NORWALK, Conn. – Harry Rilling is “wrong, wrong, wrong” when he says he would be a better mayor to the Latino community, according to Mayor Richard Moccia, who cites his support of many cultural events as one of the reasons he should get Latino votes.
Moccia, a Republican and eight-year incumbent, and Rilling, his Democratic challenger, tossed charges back and forth during one animated segment of last week’s South Norwalk Community Center mayoral debate: Rilling criticized the Moccia administration’s cancellation of a multicultural festival and Moccia asked Rilling why day laborers are still hesitant to come to the police station when people do not pay them for the work they have done.
The final three questions faced by the pair in the hour-long debate began with what might seem like a softball: What makes you a better choice for mayor than your opponent when it comes to addressing the needs of the Latino community?
Rilling referred to his 17 years as police chief.
“When I took over there was a great disconnect between various segments of the community and the police department,” he said. “… People were afraid to report crimes. People were afraid to come into the police department. People were afraid to walk by the police department.
Police reached out to the Latino community, he said.
“I will continue to reach out to the Latino communities, to all the communities in Norwalk, so that they can feel welcome, so that they don’t have to feel intimidated,” he said. “It’s a very simple solution folks. People need to feel like you care. I care.”
Moccia said he is already reaching out.
“I understand the Latino community,” he said. “I understand the struggles that you are going through right now. I don’t have to hit the ground running because I haven’t stopped running. I’ve been to every event that I possibly could to recognize the cultural achievements of all the Latino community … I understand your desires, your dreams and I will work with you. I will continue to work with you. I’m going to disagree with my opponent. He’s wrong, he’s wrong, he’s wrong, clear and simple. We are here. We do the best we can.”
Rilling rebutted that. There was a recent attempt to organize a multicultural Latino event he said.
“There were some hiccups, There were a little obstacles. No one from the city reached out and helped the individual who was sponsoring this event get it done,” he said. “Instead, they canceled the event two days before. She ended up having to pay lots of money out of her whole pocket and then was told that as long as certain individuals are concerned there would never be a multicultural event or Latino event in Norwalk again. That’s unfortunate.”
Rilling said he would have stepped in as mayor to work with the organizer. Moccia fired back.
“The former chief should know the police canceled it because the money to pay the overtime did not come in on time and they could not get any officers in to secure security there,” he said. “It was not the mayor’s office. It was a recommendation from his former department, that the cops were not being paid on time.”
“The contract was handed to her from the mayor’s office,” Rilling replied. “It said event canceled, lack of payment. It had nothing to do with the police department.”
“That’s not true,” Moccia said, as Rilling continued to speak.
Beatrice Ruiz, organizer of the canceled event, declined to comment as there is litigation involved. Her lawyer did not return a request for comment.
The duo also differed when asked what could be done to help day laborers.
“You have to make them comfortable coming to the police department,” Rilling said. “It’s a very difficult issue.”
He detailed efforts that had been made to make the Latino laborers get over their fear of police.
Moccia said police were not the answer, the attorney general is.
“If they’re not paid, come into the mayor’s office,” he said. “I can refer them to the attorney general.”
“If you go to the attorney general’s office for something of this nature you’re going to wait forever and ever and ever,” Rilling said.
Moccia shook his head, and mouthed ‘you call me’ to the activist who had asked about the issue.
Republican Town Committee member Olga Arteaga responded to the moderator’s request for someone to ask one last question, and brought up the day laborers again.
Rilling said the day laborers have the same Constitutional rights as anyone else, as they are here. Everything possible to make them comfortable with police has been done, he said, and will continue.
“Interesting,” Moccia said. “How much he did to reach out them to bring them in but they still don’t come in. And I disagree with him about the attorney general. I have had minor issues in the city. … I have called him on issues like this.”
If it’s a group of laborers, state agencies can get involved, he said.
“The local police can help to a degree but you want to put these people out of business,” he said. “You want to slap them with a fine. You don’t want to slap them with a summons. This is the way to get it done and this is the way to do it.”