NORWALK, Conn. – From high school dropout to Yale Divinity School graduate, Norwalk Councilman David Watts has a story to tell as he attempts to unseat long-time state Rep. Chris Perone.
“I worked my way up from 16,” Watts said. “I had to drop out of school at 17 to work, to feed my family. I had to study and work, working odd jobs to help my mother who was single. All throughout college I had to work my way up.”
Watts (D-District A) has been a lightning rod for many Norwalk residents, and a leader and ray of hope for others. His sometimes bombastic, often challenging, style of politics rubs some people the wrong way. He is a constant target of mostly anonymous commenters on this and other websites.
But the 41-year-old candidate says he wants to help people, and points to his rocky start in life as a driving reason.
Watts said that when he was 2, his father left his mother and his young son’s life for good. Watts said he grew up in one of the toughest neighborhoods in New Haven, and that no one else in his family ever went to college. As a child, he said, he never dreamed he’d go to Yale, which was plainly visible from the street.
Watts bested Perone in the recent 137th District Democratic caucus. Perone subsequently collected enough signatures to force a primary, which will take place Aug. 12.
NoN intends to profile Perone and candidates for other seats.
When NoN talked to Watts on June 2, the comments left on the stories about his win over Perone were clearly on his mind. That included, “Watts was dressed really poorly, […] not (like) a politician that was well put together. If we are dumb enough to vote for this guy, we get what we deserve […],” from Bill on this website.
“Commenters can say things, and rip me apart, and they do, but when I meet people on the street they’re like ‘You know what? I believe in what you are doing, I believe in your heart,’ he said. “I am not perfect. I’m not a perfect candidate. I don’t have a pedigree. I don’t have the clothes. I’m overweight. It’s everything that a political consultant would say, I’m a work in progress. And you know what? I am overweight. But that doesn’t discount me because of my weight. But it’s something that I didn’t realize that people view you when you see your weight and they look at your clothes.”
Watts said he is from New Haven’s Dwight neighborhood. His mother made excuses about his father’s absence. He never knew his father, he said. The family was on welfare, he said.
“The kids in the neighborhood were tough,” he said. “I mean, you show up with food stamps they make fun of you. My mother told me, she said, ‘Hey if you don’t go to college you will send your kids to the store with food stamps,’ and it’s true. So part of my public service work is paying back what the government did when I was a kid.”
He is the oldest of three children, he said, and dropped out of Hillhouse High School when he was 16 to help his mother pay the bills.
“My mother didn’t want me to do that, but I had to help her,” he said. “I had to help with the rent, I had to help with the lights, I had to help with food. That’s what happened. I had to make a choice, personal sacrifice. Even though I have always had good grades … I never had academic problems. It was just a choice, growing up in the inner city New Haven, that I had to make that sacrifice, that choice.”
Later, he got a high school diploma in adult education classes, he said.
“The people there were great. They thought I had potential to go to college. I never thought I would because I had no one in my family that has ever gone to college before,” Watts said. “So I started out working odd jobs and working my way through community college. After a semester of remedial classes I was able to get into regular classes. Kind of put me a semester back. … I did well. I was on the dean’s list every semester there.”
He went to Southern Connecticut State University and graduated cum laude with 3.5 grade average, he said. He worked his way through that, and interned in the state legislature.
He said he went on to Yale Divinity School and produced photos to prove it. The Yale website shows Watts as a 2003 graduate. Yale Divinity School registrar Lisa Huck confirmed that information.
It was during his time at Yale that Watts provided some foreshadowing of the controversy that would follow his career. In 2001, he forced a primary election against Linda Townsend-Maier in the Ward 2 Alderman race. Watts also leveled a charge of dirty politics against his opponent, to whom he eventually lost.
Watts said he met his wife in his last semester at Yale. “We instantly clicked. I was a Baptist, she told me she was a Catholic, and we just clicked. I was like, hey, never thought I’d get married, but I turned around and it was like, hey, I’m gonna, she wants to get married. She was like, if you want to get married, you’ve got to live in my town. Which, I never thought I’d leave New Haven,” he said. “I never thought I’d leave. This was her hometown. This is where she wanted to put the roots down.”
She told him he could get involved in politics in Norwalk if that was what he wanted, he said. He walked into then-Mayor Alex Knopp’s headquarters not knowing anyone and went on to volunteer for the campaign, he said. Knopp appointed him to the Human Relations Commission and then the Zoning Commission.
He was Knopp’s campaign manager in the mayor’s failed 2005 bid for re-election. No one would give him a shot after that, he said, and when he decided to run for the District A seat in 2011, people told him he would lose. He was running against incumbent Republican Rich Bonenfant, “a great guy,” he said. Veteran former Councilman Matt Miklave was also running.
“When I won, people were shocked, they were like, how did that happen? I proved that if you knock on doors, you have conversations with people, the voters get to know you,” Watts said. “I was fortunate to win a tough race. That was hard. I am not going to lie, that was a hard campaign.”
The Republicans then told him he would be a one-term councilman, he said,
Why run for state representative?
“In politics you try to keep going,” he said. “When I ran for politics the first time they had no clue that I was an appointed official. People just thought I came out of nowhere and it’s just not true. I did it the right way, I started out licking stamps, sweeping headquarters. It’s the old-fashioned farm system.”
Watts, who created a firestorm when he released a rap video criticizing then-mayor Richard Moccia for purchasing “a brand new car, riding around like a movie star” on the city’s dime after his 2011 re-election, said he would not engage in negative campaigning, even if he had been attacked repeatedly by commenters. Watts has been repeatedly attacked over being delinquent on his property taxes and not having a paying job. Several have demanded to know how the man who wants to represent Norwalk in Hartford makes his money.
The answer is vague, despite being pressed. Watts is a freelance campaign operative, he says, and refuses to give details about which candidates he has served, other than New Haven Mayor Toni Harp, who was elected last November. He said he does not get paid to work Norwalk campaigns, because it would be a conflict of interest for him, and he won’t reveal others he has worked for because he does not want the candidates or himself to be linked by political opponents looking for an advantage.
He says he prefers to stick to the issues.
“I just feel like the people in Norwalk deserve a conversation, but people don’t have any fresh ideas. … They use scare tactics to scare voters,” he said.
Issues include “the silliness that come out of Hartford,” the Electoral College and the fact that Norwalk hasn’t built a new school in 43 years, while there are new schools all over New Haven, including some that look like mini-colleges, he said.
“Are we getting the aid? Are we getting money for Wall Street redevelopment? Are we getting money back for sidewalks?” he asked.
Commenters might want to remember: Don’t count Watts out.
“I was counted out my whole life,” he said. “In America, it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish. It is the greatest country in the world because it gives someone like me … a person, an opportunity, when life throws you a curveball you can correct it. Only you can hold yourself back. That is how I have taken a positive attitude all my life. It is something that I carry with me every day, that nothing was given to me, I had to work for it. When you hear people just tear it all down… they don’t know my story. They don’t know that I had to go from high school dropout to getting my college education and receiving a Yale University degree. I could have used every excuse in the book.”