NORWALK, Conn. – From a small town lined with prairie fields to one of the biggest cities in the world, and then to Norwalk, Fred Wilms has focused on a career path he found satisfying. He now cites that professional experience as the reason he should head to the statehouse as Larry Cafero’s successor.
“I believe I have something to offer with my background in finance and business and understanding of those matters, having to face the challenges that the state is facing,” said Wilms, who is facing off against endorsed Republican candidate for the 142nd district Emily Wilson in the Aug. 12 primary.
Wilms, the former Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) chairman, lost the endorsement in the multi-town district (parts of Norwalk and New Canaan) caucus in a 4-2 vote to Wilson, a zoning commissioner.
“I was obviously hoping for a different outcome but it is what it is. I did qualify to be automatically on the ballot and I had raised my qualifying funds a month and half before the convention,” Wilms said. “I received a lot of positive feedback and reactions and I really believe that, given the problems that we face here in Connecticut, where I believe the state has been in decline for some time, where we are ranked number 50, sadly, on a lot of lists in terms of economic or business performance and we’ve had no job growth, we’ve had irresponsible state budgets, rising taxes, misallocation I think of spending, I really think someone who has a finance background, both in business and also in government, I think that can be very useful. So that is why I am running. I really believe that’s part of my continuation of wanting to serve the Norwalk community.”
Wilms said he grew up in Lindenhurst, Ill., a small town close to the Wisconsin border. His father was a career Air Force man who retired as a technical sergeant and got a position in the Veteran’s Administration hospital system near the Great Lakes, meaning the family stayed put after having moved around a bit when Wilms was little.
As a child, his passion was baseball. He played first base in Little League and high school and was a big Chicago Cubs fan.
“A real tough year for me was 1969, you know, the flip side of the miracle Mets,” Wilms said of the team that spent nearly all season in first place, then hit the skids and finised second to New York. (The Cubs have not been in the World Series since 1945). “That was hard, but I always loved going to Wrigley Field. It’s such a wonderful place.”
Wilms went to Northwestern University and majored in economics. He got a masters degree in business administration from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, he said, and in 1983 decided he wanted to get into international finance banking, but was disappointed.
Wilms said he interviewed with banks in all the major money centers across the country. He had a lot of options but really wanted to get on with the First National Bank of Chicago, now part of JPMorgan Chase, he said. Although he thought his interviews with the bank went well, he got a rejection letter. So he called them.
“I said ‘you don’t have to worry about giving me a legalese answer,’” Wilms recalled. “They said, ‘Fred, we liked you a lot, we’re just not really sure you’re cut out for banking.’ I said, ‘Well, OK, I guess I’ll take that job offer on Wall Street.’”
He began at the premier address of One Wall St. and worked in Manhattan for 20 years, he said. That included managing the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi’s relationship with General Motors. “That was exciting, that was why I got into banking originally,” Wilms said.
He moved in 1989 and commuted to the city for 14 years, he said. His children were born in the ’90s; his 20-year-old daughter is going to Sacred Heart University and his 16-year-old son is a senior at Norwalk High School, he said.
In 2002, Wilms decided to look for work closer to home and “opened up with Webster Bank,” he said.
“I am in charge of all our relationships with small businesses in lower Fairfield County, from Greenwich to Westport,” Wilms said. “Basically, I’m doing the same thing I did in the city, it’s just the companies are a lot smaller and I don’t have to do as much travel.”
Wilms got involved in local government on the Zoning Board of Appeals, and, in 1999, was elected to the Common Council. He served one term, ousted along with every other Republican in the clean-sweep Democratic victory of 2001.
Wilms said that was due to then-Mayor Frank Esposito delaying the implementation of a property revaluation done in the early ’90s. The average tax hike was 30 percent, as the tax burden shifted from commercial to residential, he said.
“I like to joke that if the dog catcher position in Norwalk was elected, the Republican candidate for that would have lost, too. It was literally a clean sweep,” Wilms said.
But he is proud of his service. As Ordinance Committee chairman, Wilms led the creation of an open space fund, which supports acquiring properties to create open space. The committee also revamped the vicious-dog ordinance and the noise ordinance, he said.
He was also on the Finance Committee and the Land Use Committee, he said, and supported the beginning efforts to renovate schools. That Council session also resulted in a charter revision that made Board of Education members elected representatives rather than political appointees, he said.
“I really enjoyed my time on the council. It was just a great learning experience. It was definitely a highlight for me,” Wilms said.
He was Board of Estimate and Taxation chairman for eight years under Mayor Richard Moccia, from 2005 to 2013.
“We lived through the great recession,” Wilms said. “Revenues for Norwalk and other cities just plummeted because of the recession. Meanwhile, spending pressures remained because of union contract obligations and other obligations. So we really worked hard to take a balanced approach. I mean, some other cities were taking extreme examples of raising taxes in double digits or lopping off, firing hoards of teachers or police officers or shutting down the library, things like that, extreme measures on both sides. We decided to take a more balanced approach. We also decided that we were not going to employ any gimmicks or fancy accounting. We were going to play it straight. If we were going to increase spending we were going to have to raise taxes. One measure of that is that the city continues to have Triple A debt ratings from all three rating agencies.”
Tax hikes were kept to about 2.5 percent a year, which was much better than what many other municipalities were doing, he said. Moccia’s government worked hard to keep services going and to do them for less, he said, mentioning garbage outsourcing. Closing the Norwalk Museum resulted in substantial savings and “Norwalk’s history is now being showcased in a much better way,” he said.
Tax hikes went to fund costs that had been negotiated into contracts, costs for health care, pensions and post-retirement liabilities, he said. Moccia renegotiated contracts, he said.
“At the BET we didn’t have direct role in that, but certainly in a lot of conversations encouraged the focus to be on addressing those issues because those costs were growing at double digit rates and they were just unsustainable. If people’s incomes aren’t growing and their ability to pay taxes isn’t growing and the city can’t borrow money or print money to pay for its services and the cost of services, really for benefits, are growing really at double digit rates, it’s unsustainable,” Wilms said.
Detroit is failing because the city cannibalized services to “pay for benefit packages that were greater than what most people in the private sector were able to enjoy,” Wilms said. The new contracts negotiated by Norwalk mean that new employees get 401k-style pension plans, Wilms said.
The BET made an effort to listen to citizens and accommodate their wishes where possible, Wilms said.
“At the end of the day, we put together eight budgets over eight years. I don’t know if we made everybody happy but I think we certainly did our best to take a balanced approach and keep the city in strong shape,” Wilms said.
It’s not the first time Wilms has tried to get elected to represent Norwalk in Hartford. He ran against state Sen. Bob Duff (D-25) in 2006 and lost.
What did he learn from that?
“Not to run against Bob Duff again,” Wilms said.
Wilms did not use the word “daunting” when asked about possibly trying to fill Cafero’s shoes.
“Larry has been a giant up there,” Wilms said. “I have said this publicly: I think it would be difficult for anyone to fill his shoes. I learned many years ago, I can’t be somebody else. All I can be is Fred Wilms. So that is what I am going to do, I’m going to be the best Fred Wilms that I can be. Hopefully, over the course of time, that catches up to what Larry has achieved, but I’m just going to do the best that I can.”