NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk’s Democratic former mayors are optimistic about the future given Tuesday’s landslide victory by Mayor Harry Rilling and the emergence of a Democratic majority on the Common Council that they expect to be a more functional caucus than has been the case.
“I think it was a strong affirmation of the public support for Harry’s style of leadership and a vote in favor of normalization of having the Council majority and mayor of the same party,” former Mayor Alex Knopp said, of the election results. “It’s interesting, a lot of the changes on the Board of Ed occurred in the primary and the candidate selection rather than in the general, where the results are not terribly dissimilar of the status quo. I think also that Kelly Straniti deserves a lot of credit for stepping up and making sure the election was contested in a difficult environment and did herself proud.”
Why was Rilling’s margin of victory, at 62.1 percent, so great?
“He is a natural born politician, and I didn’t know that when he was (police) chief,” former Mayor Bill Collins said. “But he has great skills, and following the Moccia administration, where there was sort of a premium placed on inaction, he is happy to see action. He was able to put his foot down on some development projects and get them off the ground – which, I was sitting in on one of those meetings and I was quite impressed with the way he dropped the hammer on people on both sides and got things going.
“That kind of new inspiration to developers has made a difference. There are shovels in the ground all over the place,” Collins said. “People appreciate that. I think poor Kelly hasn’t been in the public eye for quite a while and people forget pretty fast. … I think she did Republicans a favor by taking it on.”
The newly Democratic Council members met Thursday night to begin discussing the shape of their two-year government and decided to keep their thoughts confidential at this point, according to Common Councilwoman Eloisa Melendez (D-District A).
While both Knopp and Collins said they had no inside information on developments, both agreed to express opinions on general topics related to the election and the shape of things to come, in light of what has happened in Rilling’s first term:
- “I think the most important task now is the new organization of the Council and the normalization of the relationship between the Council majority and the mayor,” Knopp said. “We have on paper what has been called a weak mayor/strong Council form of government. It is really much more fluid than that in my experience. … It’s a very dynamic and fluid situation. It would be a mistake to characterize the role of any executive in municipal government as weak. Now that some of the difficult personal relationships and antagonisms will be gone from the Democratic majority caucus, I think it’s important once again to have Harry’s leadership of the caucus be re-established by making sure that he is welcomed by the Democratic caucus to attend and to chair Democratic caucus meetings.”
- “Certainly when I was in, I did not look at it as a weak mayor system,” Collins said. “… Really, the mayor is the only one who has the staff and the money and hopefully the vision to set a tone and a vision for the city. The Norwalk system generally allows him to do that.”
- “It’s very important to restore the functioning role of the caucus,” Knopp said. “In the last year or two, apparently, the caucus stopped meeting as a whole and they missed a lot of opportunities to discuss issues in advance. There were a lot of toss-up balls on Council floor. It’s not important, obviously, that every vote be decided in the caucus, and there are some issues where different Council members have different individual views and will be expressing them in remarks and in votes, but It is important that the governing caucus be coordinated and deliberate and therefore knowing everyone’s view, discussing alternatives, being able to come up with amendments and changes is a very important part of governing.”
“The fact that the voters both two years ago and this year decided to return a Democratic majority on the Board of Education means that the organization of the Board is something that one can imagine the mayor and other Democratic leaders taking a stronger role in,” Knopp said. “… I am not in favor of a partisan outlook for members of the Board of Education. Nonetheless, that is the basis when we elect them all to the Board, and there ought to be some consideration of the outcome approved by the voters when the Board is organized. But that’s a matter for individuals on the Board and the mayor kind of working together to see what they feel is appropriate.”
- “I was struck by the excellent credentials of a number of candidates even though they had relatively little experience in municipal government,” Knopp said. “This seems to me to be a change from prior generations. In prior generations, candidates would not ascend to the level of an at-large Council candidacy until they had some experience on other Boards or agencies for several years to learn the ropes, know the personalities and earn the respect of their colleagues to get nominated. What seems to have happened now is more candidates than before running for the Council as one of their first ventures into city politics. Fortunately, those people, as I said, had very high professional credentials. But I thought it was a change from the past in which local political experience counted for more in building up the farm team.”
- “I think that’s a fair observation,” Collins said. “It is a bit troubling because we got people running who do not have much of a résumé, so it’s hard to judge them when the time comes to vote. This is a problem, I don’t deny that. So, to a degree, it’s up to the parties to do that vetting process. By and large, the parties are scrambling to find candidates so they can’t put their back into vetting the way it was once done. Of course, in the old days, when the party had control, party leaders picked candidates for their own purposes, not necessarily in the best interest of the city. So it’s all a trade-off. I think we’re doing fairly well, we’ve got fairly good candidates and I don’t think the Democrats are complaining about the Republicans who are in.
