14 November 2009

Trash Talk From Mayor Sets Wrong Tone At Start of New Term

Mayor Stewart began a new term this week with an official call for an "end to political warfare" between his office and the City Council, according to Courant coverage

And there was some high-minded rhetoric from Stewart to get things going:

"Today we stand at the threshold of becoming a new and exciting city, one that will be the centerpiece of central Connecticut — at the crossroads of prosperity and the future home of new and emerging workplaces for our citizens to grow and prosper. Our city has seen days of glory and days of decline, but surely our best days lie ahead of us."

At Thursday's first Council meeting Stewart urged civility, according to Jim Craven's story in the Herald under the headline "Stewart Demands Civility".

But Stewart's admonitions to the Democratic City Council were quickly contradicted in a series of published quotes from the Mayor in both daily newspapers: Council leaders Phil Sherwood and Mike Trueworthy are "hacks" , "carpetbaggers" and "liars" who will obstruct his agenda over the next few years.

In a story by Don Stacom in the Courant, Stewart didn't hold anything back:

"I don't like Michael [Trueworthy], but I can talk with him. Phil Sherwood? He's a carpetbagger and a partisan hack. I don't like him and I don't respect him — never did and never will," Stewart said last week.

Stewart and Republicans call out Democrats on the Council for going after department heads and showing disrespect to developers; a questionable charge when it is the obligation of the Council to oversee budget and policy matters and to ask pointed questions when you are committing city resources to major investments. Democrats assert that the Mayor's office is over the top in keeping a tight lid on public information that should be available to them.

The Mayor, perhaps realizing the discord his words were sowing, backtracked late in the week and "apologized" for remarks he attributed to the heat of the campaign. His verbal shots at Sherwood, however,("nobody I would break bread with") continued. And in a serious blow to mayor-council cooperation at the start of a new term, Stewart shut the door on regular meetings with Council leadership to work on city business.

At this early point in the new term, relations between the administration and council are no better off than they were during last spring's budget debate and in the run up to the municipal campaign.

At the time New Britain Democrat observed:

Some observers may say that Stewart has to be on guard and keep his cards close to his vest all the time because of the dominance of Democrats on the Council. That assumes, however, there is not an ounce of good will from Democrats and that the partisan divide will never be bridged. But voters, who've opted for divided government in recent elections, want and expect their elected officials to end the campaign the day after the election and govern without partisan sniping at every turn. Politically, the Mayor has benefited from a "me against them" strategy; he may feel that partisanship is the winning strategy, even if that strategy is not always a good way to govern.

Sherwood and the Democrats issued their own calls for cooperation and appeared more surprised than angry at Stewart's post-election diatribes.

"The challenges to the city are so severe and numerous. I don't think we have to agree on everything, but we can be less suspicious of each other," Sherwood told the Courant. Rep. Tim O'Brien, the Democratic mayoral nominee, issued a conciliatory statement pledging to continue work on the issues he raised in the campaign.

The Mayor's intemperate remarks, perhaps fueled by Democrats' continued dominance onthe Council, can't help his administration nor the city amid a difficult recession and the "challenges" everyone agrees we face.

Although shuttle diplomacy is not often raised in local politics, the prospect of a continuing City Hall stalemate left one observer wondering if there are influential individuals outside of the process who could bring the Mayor and Council leadership into a room to get down to the business of governing and set aside the campaigning for a while.

10 November 2009

Veteran's Day: "They Didn't Give Their Lives. Their Lives Were Taken From Them."

New Britain's tradition of honoring veterans of all wars occurs twice a year on Memorial Day (the real one not the Monday national holiday) and on Veteran's Day this month.

On Wednesday there will be a full round of remembrances put on by the Parks and Recreation Commission.

With soldiers' deaths being recorded almost daily in Afghanistan and Iraq. we are reminded that men and women are dying in service of their country. Two days a year are not enough for honoring those who served and those who died. That there is no citizen army (e.g. a draft) shows that the strains of getting in harm's way are falling on those in uniform who are being sent and re-sent into action. And it tends to obscure the toll being taken on military families.

Whenever these days come up to remember veterans I always recall the remembrance of Andy Rooney, the rumpled CBS commentator, on 60 minutes when he said he thinks of his friends lost in war every day:

No official day to remember is adequate for something like that. It's too formal. It gets to be just another day on the calendar. No one would know from Memorial Day that Richie M., who was shot through the forehead coming onto Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, wore different color socks on each foot because he thought it brought him good luck.

No one would remember on Memorial Day that Eddie G. had promised to marry Julie W. the day after he got home from the war, but didn't marry Julie because he never came home from the war. Eddie was shot dead on an un-American desert island, Iwo Jima.

