Danbury council candidates: It’s about your money

October 14, 2017 GMT

DANBURY - The race for control of the 21-member City Council features 42 candidates who all make the same claim: that they would be the best steward of taxpayer money.

Republicans, who now hold a 15-6 council advantage, say the city is a model of fiscal health in spite of the state budget crisis, precisely because their majority has controlled the local budget process.

Democrats counter that Republican control of spending has discouraged larger debates voters want to have about spending more on education, roads and public safety.

“It’s hard being on the Council with just six of us and the Republicans can vote the way they want to,” says Democrat Fred Visconti, who is running for re-election to represent the Fifth Ward. “I’ve talked to a lot of constituents, and a lot of people are saying it’s time for a change.”

The Democratic push for a majority on the City Council is part of a larger strategy to win back City Hall and re-establish dominance for a party that has seen its influence decline under Danbury’s longest-serving mayor, Republican Mark Boughton.

Of course, Republican City Council candidates could not be more pleased to have Boughton at the top of the ticket.

“When I go out knocking on doors I start off by saying, ‘I am on Mark Boughton’s team,’” says Republican Philip Curran, a retired fire chief who is seeking re-election to an at-large candidate. “I served under seven mayors when I was in the fire department, and Mark is by far the best of them, so the first thing I tell people is, ‘I am running with Mark.’ ”

Boughton, while running for re-election, is also testing his popularity outside Danbury for a third straight attempt on the governor’s office. His exploratory committee has already raised $195,000 toward the $250,000 he needs next year to quality for $8 million in state elections grants.

Democrats believe Boughton’s higher ambitions make him vulnerable, and the party started saying so in the spring, with the election of Gene Eriquez as the chairman. Eriquez, the former longtime Democratic mayor, charged that Boughton was treating City Hall as a consolation prize.

Democratic mayoral candidate Al Almeida has continued that criticism. Boughton counters that the heightened visibility Danbury gets as a result only helps the city’s profile.

Democrats have 12,500 registered voters compared to the GOP’s 7,800. Another 18,000 Danbury voters have no party affiliation.

For some City Council candidates, the race is less a contest between Republicans and Democrats than a choice between incumbents and challengers.

This is especially the case for races in the city’s seven wards, which elect two council representatives each. Because wards have distinct boundaries and distinct, constituencies, the first priority for incumbents is constituent service, not party politics.

“There is no Democratic way or Republican way - there is the Danbury way,” says Democrat Ben Chianese, who is seeking re-election to represent the Sixth Ward. “If something happens in my ward, I am the one who gets called first.”

Party politics tend to matter more in contests for seven city-wide seats on the council, known as at-large seats.

“There is a Republican way to do it, because if you look at the financial health of our city, we are head and shoulders above everyone else, because we can deal with bad weather that other towns can’t,” said Republican Andrew Wetmore, who is running for re-election to an at-large seat. “We get a little frustrated with these partisan votes against the budget, because Democrats don’t propose anything else as a solution.”

What’s at stake

Democrats say the main issue at stake in trying to gain seats on the City Council is having a greater say about how city money is spent.

“Not having enough discussion on important issues is a huge part of it,” said Democrat Duane Perkins, running for re-election to represent the Fifth Ward. “Our constituents understand the need for a fair and balanced government, and that is why it is so important to break up the Republican’s super-majority.”

But the City Council’s leading Republican questioned how much division over spending there was when it came to the two parties.

“On the local level, we work on constituent service and being fiscally responsible, and it has been a great experience working with (Democrats),” said Council President Joseph Cavo, who is running for re-election to represent the Third Ward. “The entire makeup of this council has really focused its spending on infrastructure improvement, education and public safety.”

If there is any charge that voters have gotten from the tumultuous changing of the guard in the White House and Congress, Democrats hope it translates into more turnout for local elections on Nov. 7.

“Are you unhappy with the election? Here’s your opportunity to make a difference,” reads a call to action on the Democratic Party web site. “Channel your anger and frustration into something positive.”

Republican City Council member Irving Fox said there is certainly enthusiasm among voters for the local election, but he doubts it has anything to do with a recently elected GOP president and a Congressional Republican majority.

“I see an equal amount of enthusiasm as in the past,” said Fox, who is seeking re-election to represent the First Ward. “And I see that the Democratic candidates are working very hard, but that is not new to us.”

Some of the Democrats’ hope is in challengers, such as first-time candidate Bill Katzing, a retired security specialist and firearms instructor with the federal Department of Justice and a sergeant with Candlewood Lake Marine Patrol.

“I can’t promise to get people better jobs, but I can try to better manage this town to be sure there is no governmental waste,” Katzing said. “Danbury has always been a Democratic town, but we have been in the minority for a long time, so hopefully I can get my foot in the door and offer some change.”

rryser@newstimes.com 203-731-3342