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Laid-back Garfunkel says he’s the right person to be Norwalk state rep

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Former Town Clerk Andy Garfunkel talks to Nancy On Norwalk at the Oak Hills Restaurant on the Green.
The general election is Tuesday, Nov. 4.
The general election is Tuesday, Nov. 4.

This is one of a series of candidate profiles designed to tell voters something about the person rather than the politician. Previous stories have looked at candidates Bill Dunne (R-25), Fred Wilms (R-142nd) and Chris Perone (D-137th). In coming days, we will profile Gail Lavielle (R-143rd) and Keith Rodgerson (D-143rd). Sen. Bob Duff (D-25) has not responded to request for an interview.

NORWALK, Conn. – Three years after serving as town clerk for 10 years, Andy Garfunkel is running in his 10th election, this time for state representative. Although he has run for mayor twice since leaving office, he has something surprising to say.

“I still don’t classify myself as a politician,” Garfunkel said. “I feel like I am one of the neighbors. I am one of the town folks as well. I just have a natural ability to speak a little, not be scared to speak in public. So I think I’m a voice of reason. I never get too controversial. I get passionate when I think it’s an issue that I feel is not being heard.”

Garfunkel, a Democrat, is facing off against Republican Fred Wilms for the right to represent the 142nd District, taking over from long-time incumbent Republican Larry Cafero.

It’s his easy way of forming relationships and his desire to serve people that help make him perfect for the job, he said. Not to mention his varied background.

Like Cafero, Garfunkel is from Norwalk. He said he grew up next to what is now All Saints Catholic School, with the school’s fields as his back yard. He and his friends played on the football field, rode their bikes in the parking lot and went sledding down the hills in the winter. As he got older there was ice skating at Wood’s Pond, and, as a middle school kid, the summers were mostly spent at the then-Jewish Community Center on Shorehaven Road, playing ball and “getting the bug” for show business in the plays the kids put on there every year.

He was “quite crafty,” he said. He did a lot of gardening with his father, a Republican lawyer who served on the Fire Commission for 14 years under Mayor Frank Esposito. He built nets for street hockey. He also built a clubhouse in the back yard, which he said was probably the predecessor for the construction work that would sustain him later.

His first “job,” though, was selling cotton candy and balloons at a carnival owned by his brother’s girlfriend’s uncle. In high school, he first cleaned floors in the summer, then went to work at Sizzler Steakhouse, beginning as a dishwasher and working up to an assistant manager, he said. He went on to work at the Darien Dinner Theater, where his two worlds – restaurant work and theater – came together. Later, he strung wires for Cablevision – a tough job, he said.

He worked in theater, and working with Henry Fonda at a Stamford theater for two or three months in the 1980’s was a highlight. “It was very interesting to me in my early 20’s to be with a icon,” Garfunkel said.

He was also a personal dresser for Richard Kiley, who originated the lead role in “Man of La Mancha,” for a while. When Garfunkel turned 21, Kiley bought him a coffee table book about theater history as a birthday gift, Garfunkel said.

How did he get into politics?

He was involved in high school student government, and ran for president, he said. “I was always active in fundraising, community events, before we had these organizations that are now in existence,” he said. But when his now-28-year-old son was in kindergarten or first grade at Wolfpit Elementary, Garfunkel went to his first Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) meeting and spoke up after a half-hour discussion about the color of lollipops for a fundraiser to ask if something more serious might be the topic, he said.

He was asked to get more involved, and eventually became PTO president, leading meetings that were more regimented than they had been, he said. There was a fight over shifting all the elementary school principals; he became familiar with city officials and became a go-between for people.

In 1997 he ran for the Board of Education as an independent with Charlie Yost and under mayoral candidate Doug Hempstead. “I did very well in that,” he said. Later he talked to Hempstead, who told him it was the major parties that really have an effect on things.

Garfunkel said he talked to both parties. “The Democrats were very welcoming at that time,” he said, and that’s when “Alex Knopp got me involved into local politics.”