For too many Americans, Memorial Day has become just another day off. There's only so much time any of us can spend remembering those we loved who have died, but the men, boys really, who died in our wars deserve at least a few moments of reflection during which we consider what they did for us.

They died.

We use the phrase "gave their lives," but they didn't give their lives. Their lives were taken from them.

There is more bravery at war than in peace, and it seems wrong that we have so often saved this virtue to use for our least noble activity - war. The goal of war is to cause death to other people.

Because I was in the Army during World War II, I have more to remember on Memorial Day than most of you. I had good friends who were killed.

Charley Wood wrote poetry in high school. He was killed when his Piper Cub was shot down while he was flying as a spotter for the artillery.

Bob O'Connor went down in flames in his B-17.

Obie Slingerland and I were best friends and co-captains of our high school football team. Obie was killed on the deck of the Saratoga when a bomb that hadn?t dropped exploded as he landed.

I won't think of them anymore tomorrow, Memorial Day, than I think of them any other day of my life.

Remembering doesn't do the remembered any good, of course. It's for ourselves, the living. I wish we could dedicate Memorial Day, not to the memory of those who have died at war, but to the idea of saving the lives of the young people who are going to die in the future if we don't find some new way - some new religion maybe - that takes war out of our lives.

That would be a Memorial Day worth celebrating.

from CBS broadcast 60 Minutes, May 29, 2005 by Andy Rooney

17 October 2009

New Britain's Newest Newspaper: Hardware City Journal Hits The Streets

New Britain's "October surprise" has nothing to do with the upcoming municipal election and everything to do with what may be a revival of community journalism in town.

The first edition of Hardware City Journal (HCJ), a 16-page free circulation paper, began circulating Friday (Oct. 16th) packed full of local news and information. The paper, with only a handful of ads upon which free circulation newspapers usually depend, is similar in content and appearance to the Berlin Citizen weekly next door. The upstart HCJ appears to be the brainchild of Robin Vinci, a former Herald reporter who covered Berlin and a native of New Britain. Vinci's love for her native city comes through in an opening letter on the editorial page. She is a journalist who knows the town she is writing about past and present, a factor which can count for a lot in delivering news you may not find elsewhere.

The front page includes a report on using smaller learning communities (SLCs) and academies in public schools to improve student achievement. The potential of SLCs is all the more relevant because New Britain High School is the largest in the state. There's also an in-depth story on the rise and fall of manufacturing in the city and the prospects for a town that still clings to a "hardware" image and retains a manufacturing base in need of rejuvenation for the 21st century global economy.

The HCJ mission promises readers a paper that will:

bring an accurate, honest and fair account of all aspects of New Britain. Our sole agenda is to bring residents a greater insight into the city. We will not run away from reporting on controversial news stories, but our goal is to report it and not create controversy.

The emergence of HCJ along with the revival of locally published New Britain Herald -- rescued from the plundering Journal Register company -- is a welcome sign that residents will have more than one source of local news to become more engaged in their community.

The development of the Journal is taking shape in print only at this time. You won't find it yet in cyberspace. In a city where many older residents like to get their news the old-fashioned way, a strategy of building a free circulation print paper and worrying about technology later just may work.

A shout out goes to Robin Vinci. No amount of blogs and blogging, including this one, can take the place of a community newspaper.

26 August 2009

Remembering Ted Kennedy


Ted Kennedy’s five-decade Senate career spanned 10 presidencies, starting with his brother’s 1,000 days in office through Barack Obama’s first year.

That longevity – which counts for a lot in the U.S. Senate –allowed Kennedy to leave a lasting mark on shaping landmark laws on civil rights, health and education, from the passage of voting rights in the mid 1960s to the current debate on health insurance being mandated as a right for all Americans.

The current bill coming out of Kennedy’s committee on insuring the uninsured – “the cause of his life” –will undoubtedly emerge in some compromised fashion with Ted Kennedy’s name on it.

The Kennedy Health Care Act (it’s not called that yet but will be), marked up by his friend, U.S. Senator Chris Dodd, will be made law so long as the Democratic majority finds the will to do reconciliation and blows off the phony bipartisanship of the “gang of six” and the likes of Joe Lieberman.

Much of the commentary on the passing of the last of a generation of Kennedy brothers will focus on the “mystique” and the impression that Ted Kennedy was kind of royalty, not to be challenged at the ballot box. It’s true that Kennedy was never seriously challenged in the Democratic Party. There was the first run in 1962 when he was taken on by Edward McCormack, Jr. in an Irish brawl of a primary during the Kennedy presidency, but nothing ever since. Save for a well-financed run by former MA Governor Mitt Romney, the hapless Republicans have mostly served up a succession of patsies against Edward Kennedy for 46 years despite the Senator’s personal travails and unsuccessful run for the presidency.

