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Peña says his dark past is behind him as he tries to build bright Norwalk future

ormer at-large Common Councilman and candidate for Assembly Warren Peña
Former at-large Common Councilman and current candidate for Assembly Warren Peña talks about his life while sitting outside his Harbor Avenue campaign headquarters.

Update, Aug. 11: Peña was born in Nicaragua

NORWALK, Conn. – Warren Peña learned to drive when he was 10 years old, just so he’d be able to help the family in the event of an emergency, he said.

That’s about the time his father, the family breadwinner, left, according to the timeline of a “challenging” childhood Peña laid out recently. His family came here to South Norwalk from Nicaragua; the neighborhood was great because of the diversity, he said, and skateboarding around town was fun. But he was a “wild pony” with no respect for authority, and let a wrestling scholarship to college slip through his fingers before turning things around after an uncle who had sexually abused him was arrested and deported, taking the burden of secrecy off his shoulders, he said.

Peña, a former Common Councilman, is challenging state Rep. Bruce Morris (D-140) in the Aug. 12 primary. Morris won the May caucus contest between the two with a 222-99 vote.

Peña said his grandmother lost her house when he was a kid because all three of her children were going through a divorce at the same time. His mother had an 11-year-old, a 10-year old (Peña) and a 7-year-old when his father left, and the family went on Section 8 and food stamps, he said. His mom worked two or three “manly” jobs, Peña said. Peña worked too; he said he worked in construction from the time he was 10 until he was 22.

When he was 13, they moved to East Norwalk, and he was a freshman at Norwalk High School, he said. “Thankfully I played sports because that kept me out of more trouble,” Peña said.

It really shouldn’t have been surprising when he didn’t make the basketball team, he said, given that he was a “peanut,” at 4-foot-8 and 98 pounds. He was angry and disappointed, but the school wrestling coach recruited him. He’ll never forget pinning an opponent 1 minute, 16 seconds into his first attempt at wrestling, he said.

Wrestling taught him dedication and hard work, he said.

“I always had to work harder at basically everything I have done in my life,” Peña said. “I don’t mind that because I think that hard work takes you where you want to go to.”

He went on to win the state championship in his senior year.

There are rumors that Peña was in trouble as an adolescent, that he got arrested.

“I was kind of a nomad. I was a wild pony,” Peña said. “Those aren’t rumors; I got into my fair share of not following the rules and not respecting authority, as I mentioned earlier, but I learned my lesson pretty quickly.”

When he was about 17 years old, a distant uncle, his grandmother’s half-brother, was arrested, charged with sexual assault and deported, Peña said. It was in the papers, but the name of the victim – Warren Peña – was not.

“That was a huge weight off my shoulders and my family’s shoulders,” Peña said. “I was able to break the news to my mother and overcome that, because it happened when I was 12, 13 years old. And then confiding in friends, in family members and my Godfather in particular, that was instrumental in getting him arrested.”

The day his uncle was sentenced Peña “lost myself in terms of holding my emotions back,” he said. That was a relief.

But a full-boat wrestling scholarship was gone. “I felt like I had no direction at the time and my mom was too busy to hold my hand and go through all the process,” he said. The summer after high school was sad, as friends left to go to college and he worked construction and delivered pizza. But he only lost one semester, enrolling in Norwalk Community College with a totally different approach to life.

He studied business administration and then transferred to Northeastern University, where he received a bachelor’s in criminal justice-legal studies.

He looked for a job for seven or eight months, but the opportunities were all in the city and the math just didn’t add up in terms of profitability, he said. “I was not going to be able to save any money if I commuted,” Peña said.

His little sister was interning for a financial planner. He had heard that paid well, went and talked to the person and then to work in the office in August 2003. He’s still there, Peña said.

Peña registered as a Democrat when he was 18. He’d get invitations to fundraisers and throw them out, until he got one with a handwritten note from Susan Wallerstein suggesting that he’d be a good candidate, he said.

Peña said he had wrestled with Wallerstein’s son, and knew him from Wolfpit Elementary School. Wallerstein hooked him up with District D Chairman Vinny Mangiacopra, and there were conversations. Finally, he went to a Democratic Town Committee (DTC) meeting, where he found a familiar face: Travis Simms.

Peña did not know at the time that Simms was on the Common Council.

“That’s how I got to learn a lot about politics, through Vinny, and I have to say even though Travis and I don’t speak as much as we used to I’m always thankful of my first encounter with Travis in politics because he kind of laid down some of the issues and also gave me a good lay of the land in terms of issues and personalities,” Peña said. “So I am always grateful for that.”

Peña’s two-year term was marked by non-binding resolutions, blunt comments and drama with then Mayor Richard Moccia. You might call Peña brash.

Peña said he was 31, aware that not many people his age are interested in civic affairs and wanted to stand up for things the older folks were not interested in.

