NORWALK, Conn. — With the 2015 local elections looming, fissures in Norwalk’s Democratic Party are becoming more pronounced. The Democratic Town Committee remains firmly behind Mayor Harry Rilling, but Democratic Common Council members are split along racial lines, with members of the unofficial, so-called Black Caucus voicing unhappiness with the city’s top elected official.
While David Watts (D-District A) said he doesn’t know Mayor Harry Rilling well and they are not friends, Eloisa Melendez (D-District A), John Kydes (D-District C), John Igneri (D-District E) and Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) describe a good working relationship with Rilling.
Phaedrel “Faye” Bowman (D-District B) said that she, Watts, Travis Simms (D-District B) and Sharon Stewart (D-At Large) have not been consulted on issues that affect their constituents.
Last week, Nancy On Norwalk asked Watts a series of questions stemming from the last Council meeting, where Watts, Simms, Stewart and Bowman voted against Rilling and Finance Director Thomas Hamilton’s recommended 2015-16 operating budget.
Watts said he voted against the budget out of concern for his constituents. “I am a Democrat but I have to make sure that I answer to my constituents first, to make sure that when they have issues that they’re being addressed. I would like to have a relationship with the city in the event that when things get broken then we can get things done,” said Watts, who is in his fourth year as a Council member.
The question-and-answer session continued:
Q: What do you mean by relationship?
A: We want to make sure that things are moving, sometimes things are really slow.
Q: Wouldn’t having a good relationship with the mayor it help to get things done for your constituents?
A: The mayor and I, obviously we don’t know each other that well. We are not friends. My thing is – who wouldn’t want to have a good relationship with the mayor? He’s the mayor. No one chooses to be an adversary of the mayor. You want to be on a great relationship with the mayor. You would like to pick up the phone and call the mayor and have the mayor really try to work with you. Everybody wants that.
Q: People say they have never seen a Council member take on a mayor that’s in their own party before.
A: Yeah. For me, I would challenge anybody. I challenged Mayor Moccia. At the end, he sat down with me, he was, ‘Hey listen, I want to work with you to improve your community.’
Moccia did not return an email asking for confirmation of Watts’ version of the alleged conversation.
“I’d like to make one phone call to DPW or the mayor and send them an email and say, ‘Hey, I have an issue,’ and it can be dealt with, not in a way that is underhanded or sneaky but in a way that a Council member has to be able to do their job with very little resources,” Watts said.
Last week, Watts posted a satirical photo on his private Facebook page. One of his Facebook friends sent it to NoN.
The post showed Pinocchio with an elongated nose, and the words, “Harry Rilling has potential.” As a caption, Watts wrote, “Tonight, the Black Caucus voted against the capital budget. Why? Harry Rilling continues to neglect the urban core.”
Q: You say that you need to have a good relationship with the mayor. Does putting a picture of Pinocchio out there and (mocking) the mayor … help?
A: The Pinocchio thing was meant to be funny, shared amongst my friends, and it was just something that I just threw out there to just say look. It’s a conversation, it’s a joke. It wasn’t meant to be malicious or anything like that. It was just a joke. It was a thing that you do among your Facebook friends. Now I understand that as an elected official that whatever I put out can be newsworthy so I have to be a little bit more careful.
The photo was also on Twitter, visible to anyone, at 10:32 p.m. after the Council meeting, without the caption. Former Democratic mayoral candidate Vinny Mangiacopra responded, “That ‘you have potential’ line from the Geiko commercial … hysterical. @DAngeloWatts out did himself with that one. #norwalk”
“Love it!” Simms replied, and retweeted it.
“I don’t know Harry,” Watts said. “I’ve served with him and I don’t know him. I knew him very briefly when I worked in the mayor’s office (during the Alex Knopp administration). I used to see him come in here and there, but…”
“I am not going to get into a public debate with David,” Rilling said. “It’s up to him to explain why he said that. I try my best to work with everybody, regardless of party, to try to make things good for Norwalk. That’s why I was elected and that’s what I try to continue to do.”
NoN sent an email to all the other Democratic Council members, asking about their relationship with Rilling and sharing the comments from Watts. Stewart and Simms did not respond.
“The Mayor has and continues to work hard at building relationships with every Council member,” Kydes wrote. “It’s unfortunate but some have shut the door on his efforts since day one. For reasons they describe as political. I am personally proud to call Mayor Rilling my friend and I know that if others gave him a chance, they would see the same kind and giving man that I’ve gotten to know.”
“Having served on the council for a year and half, I do feel like I know the mayor,” Melendez wrote. “I would also consider him a friend. I think we’ve been able to work well together because we have a mutual respect for each other. I’ve expressed before that I was nervous about how I would be treated by my colleagues, given my age when I was first elected. Mayor Rilling has always treated me with respect not only as a councilwoman but as person. He has always made time to hear my concerns and answer my questions and vice versa. That’s why I feel like I know him. I think I’ve been able to accomplish this because I believe if you want respect, you have to give it. You get in return what you give.”
“I think that there are things the Mayor could do differently in terms of asking Councilman Simms, Watts, Stewart, and myself what our needs are for our district instead of steam rolling ahead agendas and projects that either are not priorities or do not have widespread community support,” Bowman wrote. “The result is that no one is happy, not our constituents and not us. Had we been consulted, we would have been able to give informed feedback on whether or not certain decisions are a good idea or not and how it would be received by our constituents.”
Stewart is an At-Large Council member and does not have a district to represent.
“I am fully supportive of Harry Rilling as Mayor,” Igneri wrote. “He is available to all council members–both the D’s and the R’s. All you have to do is call him. And his budget, which was approved with slight changes, is a good budget with one of the lowest tax increases the City has seen in years while still fully funding the BOE.”
“I’ve known Harry since 1997, when I was first elected to the Common Council,” Kimmel wrote. “We’ve always gotten along well, and over the years we’ve had a fair number of straightforward discussions on a variety of issues. Interestingly, during the 2013 campaign, even though I was on the Republican ticket, we bumped into each other several times while out knocking on doors. Those occasions were nice ‘breaks in the action’ as we shared campaign stories.
“Since his election, I think it’s fair to say he’s probably the most accessible Mayor I’ve ever served under,” Kimmel continued. “We communicate quite often, both electronically and in person. I am always surprised by his prompt replies to my queries. Also, I often copy him on emails to department heads or other city staff, and it’s nice to see his genuine concern with relatively small constituent issues.”
Kimmel said he served under mayors Esposito, Knopp, Moccia and Rilling. He also served with former Superintendent of Schools Sale Corda from 2005 to 2009 when he was a Board of Education member, he said.
“What I find particularly interesting about Mayor Rilling is his willingness to work closely with both Democrats and Republicans,” Kimmel wrote. “His door is open to both sides of the aisle; unfortunately, a few members of his own party are hesitant to walk through it with an open mind.”
Update, 2:05 p.m., Quote from John Igneri added.