While his name and money gave him a head start, Kennedy and his operatives rarely took the grassroots for granted. They always seemed to remember former Speaker Tip O’Neill’s advice that “all politics is local.” That entailed taking care of constituents' individual issues and old-fashioned politicking that has been the trademark of Kennedy’s well-honed home state operation for all these years.

My only encounters with Ted Kennedy nearly 40 years ago illustrated that Kennedy’s longevity came not just from his privileged life, but never forgetting the electoral base that would turn him into the “lion of the Senate.” They came as part of my job as a reporter for the Lynn Sunday Post between 1972 and 1974 when I was just out of college.

A regular part of the Kennedy itinerary would be to get around to cities and towns, to address high school assemblys and civic groups and visit the local press, including the tiny newsroom of a small weekly on the North Shore just outside of Boston. There, I simultaneously held the titles of city hall and state house reporter and was the paper’s national affairs correspondent when Kennedy came to town. These two or three annual newsroom interviews were 30-minute one on ones where I, next to a Royal manual typewriter, would ask the questions and Kennedy would give his well-rehearsed take on Nixon impoundments, Watergate and the tough fights for progressive legislation during a Republican administration.

We then would all pose for a picture with local politicians in tow before Kennedy moved on to the next town.

I think Kennedy knew when I met him briefly so long ago and to his last days that the local politicking he grew to enjoy and did every year counted for the very long run that he had in the U.S. Senate. It’s a politician’s chore that may be easy to forget after you’ve been in Congress for a few years with all the trappings of office. But Kennedy never forgot. [Photo from: Lynn Sunday Post 1972]

19 August 2009

Courant Drops Gombossy and Its Editorial Integrity

Achieving distinction for editorial page leadership and substantial news presentation were the Providence Journal and Bulletin and the Hartford Courant.....The Hartford Courant, begun as the weekly Connecticut Courant in 1764 and claimant to the longest publishing record in America, was kept at a high level by publisher John B.Reitemeyer and editor Herbert Brucker.

from author Edwin Emery's The Press and America, 2nd edition. Prentice -Hall Journalism Series, 1954, 1962. p. 749.

This month the bygone publisher and editor of the Courant mentioned in my old journalism school textbook are probably rolling over in their graves.

The abrupt dismissal of Courant consumer reporter George Gombossy leaves little doubt that the journalistic credibility of a newspaper that occupies such an important place in U.S. history is permanently damaged. Permanent means forever. But the tag may stick as long as the bankrupt Tribune company and current management run things over on Broad Street.

Gombossy, a 40-year employee and former business page editor, filed a story in early August about alleged sleazy sales by Sleepy's, the big mattress seller, that are being investigated by Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. Sleepy's is a big advertiser and the decision to hold the story has a journalistic mortal sin all over it.

Gombossy's fate, however, is getting plenty of play in the blogosphere and drew New York Times' coverage that must be giving Courant management and Sleepy's all the damage control they can handle.

Gombossy is talking to a lawyer and, with the help of former Courant staffers, has a first rate consumer web site up and running (www.ctwatchdog.com) complete with the story that was held up.

And looking ahead The Courant faces a difficult challenge to restore journalistic integrity in its greatly diminished "news presentation" as another of its seasoned and respected journalists departs.

01 August 2009

Funds Coming For New Haven To Hartford Rail: Does This Mean They'll Get The Hole In the Train's Roof Fixed?

Measured against the hundreds of millions invested in the 11-mile New Britain-Hartford bus way, a $4 million appropriation to start "preliminary work" on high-speed rail on the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield Amtrak line doesn't seem like much.

The FY 2010 federal appropriation that surfaced last week is, according to Sen. Chris Dodd, a "down payment" toward improving an under-utilized and rickety Amtrak trunk line that charges fares considerably above Metro North's New Haven to Grand Central run.

Testimony abounds on the need for Amtrak upgrades -- even ones that don't have "high speed" attached to them but would make a world of difference. Last summer I had to get back to Hartford from New Haven without an auto. The early afternoon shuttle in New Haven took me north without incident. But the conditions in the train car were a reminder of the investments needed to make a New Haven to Hartford train run a first choice for commuters going to and from two of Connecticut's big cities. It was a hot July day with plenty of thunderstorms. Air conditioning would have been one of the amenities you'd expect for 11 bucks. No luck. I did get cooled off somewhat when the train jolted and a big splash of water came down on the seat next to me from a leak in the roof. Good thing my attache case is waterproof.