- “I remain very disappointed by the low voter turnout, and hope there can be some reforms at the state level to encourage greater voter participation in municipal elections,” Knopp said. “It’s interesting, as an example, that California this year adopted the so-called automatic registration law in which every voter who turns 18 is automatically registered. It’s unfortunate that in last year’s election there was not enough support for the referendum proposal on the ballot to allow mail-in voting in Connecticut. That was not adopted and it was handled ineptly both in the wording of the referendum proposal and in the explanation. So right now the Connecticut Constitution would prohibit mail-in voting, but that’s the kind of change in voting procedure that could increase turnout, not just in municipal elections but also in state and presidential runs, but it is the municipal elections that have the saddest turnout.”
- “My experience, at least in Norwalk, has been that voter participation increases when there is going to be a desire by the electorate to change administrations or the outcome is uncertain,” Knopp said. “I think here it would have been hard for an objective observer to conclude that Harry’s re-election was threatened, and therefore I am sure a number of people felt there was no reason to come out and vote. That doesn’t seem to be the case in either gubernatorial or presidential elections in Norwalk when the turnout is much higher.”
- “I don’t know about the Republicans, but our party really put a lot of effort into getting turnout,” Collins said. “I guess we got the right people to come, but it’s not healthy for the republic to have so few people come. But it’s become a national problem and frankly, that goes to somebody in a higher pay grade.”
“There has been a real lack of unity in the Democratic caucus,” Knopp said. “That seems to have been resolved through the primaries and other changes. I expect now it to work much more effectively. It’s a small number of elected officials, and the more coordination you have between the Council governing majority and the mayor, the better things will run. It’s obviously also important to have bipartisan communication and have the mayor reach out reach out to the Council minority as well, but it’s important that the governing majority and the mayor of the same party coordinate. That didn’t happen for the past two years.”
- “I think the normalization of having the same party in the Council majority and the mayor’s office means that the governing approach can be different,” Knopp said. “It will be interesting to see how that turns out. Obviously, Harry is not an especially partisan political figure. He reaches out and consults widely as a matter of his personality and preferences. But, nonetheless, this does makes it possible to think of policies and changes that are more far-reaching than might otherwise be the case if it were still a matter of divided government.”
- “I was talking to one of the Republican Councilmen tonight, he was eager for it to be a cooperative venture,” Collins said. “I think the four Republicans who were elected are people who you can talk with. The Democrats who were probably the biggest problem in the Council last term are not there anymore, so I am pretty optimistic about what can be accomplished.”
Both men said that, while the selection of committee chairmanships is important, the Council’s role in city government is limited anyway:
- “I think generally voters were supportive of Harry’s initiatives and style of leadership and wanted to give him more positive reinforcement to continue and expand it,” Knopp said. “… No one should forget that the coat tails of the mayor had a lot to do with everyone’s election. That means that I think Harry deserves a voice in these appointments. On the other hand, I think the coordination of the caucus as whole as a team working with the mayor is more important than any committee chairmanship.”
- “Committee chairmanships are important, but their significance could be also be overestimated because most of the initiatives considered by committees come out of either the mayor’s office or the departments under the jurisdiction of those committees,” Knopp said. “It’s been rare to have a committee chairman have a decisive role in a particular ordinance or policy adoption of great significance. But, again, it’s something that needs to be worked out, but those sort of leadership issues are really subordinate to the effective operation and communication of the caucus and the mayor working together.”
- “I don’t care so much about the partisan leadership,” Collins said. “That’s other people’s work. I care about leadership for making improvements in the city and making us competitive with our sister cities around here for the business that is coming out of New York. Not due to so much anything we have done, but New York has its own economic realities. A lot of people have come to feel they can’t live there anymore because of the cost so they are moving out in all directions. … If we are going to be competing in that market, we have to be savvy in what people are looking for and what businesses they are looking for. That is the challenge now and I think with Harry having a good majority on the Council and some experience under his belt, people giving him reasonably good advice, we are probably in for a good period of time.”
- “It doesn’t make a whole lot of difference,” Collins said. “The Council is not given the tools to be initiators. The Council sits in judgement with whatever the staff comes up with it. That’s very, very important, but the Zoning Commission and the Redevelopment Agency, particularly the Redevelopment Agency, the Planning Commission, people who have these various appointed positions have the time to specialize and study the subject and bring them to the mayor and the Council, and that is how you determine if you get change or not.”
Democratic Town Committee Chairman Ed Camacho deserves the “vast bulk of the credit” for the shape of Norwalk’s government at present, Collins said.
“He really put his back into this,” Collins said. “He took off a lot of time from his job. He had a lot to do with getting people to run and getting people not to run, and bringing a sense of unity to the party, I think. Now Lord knows we are not unified, but it’s a lot better than it was and I give Ed full credit for that.”