Then there was a controversy when Wolfpit parents found out, entirely by accident, that there was a registered sex offender in the neighborhood. Garfunkel organized a town hall, with Knopp, Cafero and then-Police Chief Harry Rilling. It calmed the waters, Garfunkel said.

“That was kind of when things clicked for me, or kind of sped up, that I was helping people or kind of facilitating the needs of those that were around me in the community. It kind of went up from there,” Garfunkel said.

He ran to represent District C on the Common Council in 1999; Pete Torrano won by 17 votes. When 2001 came around, Garfunkel had moved to another district; Knopp was running for mayor and suggested that Garfunkel run for town clerk.

That was the year the Democrats won everything.

“It changed everything that I did, how I worked and my involvement in the community,” Garfunkel said. “I had access to more information to help more people, and then town clerk’s office itself became my focus as to how I can upgrade this and update this.”

He had been in construction for 22 years at that point, working at the Darien Dinner Theater at night, he said. First he had worked for a contractor building  houses in Greenwich. When the market crashed, Garfunkel opened his own home remodeling business.

As town clerk, Garfunkel was afraid to take a day off during his first two years when he was learning the ropes. After five terms, Garfunkel took the bold step of giving up what some might say was a secure job to challenge then-Mayor Richard Moccia, who was seeking reelection for the fourth time. Garfunkel came closer than anyone else had, coming within 835 votes.

Why give up a safe job?

“In my mind it wasn’t always safe. There was always an opponent. … Even when an opponent ran against me that didn’t campaign they still got 2,000 votes,” Garfunkel said. “It was stressful, having to run an election and also be in it.”

“I believed that I had succeeded in changing the office, the personality of the office and bringing it up to date with technology. Having spent the prior two decades working with my hands … I was anxious to do other things,” Garfunkel said, going on to say that it was also time within the Democratic Party. He had established himself as a viable mayoral candidate, having seen how the city worked, he said. His children were out of school and he could devote himself to the tough job of being mayor, he said.

“I believe also that you go out when you’re on top,” Garfunkel said. “I succeeded in making the office something different than it was, better than it was, and I’d go to work on a daily basis and say, ‘OK, what I am going to do today?’ Because the staff was running like a well-oiled machine and so the management of it wasn’t as difficult. I trusted everything was going to go, and it did, everything was working smoothly.”

Running for mayor is a whole different level of campaigning, Garfunkel said. When he was running for town clerk, he was serving everyone, but the issues he got into while knocking on doors had a political divide to them.

“All of a sudden 50 percent of people don’t like you,” he said. “I’ve finally come to terms with it, I’m not going to please everybody.”

What else did he learn?

“I try to now surround myself with people that I know are going to be honest enough to give me that opinion. I guess that’s what becomes a seasoned professional in any career. You know who you can trust or who you can go to in any aspect,” Garfunkel said.

About one year after Garfunkel left the town clerk’s office a scandal broke: Assistant Town Clerk Debbie Troy was accused of stealing money from the office, arrested and charged with larceny first degree, illegal alteration of records, forgery second degree and tampering with physical evidence. The case is still pending; Troy’s next court date is Nov. 20.

Garfunkel said he learned about it in news reports just like everyone else and was “saddened.”

The alleged theft had occurred while Garfunkel was town clerk.

“I think the city has an issue with cash flow to begin with,” Garfunkel said. “We were lax and I was very trustworthy of everyone in the staff. … There’s cash flow problems and I think that starts at the top in the finance department.” He did not elaborate.

The alleged thefts were discovered by Town Clerk Rick McQuaid shortly after new accounting software was installed. Garfunkel said one of the last things he did as town clerk was sign the order for that software, which uncovered whatever may have been going on. He had upgraded the cashier systems in the office, he said; upgrading further with computerized receipts will solve some of the cash flow problems, he said.

The warrant on file at Stamford Superior Court says that the town clerk’s office staff uses the cash registers indiscriminately. Garfunkel said that’s true – everyone there plays crossover roles and you can’t put one person on the register, he said. It would take 30 seconds for someone to log in, if that were the system, and there are sometimes lines, he said.