My experience says a lot about Amtrak's perpetual financial and service delivery problems -- another area where stimulus bucks would be well spent to rebuild infrastructure. I'd have to look it up but I suspect other industrialized nations are light (rail) years ahead of the U.S. on mass transit. They recognize public subsidies -- not D.C. bean counters looking for a profit - are necessary to keep rail going for enough people to help an economy and save money on fuel. On the rebuilding infrastructure side, Michael Moore's idea to turn idle car factories into bus and rail production is a common sense idea that policy makers should jump on.

My minor complaints aside, the existing rail service on up to Springfield is an unsupported adjunct for every day commuters or travelers wanting to get up to Massachusetts, Vermont and Canada and find easier connections moving down the Northeast corridor to New York and Washington.

So it's a good move to get that New Haven-Hartford-Springfield spike up to scale for fast and more convenient rail.

Let's start a countdown and push for getting it done and hope that the project doesn't get bogged down as much as the local bus way that we're still waiting for 10 years after it was proposed.

The Courant's Rick Green reports The Pioneer Valley Advocates for Commuter Rail are ahead of us on rail advocacy. They're circulating a petition to make a CT to Western MA rail corridor a reality. You can sign at

Photo Credit: www.kinglyheirs.com/

12 July 2009

State Rep. O'Brien Poised To Take Mayoral Plunge

State Rep. Tim O’Brien (D-24) is set to make an announcement on his political plans this year at an announcement on July 17th to be held at the Pulaski Democratic Club, 89 Grove Street, from 5:30 to 8 p.m.

O’Brien formed an exploratory committee earlier this year to consider running for Mayor and he has since been meeting with voters and groups to gauge and build support for a possible mayoral run.

According to the Democratic Town Committee (DTC), no other Democrat has expressed an interest in the running for Mayor in the run up to endorsements to be held later this month.

O’Brien, a former councilor at large, was elected to the state House in 2002 and has made clean elections, property tax reform and equitable funding for cities cornerstones of his legislative efforts.

If nominated, O'Brien is expected to take on Republican Timothy Stewart who is expected to seek a fourth two-year term in the heavily Democratic city where Democrats currently dominate the City Council 13 to 2 and hold all state legislative seats. Stewart, a firefighter on leave of absence from his job as fire marshal, defeated Democrat Lucian Pawlak in 2003 riding a wave of anti-tax sentiment when property valuations soared by 40 percent. Stewart has successfully played a "me against them" theme in subsequent elections against Democratic opponents.

O'Brien has been a leading advocate in the legislature of comprehensive property tax reform that would reduce the property tax as a levy to pay for schools and other local services. During his tenure as Vice Chair of the GAE Committee, public financing and clean elections law was finally adopted. A blogger, O'Brien initiated the move by public officials late last year to seek the help of the state Department of Economic Development to save the New Britain Herald when the bankrupt Journal Register Company was ready to shut down the Herald and Bristol Press. In January, publisher Michael Schroeder emerged to revive the local dailies following the DECD's efforts to identify buyers for the local papers.

In considering a run for municipal office, O'Brien is breaking the mold for New Britain Democrats over the last generation. Elected Democrats have often moved from city government to the state legislature but not the other way around.

New Britain Democrats are scheduled to endorse their candidates on July 28th.

03 July 2009

State Budget: The Sunset Solution

The July 4th holiday will come and go without a state budget in place for the fiscal year that began last Wednesday. The state House and Senate finally hammered out a plan that didn't muster a veto proof majority in either chamber. A disengaged Governor suddenly got engaged in the last week of the 2009 FY to negotiate. At least the posturing stopped but the word out of the mansion on Prospect Avenue as we went to get our hot dogs for the weekend was "impasse."

The deal breaker still appears to be the Governor's opposition to inching up the state income tax for households making $500,000 or more a year. The irony in all of this is that the Governor less than three years ago came out for $2 billion in tax hikes to fund her education initiatives going considerably beyond current state obligations. State Rep. John Geragosian (D-New Britain), the House appropriations chair and part of the current negotiations, quipped at the time that she sounded like "Franklin Delano Rell." If there is a moral or policy compass to Rell's style of governing it hasn't shown up since she took over from John Rowland.

Good economists, including ones the Governor employs over at UCONN, don't hold much sway with Rell or Moody or Genuario. Their arguments are easily lost in the "no new taxes" mantra but include:

-Connecticut state government is no where near the top tier in spending per capita despite the almost total absence of county or regional taxing authorities;

-the Jim Himes crowd down in Fairfield County is taxed proportionately less than your middle income household in Berlin and New Britain when all local, state and federal taxes are considered.

