NORWALK, Conn. – State Rep. Chris Perone (D-137) says he came by his sensitivity to business concerns quite naturally, watching his ailing stepfather struggle unsuccessfully with government bureaucracy.
Perone, the chairman of the House Commerce Committee, failed to get the Democratic Party endorsement and is facing a primary against the sometimes controversial Common Councilman David Watts. He sat down with NancyOnNorwalk recently to answer questions that range from his background and his affability to a surprise visit from FBI agents two years ago as part of a corruption investigation.
He’s been knocking on a lot of doors.
“I love this work,” he said. “I really do love getting out, not only just getting out to talk to folks but getting a handle on some of these issues. I mean our state, if we get it right, our state is poised to do very well going forward. But we do have to have an improved transportation plan but also an economic plan because we do have a lot of great assets in our state.”
Perone has been in the legislature since 2004 – five terms – and served one term on the Common Council from 2001 to 2003. He’s from Bedford, N.Y. and first went to work as an 11-year-old selling greeting cards so he could earn money to go to the movies, he said.
His mom is from Eastern Appalachia, part of the reason he has a more worldly-wise view of the world, he said. There were periodic visits to family in West Virginia.
“That was always the backdrop,” he said. “Growing up you sort of sense that you’re not in a perfect world. It’s just, you know how bad economic opportunity… you know it doesn’t serve everybody when the system is as bad as it is.”
His father did well – he was a “Mad Man,” handling Ford for a major advertising agency in the ’60’s and ’70’s. But dad spent a lot of time in California and other places, and when Perone was between 5 and 7 his parents’ relationship devolved. He and his brother were raised by a single mother from the time he was 6 or 7 until he was 15, he said. She had worked the counter for Eastern Airlines earlier but became a daycare provider. It was “always a scramble,” he said.
So there was a sense of connection to the community, he said, answering the question, “What makes Chris Perone Chris Perone?”
“Working with your neighbors, her friends, to help move us along is one way to look at community and stay involved,” he said. “I think that was important, but at the same time, later on in life she remarried, my step father had a small business, a contractor. His health declined and it got messy. But the point is small business is very susceptible. If the bureaucracy isn’t there to help you it’s going to hurt you. In his case, mistakes were made and he wound up losing the vehicles that he needed to do his work. These were things that could have been avoided in terms of levies from the IRS and on down, that could have been communicated to his attorney…. The things that shape my world was just seeing that government could be made better.”
Another formative experience: visiting his dad for a few weeks in the summer in Malaysia, where he had gone to be a creative director.
“We would drive around and my dad would explain there are families living on $100 a year; in a lot of parts of Malaysia actually, it’s an eye opener,” Perone said.
“You’d realize that not everybody has the same perception of your home country as you do. Some people have a different take on the American experience, but it’s isn’t necessarily negative. People were just proud of their countries also.”
Perone, who made Super 8 movies as a child, went to college to learn advertising and went on to work in the field for 12 years in New York City. He and his wife moved here 20 years ago, he said.
“Public transportation brought us together,” he said, with his oft-repeated little laugh, alluding to an accidental connection to a life in public service.
He met her at a bus stop when he was an undergrad and she was working for a master’s degree.
“I bumped into this girl and I enjoyed talking to her this one time,” Perone said. “I realized that even though I could just cut through the park to go home I found myself opting to take the bus. … Long and short of it is, I never got a chance to ask her out, then I bumped into her the following semester.”
A couple of years later he married the girl from Kinston, N.C. They have a 9-year-old son who goes to Jefferson Elementary School.
His bent toward community action also surfaced when he was working as a college student for a pool company. His five co-workers were not getting overtime, he said. He helped them through the New York state bureaucracy to get them what they deserved, he said.
Then he moved on to do construction.
He knew back in college that he’d be involved in his community in some way, he said. Shortly after the couple moved here there was a move afoot to turn Wood’s Pond, which is 3/8 of a mile from their East Rocks Road house, into condos. The neighbors got involved and so did Perone. The condos were not built.
“Working in corporate America is fine, but working in public service appealed to me a lot more because you are actually making an impact, making a difference,” Perone said. “I think that is what is driving me. There is never a shortage of issues, but more importantly you want to make sure that you do right by those issues. That’s why, sometimes to a fault, I try to over explain things.”
Perone’s conversation repeatedly turns easily toward commerce – such as his efforts to improve the process of applying to the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD). He’s envious of ads promoting the business climate in New York and reaches out to small businesses here to let them know that “there’s new management,” there have been improvements, he said.
But there are those who say some Norwalk legislators go along to get along. Some people say Perone is too nice to get things done for Norwalk.
“I am reasonable in that I work with both sides of the aisle,” Perone said. “I think I am tough when I need to be, but you don’t always need to be bullying people around. There are politics, especially in Hartford, you’ve got to compromise, you’ve got to work with folks to make things happen.”
Norwalk has gotten about $100 million in the last eight years, he said. A lot of that was in the last three or four years because of the improvements to DECD, he said.
“If you are constantly fighting the leadership you are not really helping the town,” he said. “You’ve got to pick your battles. In 2009 I got into a big dustup with leadership on a tax package that I felt completely would have really closed a lot of manufacturers. I voted against it. Nobody spoke to me for six months. It was bad. You’ve got to pick your battles. But at the end of the day I was right and they actually pulled that thing out of the tax bill.”
That was a repeal of the tax exemption for components of manufactured goods, he said.
Perone was one of about 12 legislators who got a visit from the FBI in May 2012 in connection with the arrest of a campaign worker for state House Speaker Chris Donovan.
“It was the last people in the world I ever expected to see,” Perone said. “They knocked on the door. First I thought it was Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are two guys in black suits, white car in the driveway. I opened the door said yes? They said FBI. … I am looking at this credential and I had never seen one before, like I am going to be able to tell if it’s a fake.”
The conversation in his living room lasted about half an hour, he said. Donovan was accused of killing the bill to tax roll-your-own tobacco smokehouses in exchange for campaign donations, he said. Perone said he informed the FBI agents that he had voted for the bill in the Finance Committee and that it had never come to the floor for a vote. After that they asked him about the process of getting a bill through.
FBI agents also interviewed state Rep. Larry Cafero and state Sen. Bob Duff, he said.
“It wasn’t like I was singled out,” Perone said. “It was basically if you were in a town that had a Roll Your Own place that had lobbying, like Norwalk, or you know, you were in some leadership position, you were going to get asked questions. That was pretty much it.”
Cafero’s interview has been mentioned in news stories but Duff’s has not. The senator did not return an email asking for confirmation.
Perone said he is always looking to improve as a legislator. To that end, he obtained a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) from the University of Connecticut in April, he said.
“I am not going to go into investment banking,” Perone said. “I think it helps me get a lot more into the numbers and understand the long-term impact our tax policy has on our long-term growth. I think that it’s been a plus. … I am always just pushing to understand how things can be improved, especially in the environment we are in, coming out of the recession, but not sprinting out of the recession.”