“Dealing with Mayor Moccia, even though I like him personally, dealing with Mayor Moccia was not that easy,” Peña said. “Being in the minority caucus, learning and understanding as you were going and then seeing how much pushback for anything that we wanted to do existed, that was very frustrating and challenging. I’ve always been a pretty open, direct guy. I think I give it to people straight. Perhaps sometimes they don’t appreciate my candidness. But I think you see what you get with me and I think that when we have a difference of opinion or when we need to iron out some issues and to compromise, I think I am a pretty fair-minded person and meet people halfway.”

It was a maturing experience, he said.

“Those two years were very eye-opening because you got to understand how municipal government worked. You got to understand who the players were and the personalities behind it all. After a while you say, hey, look, even though I perhaps can be brash at times, you learn how to try to communicate in a different manner so that your message doesn’t get lost or what you are communicating doesn’t get lost in a back-and-forth that gets nowhere,” Peña said.

During that time period he became chairman of the South Norwalk Community Center Board of Directors. He stepped down as a controversy was unleashed. After being let go by the board, interim SoNoCC Director Pat Ferrandino made a lot of public accusations about Peña. That was after Ferrandino’s wife, Marina Forero-Ferrandino, had resigned under hostile circumstances.

“I don’t think I can ever trust or respect what they have done and the things that they have said,” Peña said. “… What he did was create a lot of smoke, innuendo, lies, fabrications that held no merit in my book. I think that if anybody were to take a look under the hood you would see that these were folks that were disgruntled.”

He said that he had indeed “fired” Forero-Ferrandino, but he never closed programs.

“The truth is she disrespected me on numerous occasions and she disregarded votes.

“It got to the point where she was so disrespectful that I knew she had to go, I knew she wasn’t the proper fit that I couldn’t hold off anymore. I certainly didn’t want it to happen in the election,” he said.

He had been warned before agreeing to let Forero-Ferrandino serve as a volunteer executive director, he said. Everything was fine for five or six months and he thought it was fine, he said.

“The thing that saddens me the most about the Ferrandinos is I was a little naïve, I guess,” Peña said. “But you know, going through it, learning, being on a non-profit board for the first time, as chair, I couldn’t support Pat pitting board members against one another, I couldn’t support Marina, I couldn’t support them going behind my back to the very people I was introduced them to, speaking very negative about me… That just became very disturbing to me.”

Peña said it is his intent to unite, educate and uplift the Latino community, that doing so would help Norwalk.

“Pat and Marina, in my opinion, were not only dividing the Hispanic community, which was in direct conflict with what I was trying to do, but also alienated the African-American community more so than the issue of NEON and the South Norwalk Community Center. … I think that it ended the way it ended because they didn’t have the community center’s best interests in mind,” Pena said.

DTC Chairman Ed Camacho has stood behind him and calls Peña the person who can best unite the Latino community and move it forward to lift it up and to make it a major player in the city’s politics

“Sometimes in doing this work it’s so thankless that I don’t think I am that person, however I am extremely grateful that Ed sees those qualities in me,” Peña said. “Regardless of how I feel in terms of perhaps not wanting to be that person, I am active and I will continue to be active and I will continue to work with everybody. However, I will always continue to be cognizant of the lack of representation that we have as a community in city politics.”

But, “Politics is almost secondary. It is extremely important for me to educate and inform the Hispanic community about organization, about alignment, about working together, about being one because when we can be one voice then we can begin to build those relationships in other communities and also work with the politicos to advance the overall mission of the community.”

It’s about building blocks, like getting Eloisa Melendez involved and elected to the Common Council, getting Camacho elected DTC chairman and getting Israel Navarro interested and involved, he said. The formation of Latinos Unidos is part of that, he said.

“The vision and the mission is building blocks. Every year we want to register more of our people to vote, regardless of party affiliation, we want to encourage folks to get involved in boards and commissions,” Peña said. “We want to make sure that they are active in the community. … We want to make sure that our community overall is uplifted, that the Norwalk community enhances in a very positive forward thinking 21st century way. The only way we can do that is by really working together and doing our piece as a community to help other communities, the entire community if you will, to become a better community.”

Comments

13 responses to “Peña says his dark past is behind him as he tries to build bright Norwalk future”

  1. Dede

    Fantastic and enlightening article! I have admired
    Mr Pena’s intense dedication to his causes, and this soul baring article helps to provide the background and context that motivates his drive.
    I applaud him for his courageous honesty and I look forward to watching him continue to spin that adversity into positive forward changes for Norwalk’s diverse community.
    I also hope his story inspires others to see that terrible happenings in our lives need not break us, and that breaking the silence and seeking support can be the turning point of changing dark tradgedy into a motivating force for the powers of good. Bravo Mr Pena!

  2. Bill

    Pena has a heart warming story as a youth, but I’m not sure what he has done as an adult. Harassing people to give him their life savings so he can pass it on to a bigger institution and get a cut isn’t really a job that creats anything in my book. The fact that he can’t hold back from trashing the feradinos also highlights his personality as an adult. No doubt Pena will lose this election and likely try to become a full-time paid leader of SoNoCC. If you can’t make money off the government in politics, why not try to get that money from social service work. State has no money but likely the head of SoNoCC will get 6 figures.