One possible deal maker -- sunsetting taxes and cuts to meet the crisis -- has barely been mentioned in the back and forths since last April when legislative committees unveiled the first tax and spending plans.

Former state Rep. Astrid Hanzalek, an Enfield Republican, floated the sunset solution in a June 7th Courant Op-Ed article that solicited varying opinions on how to resolve the impasse.

"Cutting programs and raising taxes is the only logical solution," wrote Hanzalek who served in the House for 10 years. "Those draconian measures sound like political suicide. Perhaps that's why the governor and legislators have been in denial."

Hanzalek's suggestion -- increases with a "built-in statutory (and enforceable) sunset provision" -- diffuses the main concern of conservatives that a tax hike will be a license to grow the size of state government. At the same time she argues the cuts could be time limited as well and over time functions and services could be restored to get the state over the hump of the worst economic downtown since the Depression.

Given the depth and severity of the recession sunsets might need to be in place for more than two years, extending into the 2012-2014 period.

If Gov. Rell and her advisors are at all in touch with fiscal reality they know that some combination of tax increases and cuts will be necessary to preserve "core services" the Governor wants to maintain. That has already been acknowledged by legislators in adopting their budget plan.

To solve this crisis both the Governor and the Legislature must "pick their poison" as one lawmaker put it during the budget debate. All the more reason they would do well to heed Hanzalek's advice and turn to a sunset solution.

21 June 2009

State Marshals: It's Not What You Know But.......?

A recent Courant story on the hiring of state marshals suggests that a little cronyism and political backscratching may be creeping back into a relatively new system for the hiring of marshals -- the individuals who serve the legal papers on behalf of lawyers and courts.

At issue is whether more reform would be appropriate for a state that uses independent contractors (marshals) not officers of the court to notify the innocent and the guilty of legal proceedings impacting their lives.

If you get to be a marshal and have cultivated a relationship with one or more law firms, the gig can be down right lucrative. Fees can range from picking a nice $25 or $30K a year to supplement the family budget to seven-figure businesses that rival or exceed the pay of senior vice presidents at insurance companies. There's a risk side to all of it. A marshal serving an eviction notice or coming to foreclose on a home doesn't know who's behind the door when they come knocking. And marshals need to run a business that may entail taking on hired hands to keep the records straight.

These risks and responsibilities, however, are outweighed by the financial rewards. So wouldn't you be outraged if you "aced" the test only to find the Lt. Governor's low-scoring pal got the appointment?

This latest flap over appointments should be a cause for concern. But it can hardly compared with the old. In the bad old days of the county sheriffs, appointments were almost exclusively a patronage domain of the political parties.

The high sheriffs with offices in the county courthouses would be elected every four years. Incumbents had the advantage of shaking down the appointed deputies and deputy wannabes. The high sheriff, who picked the high paying assignments for himself, would also control the judicial court sheriffs who would staff the halls of justice without the union protection afforded all state employees. The only thing high sheriffs had to worry about was securing the endorsement and nomination of their parties for re-election. The sheriffs would continually patronize the local party chairmen and elected officials, and provide no small amount of financial support and election help for the party bosses.

This last vestige of county government was finally vanquished in a 2002 referendum. The state Marshal Commission was set up to replace the county sheriffs, toppling them from their courthouse fiefdoms and ending the pure political patronage upon which serving legal papers had been based.

The new commission under Governor Rowland, working with a small budget and few resources to develop better ways to manage the sheriffs (marshals), instituted the current system of merit exams, qualifications, standards and reporting requirements to regulate the state marshal conduct. The legislation mandating a referendum also allowed for the "grandfathering" of incumbent sheriffs to be appointed marshals with commission approval. Many of those who worked in the old sheriff system are still there, among them a top tier making millions of dollars a year. (I recall this having been a member of the marshal commission in its first two years).

The marshal commission itself is still a politically-driven body with its appointees coming from the Governor, who controls the majority, and the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate. Lt. Governor Fedele should hope that he's covered his tracks in denying he had nothing to do with the appointment of his friend.

The rampant sheriff patronage is gone in 2009 but political favoritism may be making a comeback to influence who gets the badges and the remuneration that goes with them.

03 June 2009

Think Globally, Buy Locally: New Movement Says Buy From Local Merchants

What to do about our hard economic times is a part of the national conversation and plenty of federal action in the first five months of the Obama Administration. The media gas bags on cable news won't let us forget it. We rightly expect the solutions to come from Washington (the stimulus) and a more rigorous policing of the charlatans of Wall Street. Madoff is in jail and Bush et al have been vanquished.

