetual fundraiser for the 12-13 years my kids were in the school system. And I finally asked, why don’t we ever have enough money? And then you go back to our zoning policies and our housing policies.”
She said Friday, “Throughout my political activism in Norwalk, I’ve always operated under the premise of ‘the more you know.’”
Who is the “we” in UDrive?
“Formally, the ‘we’ is me, with Bryan Meek as the PAC Treasurer, but there are a host of people contributing research data and helping with the website and social media – some of whom were on the Zoom Call,” she said Friday. “I expect the PAC to evolve in structure with some sort of formal bi-partisan advisory committee going forward.”
UDrive stands for Unaffiliated, Democrat, Republican and Independent Voters Engaged for Norwalk, the website states. It’s about “the bottom line about the bottom line,” Brinton told the 32 people attending her Zoom call.
“The bottom line is this: We seem to be struggling with policies that balance this administration’s desire to pursue density while maintaining our quality of life,” she said. “… What I’m hoping to do through this, and through the data that I’ve gathered, is trying to generate some meaningful conversation dialogue with the city in terms of really strategically looking at where we’re going, where we’re going.”
Isabelle Hargrove, attending the Oct. 8 call, said she was really excited about the “tool” the website represents.
“I think we’ve done a good job at identifying the problem, but we haven’t been able to come up with real tangible solutions,” Hargrove said. “… I think a website like this, with so much data, we can start to take it the next step into …how do we support policies and certain initiatives that will get us where we want to get.”
There are nearly 60 categories of information on UDrive’s site, from “auto mill rate” to “demographics” to “housing data” to “youth.” Some do not have entries yet.
From 2013 to 2017, “we had a higher percentage of disengaged youth,” Brinton said, attributing that information to town profiles on a State website, but with the caveat, “it doesn’t tell you how they qualify disengaged youth.”
Under “government,” she had her “biggest aha moment” when she realized Norwalk is underrepresented in Hartford, Brinton said. Other cities have legislators that only represent their urban needs, but three of Norwalk’s five State Representatives also have constituents in the surrounding towns.
“So much of what’s happening in Norwalk is being driven by Hartford, and there doesn’t seem to be any pushback,” she said. “… We have been carved up and gerrymandered so much that we have only two full time only two dedicated representatives.”
“I intend to make a lot of noise about this,” she said.
The City tracks safety, “but it simply lists the number of callouts for EMS, fire calls and police calls,” she said. Using data from the State, “I put Norwalk in here with the 10 largest cities. And again, this data is from 2017…. yes, while our crime is going down, it’s not going down as quickly as say, Danbury, and Stamford. So it begs the question, you know, what are we doing?”
The “demographics” page uses data from the Connecticut Economic Resource Center (CERC) to describe Norwalk, not other towns. And while Brinton highlights an attempt to compare Norwalk to other communities, the “housing data” page largely compares Norwalk to Fairfield County and the state.
It’s when you get to “affordable housing percentage” that Norwalk is compared to other towns and cities, a detailed look at what she called “subsidized housing.”
“I was called a racist by our State Senator, but just simply trying to point out the math,” Brinton said in her Zoom meeting.
“With the influx in our immigration, what you have had is landlords subdividing and creating these illegal apartments because we don’t enforce ordinances,” she said. “But basically, you have had those landlords, and we call them slumlords, they are creating safety hazards, health hazards, because what they are doing is taking advantage of immigrants who will pay higher rates will not complain about their living conditions.”
Brinton stressed that she’s not against building more apartments but “the biggest issue that we’re fighting right now is density, or at least tasteful density.”
“I just recently downsized myself. I’m no longer in Rowayton,” she said. “I’m over here in Shorefront Park. I’m close to the city, I can see the hospital, I can see the Stroffolino Bridge, I see Vets Park. I like being in a more densely populated area.”
But, “these thousand-unit apartments, this tasteless stuff that I don’t know what it’s going to look like in 10 years, is scary,” she said. “…I have been supportive of more scaled building of apartments and units rather than these monstrosities.”
She said, “The sad thing is, Norwalk only pays attention at election time, every two years. And this Mayor said he was going to grow the population, and he won fair and square, you know, 900 more votes. And that might have been different. But, you know, he is doing exactly what he said he was going to do, which was bring on more apartments.”
“The fact that we got as close in the election as we did suggests that people really are starting to pay attention, and they’re seeing what’s going on. It’s not about party anymore. It’s about policy,” she said. “And, quite frankly, I think for many of us it’s starting to put some pressure back on the Common Council. I mean, I like to beat up Harry, but quite frankly, the Council approves all this stuff. They are complicit and they all are able to just kind of hide and that can’t be tolerated anymore.”
The writer of this article lives in affordable housing. This is not “subsidized” in terms of taxpayer-funded rent, but a discounted rent based on the area median income.