  3. Pat Ferrandino

    Warren Pena continues his character assassination of two 59-year-old dedicated, full-time volunteers who transformed SoNoCC from a corrupt, disheveled, excuse of a community center to a promising light in the community, and who worked tirelessly to create collaborations with Norwalk’s finest institutions. What Warren would not tolerate is being called out for his improprieties. Let me remind those who may not be aware:
    – Warren admitted to knowing that $25,000 was missing from SoNoCC one month after becoming Chairman, but did nothing about it for eight months until the money was returned and his Godmother retired as Executive Director.
    – Warren signed an application for $100,000 of HUD funding that grossly exaggerated activity at South Norwalk Community Center. The application claimed 30,000 visitors in one year that documents reveal the center only had 266 new clients and no effective programs in place, while he was Chairman and his Godmother was Executive Director.
    – Warren misused $1,600 of SoNoCC funds that were earmarked for voter registration and fundraising for scholarships, to instead use in printing postcards for his own political campaign, including paid canvassers making calls from SoNoCC while my wife, Marina (fired Executive Director) and I were in Texas visiting our daughter. As a result, no scholarship funding occurred.
    – Warren held a political meeting at SoNoCC during the Democratic Party mayoral primaries and refused to allow a democratic official to attend. This put SoNoCC in potential risk of losing its non-profit status. He conveniently had the candidate write out a $50 contribution and called it “room rental!”
    – Warren spent close to $2,000 of SoNoCC funds for a table at the Mayor’s Ball and for a holiday dinner for Board members, their significant others, and executive staff when the Ferrandino’s had offered to host a catered event at their home for free.
    – Warren verbally attacked Mayor Rilling, using the “F” bomb at a Nancy on Norwalk fundraising event. The Ferrandino’s intervened to dissipate the “disrespectful” encounter.
    – Warren repeatedly allowed his family members to use the facilities at SoNoCC, without charge at least ten times, causing Marina to wait late into the evening to close the Center.
    – Warren repeatedly violated the SoNoCC’s ByLaws, holding secretive meeting off-premise and charging SoNoCC for the expenses and not allowing full participation of the Board (including Marina, as a non-voting member).
    Yes, Marina as Executive Director called Warren out to the Board for his improprieties in her one-year anniversary report to the Board. It was Warren who, in turn, attacked the two of us for bringing these matters to the Board’s attention.

  4. Tresha Rose

    Warren I have watched you grow into a fine young man & I am very proud of your drive & ambition for a better Norwalk! Your honesty & dedication to our community is an inspiration! Continue your positive walk to the future!

  5. Rod Lopez-Fabrega

    Brave of you to lay out your very difficult childhood for everyone to see.

    Buena suerte.

  6. Tim D

    The sexual abuse, while devastating and sad, plays what role in his election bid?

  7. One and Done.

    It’s pretty simple Tim. Pena is known to be very aggressive and street smart. He needs to show a vulnerable side so that people are distracted from him bullying retired volunteers. You have to feel bad for Sono residents given the choices.

  8. TLaw

    @One and Done – Agreed, he’s trying to make himself look sympathetic and yea, feel bad for SONO because the pickings are very slim. He mentions that he no longer speaks to Travis Simms. Why?

    ..

    I recall being in a restaurant when Pena walked in, asked for a menu and the server replied that the kitchen was closed. His reply, paraphrasing, was “serve me or I will leave you a nasty review on Yelp”. We sat there in disbelief. Yea, he’s a really nice guy who looks out for the small businesses.

  9. Susan Olsen Wallerstein

    I’m proud of Warren – he’s my friend. I also appreciate the Ferrandinos’ contributions. At the end of the day Norwalk needs all of us…Black, White, Latino, male and female, old and young, even Norwegian-Americans!

  10. John Hamlin

    As Thelma Ritter said in All About Eve: “What a story. Everything but the bloodhounds snapping at [his] rear end.”

  11. LWitherspoon

    Pena admitted to NoN that the upcoming election was a consideration in the timing of Marina Forero-Ferrandino’s dismissal???
    .
    “It got to the point where she was so disrespectful that I knew she had to go, I knew she wasn’t the proper fit that I couldn’t hold off anymore. I certainly didn’t want it to happen in the election,” he said.
    .
    How interesting that Mr. Pena’s chief complaint about Ms. Forero-Ferrandino, repeated multiple times in his quotes, was that she “disrespected” him or was “speaking very negative about me… That just became very disturbing to me..” The more I read about the controversies at SoNoCC, the more I grow convinced that Warren Pena felt it was all about “me”.

  12. Sorry Pena…

    You simply can’t fix something that is broken.

    I honestly wouldn’t trust Pena with my wallet…

  13. Mr. Ludlow

    I’m amazed that Pena took a “leave of absence” from the SoNoCC- I mean, how do you do that if you’re supposed to be the chairman of the board? If he felt he couldn’t do the job, then he should have resigned. But, to hold on like he is tells me all I need to know not to vote for Warren Pena- ego comes first, helping himself second, then the public is a distant fourth after “everything else”.

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