But it may also be an ideal time for citizens and small businesses to take some of these matters into their own hands through what might be called micro-economic activism. The macro fixes in the global economy are going to take a while to trickle down, if they trickle down at all to places like New Britain, Connecticut.

That's what makes an upstart movement to encourage ordinary folks to shift a percentage of their spending away from franchises and chains into local and regional businesses one of the few good things to emerge from the baddest recession most of us have ever seen.

Visitors to the "10 percent shift" website are asked to sign the following pledge:

I live in New England and want to preserve our fine heritage, create healthy and sustainable communities, and build a strong New England economy.

I pledge to do an inventory of my annual expenditures and to find ways to shift a minimum of 10% of my annual budget from non locally-owned businesses to locally owned and independent businesses (Local Independents) in the next 12 months.

The "10 percent shifters" are a project of an organization called the New England Local Business Forum (NELBF). The group,with some strong adherents in working-class Somerville outside of Boston and Cambridge, says studies point to significant and positive impacts: "Over the past few years, a growing base of economic research has helped to quantify the Local Multiplier. When dollars are spent at Local Independents, up to three times as much money stays locally, and since Local Independents are much more likely to keep the money circulating in the local economy the economic impact multiplies dramatically. This economic growth resulting from the circulation of dollars within the local economy is the Local Multiplier at work."

In a place like New Britain that lost its retail downtown to the malling of America decades ago, this "10 percent shift" action may seem like tilting against windmills. Is there an independent drug, shoe or hardware store left? But even here we can make some choices that keep dollars in the local economy for that "multiplier effect".

I'll take some of our local restaurants over a franchise any day. I can consciously choose the local optician over Lenscrafters. Maybe there is a regionally-owned gas station where all the dollars for fuel won't be guzzled by ExxonMobil.

Becoming a shifter may be worth a try here in hard hittin' New Britain.

Photo: Amato's Store Hartford Courant

22 May 2009

Revenue Gap Threatens New Britain Municipal Budget

It's a year when local and state governments are struggling with falling tax revenues and a severe economic downturn. New Britain is facing all of those struggles plus one more potential hole that could break the city budget in the new fiscal year.

The problem? Mayor Stewart's proposed $216.3 million estimate, now getting scrutiny by the Common Council, has added millions of dollars of revenue that may not exist at all.

The Mayor's numbers for the sale of real property includes a $3.5 million line item, an increase of $3 million over the Board of Finance's $500,000 estimate. The source of the $3 million has been reported to be the city's sale of the former Pinnacle Heights public housing project to Centerplan development company.

Back in March Mayor Stewart told the Herald: "It’s still up in the air but it’s because of the major change in the economy. Unfortunately, that’s something none of us can control. However, we can work to make sure the deal goes through eventually.”

(Democrats questions Pinnacle Heights...)

At issue is whether the $3 million in property revenue and perhaps millions more booked by the city's finance department for the sale of property in previous years are for real, or based on any solid promises to give by the buyers.

The Common Council, in addition to its line by line review of the budget with department heads, needs to ascertain the status of the Mayor's revenue estimates, particularly with regard to sale of property, for a true picture of the city's finances. As the June budget deadline approaches, there are millions of dollars being used to balance the city budget with nothing so far to back it up.

Time is running short on adopting a municipal budget by mid June. It's time for the Mayor to lead, not mislead the public on whether those property sale revenues can be counted on before June 30th.

No one can blame anyone at City Hall for a bad economy but City Hall has an obligation to tell the truth -- even if that truth is bad news.

09 May 2009

Thinking Globally Today: Buy Fair Trade

If you're shopping this weekend for Mother's Day, looking for a graduation gift or just want a latte, there are ways to strike a blow for economic justice and sustainable development.

Saturday May 9th is Fair Trade Day around the globe. It's a weekend filled with all sorts of events -- more in Canada and Great Britain than the U.S.-- that celebrates alternative consumption wherein consumers of the developed countries pay more for coffee, chocolate and other commodities and goods than they would in the mass consumer market.

Buying "fair trade" chocolate or another certified fair trade product ensures that the producers (small farmers and artisans) in under developed and impoverished countries receive a living wage and fair return. In the case of chocolate, it gives you assurance that child slaves didn't harvest the cacao beans that find their way into mass market candy bars. Yes. The practice goes on in strife-torn Cote 'd Ivorie to this day.

My own interest in the subject stems from an unfinished thesis -- "The Market Potential of Fair Trade Cocoa" -- that assesses how the fair trade movement can make a difference in a new era of globalization when the gap between rich and poor still grows.

