NORWALK, Conn. – It’s silly season in Norwalk, otherwise known as election season.
Because of the short terms – mayor and Common Council members serve for two years – it is almost always election season here, and, by extension, silly season. And the deeper we go into the process, the more things are heating up.
It never ceases to amaze me that politicians and media don’t often learn from the past. Candidates pay lip service to change, the media navel-gazes and self-flagellates for not looking more critically at the candidates, and then they all go out and do it again.
This season began with a Kumbaya moment, with the idea that the four Democrats running for mayor would play nice, not publicly diss each other and present a united front to unseat the incumbent Republican. We already see fissures developing in this plan.
Some of the candidates seem to be running scared because of the New Kid on the Block. Vinny Mangiacopra is young, full of energy, has strong financial support from east of Norwalk and is an experienced campaigner. Mangiacopra also has no governing experience and carries his own baggage, but his upside – a 180-degree change from the aging incumbent – is not lost on the rest of the D’s. His has been the most aggressive campaign so far.
Common Councilman Matt Miklave has taken a low-key approach and has been quite deferential to his fellow campaigners. Miklave’s problem is different than Mangiacopra’s – he has plenty of experience, and his Common Council performance is being parsed and used against him. This is the same thing that happens to Congressmen who run for president. Pols make decisions and compromises that they have to make to do business, and that record is used against them. In the case of Norwalk’s sitting Dem councilmen and women, they cannot have much impact in the existing Republican-dominated political environment.
The other two Dems – Harry Rilling and Andy Garfunkel – have been strangely quiet so far, aside from a few focused political events. Garfunkel’s candidacy may be in trouble because of lack of funds and because of the developing scandal in the Town Clerk’s office that dates back to his days running that department.
That makes two scandal-tainted candidates, considering Mangiacopra’s association with Bridgeport pol Ernie Newton, the former state senator who who served four years for political corruption. Mangiacopra was heavily involved in trying to rehab Newton’s reputation when the convicted felon decided to run again for office. Newton is again facing charges as a result of that race.
There is no evidence of either Garfunkel or Mangiacopra being involved in any wrongdoing, but, in many minds, you are known by the company you keep – or supervise.
And then there is Rilling, the career cop who served many years as Norwalk chief of police. Rilling, a slightly younger contemporary of the incumbent Richard Moccia, is painted by some as a carbon copy of the mayor he served for so long. But Rilling has said he has never been a Republican, and eschewed political affiliation as a police chief so as not to politicize the post. He publicly played good soldier to his boss, and that has given his detractors plenty to work with. Add to that a certain institutional wariness of police in general – seemingly more pronounced on the left – and it would seem Rilling, through his relative media silence, is in danger of letting his opponents on both sides define him.
Then again, Rilling has been in the race the shortest time of any candidate R or D, and has raised the most money.
When it comes to all of the Democratic candidates, there has been lots of “we need a change,” “we need to do better” and “we need to enhance” various programs – “enhance” meaning “spend money” – but little in the way of “and this is how I propose to do it.” What we do hear, in addition to the obvious references to the current administration, is surrogates and sometimes the candidates themselves taking veiled shots at each other. Mangiacopra’s “fresh” approach is a swipe at his long-entrenched rivals. Rilling, Garfunkel and Miklave surrogates harp on Mangiacopra’s youth and lack of relevant experience, not to mention his Bridgeport past.
As for Moccia, the message he delivered at his kickoff announcement and on his website let his followers know pretty much where he stands – the same place he has stood for the past seven years. We don’t know much more because the mayor does not communicate with media folks – or anyone, really — who asks tough questions. While we always request his input, requests go unanswered.
What we do know is that the statement on his campaign site refers a few times to “taking back our government,” a phrase most commonly associated with the Tea Party (strange, because the mayor does not seem to be aligned with that movement). It speaks of responsive leadership and, in the past, getting our taxes under control, increasing police resources and improving the schools. Responsiveness to the public, problems in the schools, public safety and rising taxes are all areas Moccia can expect to have to defend this summer and fall.
Now, with the game underway, let’s all sit back and watch to see if the Dems can keep from self-destructing while Moccia tries to convince the electorate that everything is just fine as long as he is left in charge.
(Mark Chapman is a Norwalk resident, a longtime journalist and editor of NancyOnNorwalk.)