It’s alleged in the warrant that a petty cash fund, derived from “clerk’s fees,” was used to go to New York City to dinner, and one time the gang went in a limousine. Garfunkel said that isn’t true.

“That was done on our money. That was not done on city money,” Garfunkel said. The petty cash account existed when he became town clerk, he said. It was used to buy a fax machine and for lunch on Election Day, he said. “That money was never used for personal gain or anybody’s personal use,” he said.

“There wasn’t a reason to suspect anybody. The reports always justified themselves. Nobody in the Finance Department questioned them,” Garfunkel said. “I wasn’t hired as the city comptroller. Everything that came through my office, we justified it on the day, it went upstairs.”

Also about a year after Garfunkel left office, he went back into the theatrical field, working as a stage hand. He had paid his union dues while working as clerk, because “I knew there might be a day when I might need to fall back on that. I enjoyed the work.”

He worked on the first seven episodes of NBC’s “The Blacklist,” he said. He has also worked for NBC sports in Stamford, on the “Maury Povitch Show,” the Millionaire shows, an HBO series shot in Mount Vernon and the fourth season of “The Big C.”

Garfunkel ran for mayor last year, one of four Democrats in a primary, which Rilling won.

Why run for state rep?

“The opportunity of an open seat doesn’t come along very often and I believe that my personality, and the work I have done, that this is a perfect match for me in my opinion, and others have confirmed that,” Garfunkel said. “Again, I like to reach out to people, I like to listen, I have a very calm effect on how I work and how I make decisions, how I deal with people, and everyone is entitled to their opinion, everyone is entitled to be who they are, whatever they want to talk about. Their idea might complement my idea. I have no problem with building relationships.”

As town clerk, he worked with many state agencies, including the Department of Revenue Services, Social Security, Passport agencies, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) and children’s services, he said.

“I think I already have a leg up on the communications to those departments and I know some of the key players who are still in management positions and the representative’s position is a representative,” Garfunkel said. “You are the community. I am the conduit of information from the community to the legislature and from the legislature back to the community. … I really believe I have the talent to do that and the passion to do that, so that’s what I think is driving me to this position, that I just think I will service the community well. I just enjoy doing that to begin with, so step it up a notch to the next level.”

He can be fiscally responsible, he said.

“I am a citizen, too. I own a home, I own a car and I sent my kids through school. I don’t want taxes to go up any more. I want to see the funds that we get are spent appropriately and efficiently,” he said.

There are issues other than budgets, he said. That includes ballot issues, the mental health care system and veteran’s benefits, he said.

“These are all different aspects that I have dealt with on a different level. I think that’s a forte that I can look out for. I am not an accountant. I am not a banker. But I have owned my own small business for years and managed that and successfully made a profit, and managed employees and so I think all of that is just conducive to being a representative. It’s not just a state representative. It is a representative of people,” Garfunkel said.

His work history influences his desires to make a difference as state rep, he said.

“One of the things I want to look at as state legislator is the tax incentive for the film industry,” he said. “I have a different insight on how that can work better for the state. … I just think the contract needs to be rewritten in favor of the state of Connecticut and not the film industry, but still incentive enough for companies here. As soon as they tabled that tax (the industry) moved out of Fairfield to Westchester.”

As a stage hand, he has commuted to New York City both by train and car, he said. He recently had work in Brooklyn and it took him 2½ hours to get there, and an hour longer to get home, he said. He had to drive to the Chelsea Pier area in Manhattan to work on “The Blacklist”; it was easy to get there at 4 a.m., but coming home was a different story.

“I’d get to the Connecticut border and then the traffic issues. It never failed that I could get anywhere in New York to Connecticut within an hour but then it was still another hour to go from Greenwich to Norwalk. It opened my eyes to a lot,” Garfunkel said.

Light rail and freight rail might be a good idea, he said.