During the 1990s a movement of religious, civil society groups and environmental and human rights activists spawned and supported these alternative structures that attempt to end the inequities of the market for hundreds of thousands of small to medium-sized farmers. The movement which first gained notoriety in the ubiquitous coffee industry has accelerated into chocolate, bananas and other commodities of value from less developed countries.

The unequal exchange, of course, is nothing new. Colonialism is one long chain of exploitation over several centuries. The more you look into it, the more you realize that the new globalization aptly described by the New York Times' Tom Friedman in his books hasn't ended the exploitation and may be extending it into the 21st century. The transfers between the small producers of tropical crops and the end users in developed countries can be as as inequitable and exploitative as ever.

One of the good resources for this movement may be found at Equal Exchange. While fair trade sales have grown exponentially over the last decade, their percentages as measured against the mass market are in the single digits. But the movement, however limited, does show a way to reduce poverty and provide living wages one farmer and one coop at a time.

So if you are feeling sufficiently guilty, or just want to strike a small blow for economic justice, here are three ways to help on Fair Trade Day locally:

* Get your mother a woven bag from Peru or a necklace from Sri Lanka at Ten Thousand Villages (there's a store in West Hartford)

* Pick up a box of fair trade certified chocolate or coffee at an organic food store or even the supermarket where they can be found now that corporations are finding there are some profits to be made from niche markets.

* Get a latte or cappuccino at Dunkin Donuts which uses fair-trade coffee for all of its brews that aren't just a cup of joe.

29 April 2009

Getting Specter's Vote: Promise Him More Earmarks

The pundits are making much of Senator Arlen Specter's defection to Democrats as proof that a "moderate" Republican can't survive in the GOP; that it puts the Senate Democrats on the verge of that 60-vote threshold needed to cut off debate and move legislation if the cagey Specter goes along. Politically, it clears the way for Specter to skip out on a difficult if not impossible primary. Unlike Connecticut where the "independent" Joe Lieberman put himself on the November ballot after losing the Democratic primary in 2006, Pennsylvania has a sore loser law that would probibit Specter from running on a third line.

Despite all the national implications and the rightward drift of Republicans, don't look for Specter to mimic Lieberman's self-serving pleas for bipartisanship. Specter's calculated move has a lot more to do with "bringing home the bacon" via Congressional earmarks -- something he is a master of in his role as ranking member of the Appropriations Committee. A recent Washington Post story "If 'Earmark' is a dirty word, Pennsylvanians must be blushing" confirms how prolific Specter is at federal largess. A free ride with the Democrats could put Specter in the majority and add clout to his ability to underwrite his annual wish list from back home. Small wonder Specter didn't leave the Republican caucus earlier over John McCain's hammering away at earmarks, be they good or bad pork.

If Harry Reid really needs a vote from Specter, he already knows the way forward will be to serve up a few more earmarks for the newest member of the Democratic caucus.

21 April 2009

Not What Everyone Wants To Hear From CCSU Campus 10 Years after Columbine

"Gun fight at CCSU" blares today's front-page headline in the New Britain Herald.

The story by Jennifer Abel reports on CCSU's Riflery and Marksmanship Club joining a national "Empty Holster Protest" that advocates for the right of students to bear arms on the campus. The protest springs from a national group calling itself "Students for Concealed Carry on Campus".

The student club's president, Sara Adler, said she didn't know why the national group picked April 20th to launch a campaign for students to be allowed to pack a revolver for personal protection. "They didn't choose last week because it was the anniversary of Virginia Tech," said Ms. Adler, referring to the deadliest school shootings in history. Timing must be everything. Instead, the arms on campus protest was launched on the 10th anniversary of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. There was no official reaction from CCSU about the protest.

The good news is that CCSU is likely to remain a gun free zone and the Riflery and Marksmanship Club are taking their protest to a shooting range off campus Saturday.

08 April 2009

Stewart's double standard on state budget priorities

Mayor Tim Stewart has lashed out at New Britain's all Democratic legislative delegation for reductions in local aid made in a Democratic state budget plan presented last week.

Stewart, facing the prospect of higher property taxes in a bad economy, delivered a "broadside" that takes aim at State Rep. John Geragosian (D-25), the House appropriations Chair, and the entire delegation for a proposed reduction in state aid from casino revenue.

Gambling dollars, originally sold as a means of supporting education, have become another component of state aid to cities and towns since a portion of income from the slots started coming in the early 1990s. The casino revenue is another form of payments in lieu of taxes since the two tribes with casinos are considered sovereign under federal law.

In a statement released this week Stewart takes issue with a reduction in gambling aid in a Democratic plan that addresses a confirmed $2.7 billion shortfall in Rell's original budget proposal presented last February. "Stewart said he was extremely disappointed upon learning the proposal would mean a reduction of $865,000 in state funding for the city," according to the Herald's coverage.

