(Updated 12:03 a.m. Tuesday with new material including a response from the Mayor Richard Moccia campaign)
NORWALK, Conn. – Democrat Harry Rilling used three words over and over Monday – civility, respect and inclusiveness – as he spoke for the firefighters standing behind him on the steps of the old Norwalk City Hall.
Those words, he said, are the reason the firefighters’ union is endorsing him in his run for mayor instead of the incumbent Republican they endorsed in the last, Mayor Richard Moccia.
Moccia did not return a request for comment.
The firefighters did not say much. Union President Elefterios Petrides tried to avoid commenting during the press conference. Asked about the importance of the new firehouse, constructed under the Moccia administration, he said it would not make them better firefighters.
“What we need from a leader is someone who will sit down at the table with us and not send in his hired guns,” he said in reference to contract negotiations that took place in the past year. “That’s what we need, to be treated fairly.”
He is quoted in a press release as saying it was about respect.
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“We’re very proud to announce that we are endorsing Harry Rilling for mayor,” he said in the prepared statement. “Harry understands that firefighters are professionals and as mayor he will treat firefighters with respect. He will be an open and hands-on mayor that will always ensure that firefighters have a seat at the table and are able to give input into how Norwalk’s public safety is run.”
The union endorsed Moccia in 2011. In that statement, Petrides said of Moccia, “He understands the needs of Norwalk Fire Fighters and has worked well with the union to ensure that our members have the resources needed to keep the citizens of Norwalk safe.”
Many Norwalkers say the union, Norwalk Professional Fire Fighters Association IAFF Local 830, is a primary reason Moccia became mayor in 2005. The union endorsed Moccia over incumbent Democratic Mayor Alex Knopp. Moccia won by 176 votes.
Councilman David Watts (D-District A) was Knopp’s campaign manager in that election.
“The fire union, they are an active group,” he said. “I think that was one of the factors that led to Alex’s loss in 2005. I was campaign manager at that point. They were clearly the most active group and the most vocal. … There was a lot of things wrong, but they did have an impact and they will have an impact in this race. It is definitely a valued endorsement. It would be disingenuous to say it isn’t. They put their lives on the line.”
Watts said he wasn’t comfortable speculating about the mayor’s relationship with the firefighters, why they are now talking about respect and dignity.
“I think a lot of the mayor’s problems are a direct result of the personnel director,” he said, referring to James Hasselkamp.
Republican Town Committee Chairman Art Scialabba said the endorsement wasn’t surprising.
“Am I surprised that they endorsed Rilling after getting a new Fire HQ and signing a new contract? No – it’s politics,” he said in an email. “Obviously, the mayor had a choice to make – make promise to the union to get an endorsement, or look out for the interest of the Norwalk taxpayers.”
A four-year contract with the firefighters was approved by the Common Council in August. It provides for an 8.5 percent raise over its term.
“The mayor did the right thing and obviously had to say no to some of the union’s demands,” Scialabba said. “Mayor Moccia makes his responsibility to the taxpayers of Norwalk a priority.
“The real question is – what did Harry promise and how much could it cost taxpayers?”
“I promised nothing other than I would listen to them, nothing other than treating them with the respect they are due, Rilling said Monday night. “That’s all they wanted. We have wonderful city employees and we have to treat them with respect.”
The contract is for four years. The mayor’s term is for two years. Whoever wins in November will have to seek re-election before being involved in another contract with the firefighters.
“They can say what they want, but the bottom line is the firefighters felt they were not treated with dignity and respect under the Moccia administration,” Rilling said.
The union did not endorse anyone in the 2007 and 2009 elections, according to its website.
In the Monday afternoon press conference, Rilling cited his 17 years as police chief as one of the reasons the firefighters chose him.
“They feel that I have a true understanding and respect for what they do on a daily basis, how they go to work every day, they’re ready to put their lives on the line to protect the lives and property of the citizens of Norwalk,” he said. “They have an understanding that as a manager of a public safety agency for 17 years, that I appreciate truly what they do and that I am the person who will include them in decisions that affect them. I will make myself assessable whenever they need to discuss things with me. I will treat them with civility and with the respect to which they are entitled.”