He would like to serve on the Transportation Committee, the General Administration of Elections and on Veterans Affairs, he said.

He didn’t serve in the military but he has strong feelings about veterans, he said. “These are people who put their lives on the line for the country and I don’t think we’re treating them correctly. I don’t think we’re giving them the benefits they deserve,” Garfunkel said.

Garfunkel said he is a very low key, calm person, to the point that he’s been asked why he doesn’t yell during a family argument, he said.

“I look at things in a very practical way,” Garfunkel said. “If I am yelling and screaming, it’s energy I am expending that I don’t need to. I can talk to you and get something done. So by nature I am a very calm person. It takes a lot to get me angry. I can be passionate, but I don’t get very angry. There’s not many people I don’t like; really, everybody gets a fair shot.”

Comments

6 responses to “Laid-back Garfunkel says he’s the right person to be Norwalk state rep”

  1. Anna Duleep, City Sheriff

    So very proud to be working to get my friend Andy elected to serve as My Future State Rep. Full disclosure: I turned down several tutoring clients and delayed accepting a long-term sub position in Stamford (until Nov. 6) to become Andy’s campaign manager. While he keeps insisting on paying me, I have as yet refused to sign a contract. It is payment enough to have him represent my district in Hartford! I like Fred Wilms as a person. However, my mother is rather the poster child for how banks can make things MUCH harder for small businesses. She is still in federal litigation with the bank I’m not allowed to name; all she’s trying to do is get them to comply with the law. Andy, as a fellow (former) small business owner, knows the practical considerations; he goes beyond balance sheets to actually GET THINGS DONE. I do not need a State Rep who is willing to waste his time, as Mr. Wilms told Tom Appleby, “welcoming efforts to repeal Obamacare” in Connecticut. I need somebody who is ready to hit the ground running, ready to serve veterans, small business owners, and the statewide electorate as soon as he’s sworn in!

  2. Oldtimer

    Anybody get any straight answers on Cafero’s pension ?

    Andy Garfunkel is a nice guy who will work hard for the district when he is elected.

  3. Bill

    So laid back that money was lost on his watch at city hall. Exactly who we need in a state with the biggest debt in the nation and a shrinking tax base.

  4. NO ANDY! NO!!!!

    Andy may be a nice guy, but he sealed his fate with Debbie Troy’s debacle.

    He let Norwalk down by not catching the lost money in the town clerk’s office and it’s unforgivable.

    He also could never be found in the office, because he was always taking sick days to campaign for Mayor.

    Andy is just jumping from one ship to another, as he fails to secure enough votes for each position he runs for.

    Andy, you’re simply trying to beef up your resume.

  5. Ken

    Seems like a nice guy, but so is Bob Duff and many other well known Democrats who have been in charge as CT has steadily declined in every way year after year after year after year. It should be an embarrassment to call yourself a Democrat in our state and its long past time to stop making the same mistakes by electing people of the same leanings as those who buried us. Cafero, like most long term republicans in our state was only there because he toed the liberal progressive line. If you like high taxes, high unemployment, increased deficit spending, ever expanding govt, driving out industry, driving out manufacturing and driving out jobs, then by all means vote for Andy. If you want to help restore sanity in CT then vote for Fred Wilms! The choice across the board is simple here because ONE party rule has been the norm in our legislature for over three decades. The blame for ALL of our issues lies squarely on the Democrats.

  6. Piberman

    Ken
    Actually credit belongs to Gov Weicker who pledged no new taxes while enlisting support from the wealthy Greenwich crowd try promising to end the punitive tax on dividends. So he sprung the income tax upon election which opened up a Pandora’s Box of spending for Democrats and their public Union supporters. But come the Recession and income tax revenues decline. So CT’s economy is held hostage by Recessions and high spending Democrats. We have a new Recession not far off and everyone expects the Democrat super-majority to last through global warming. What’s needed us a holiday from Democrat rule and greatly reducing dependence on the CT income tax. Not even the tooth fairy can imagine that blissful day.

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