Stewart's complaint, however, rings hollow when you compare his response to the Democratic budget plan with his effusive praise of Governor Rell's budget. In a joint statement last month Stewart and Bridgeport's Democratic mayor, Bill Finch, praised Rell's budget for not reducing allocations for schools under the Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) formula.

What Stewart and Finch forgot to mention was that most other forms of state aid to their cities was cut by substantial amounts in Rell's proposed budget. With her balance sheet more than $2 billion out of whack, you would think Rell could have preserved other forms of local aid. Rell, for example, reduced PILOT funds (payments in lieu of taxes for CCSU, hospitals and state agency property) by $1.6 million. Overall, Rell's numbers give New Britain 2.2% less by reducing PILOT, casino, capital improvement and town aid for roads, not to mention elimination of state services that benefit city residents.

The Mayor conveniently ignores the features of Rell's plan that would severely compromise New Britain's ability to deliver essential services. And Stewart, a Republican, has shown no inclination to ask his Republican Governor to work for a fairer deal for the city.

The Democratic legislative delegation remains a favorite target of Stewart's derisive comments and partisan charges. It's a refrain all too familiar for Stewart who has sniped at legislators in prior years. For all of Stewart's years in office, the delegation and Legislature took on Rell and significantly upped state aid to the city when the economy was better and state revenues weren't dropping off a cliff. Stewart has been the chief political beneficiary of using state aid to hold the line on property taxes thanks to the lawmakers he is so quick to criticize.

A comparison of Rell's proposed budgets and those adopted through the Legislature has a consistent outcome: state aid amounts would have been a lot worse for New Britain had Governor Rell prevailed in the last state budget. And they would be a lot worse for New Britain this year if Tim Stewart's friend in the corner office of the State Capitol has her way.

The reality of this budget cycle, as one state lawmaker put it, is that the Governor and Legislature have "to pick their poison" to balance the budget and maintain services. Stewart's "blame game" tactics are predictable. But given the severity of the budget crisis, it would be a good time for the mayor to set aside partisan sniping and work cooperatively with the delegation. Time is running short as the city and state face a June deadline to adopt budgets for the fiscal year that begins on July 1.

26 March 2009

Why disinvesting in the local community college hurts

The state deficit problem is jeopardizing the state's educational and social safety net resources -- what the Governor and Legislature would call "core" services.

Bristol Press' Jackie Majerus tells a story in today's local papers that can be replicated thousands of times across the state.

Chipping away at schooling - The New Britain Herald News : New Britain, Conn., and surrounding areas (newbritainherald.com)

Posted using ShareThis

23 March 2009

Does New Britain Hospital Figure In Hartford Hospital's Takeover Plans?

The Hospital of Central Connecticut (HOCC), better known in these parts as New Britain General, has been more than an interested bystander in the debate over the future of John Dempsey Hospital at the University of Connecticut Health Center and its possible takeover by Hartford Hospital.

Recent press reports confirm that all area hospitals are concerned about where major medical facilities will be located and what institution or combination of institutions will control them.

Current legislation to build a new John Dempsey is facing dwindling chances because of its $475 million price in a bad recession. Gov. Rell withdrew support and the Legislature is facing some daunting fiscal issues that suggest this is not the year for any new initiatives. If ever built, a new Dempsey would then become part of the Hartford Hospital system.

With everyone's eye on the state-financed hospital bill, however, there is unconfirmed but growing speculation in New Britain that New Britain General campus itself may be the takeover target of a revised Hartford Hospital plan. The New Britain Hospital, a comprehensive hospital with just over 400 beds, is minutes away from UCONN's Dempsey teaching hospital that has over 200 beds. It would be a bigger and, in some ways, more useful acquisition for teaching and the delivery of medical care under the Hartford Hospital system.

HOCC's New Britain General is one of New Britain's largest employers with deep and longstanding ties and relationships in the community. Whatever the merits of mergers and consolidations in the hospital industry, a possible loss of local control and governance may be unsettling to many residents and the health care professionals who serve them.

If the speculation turns real, the community needs to be brought into the conversation sooner rather than later.

17 March 2009

Iraq Authorization and Wall Street Bailout Votes: Two Of A Kind

The outrage now being expressed in Congress over the excessive bonuses paid to AIG executives -- especially from Republicans -- is an outrageous display of phony indignation.

When the federal bailout legislation was making its way through Congress last September there was some concern expressed by Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats on reining in executive pay and bonuses. It was Republican insistence on "no strings attached" and Democratic complicity in laissez faire use of public dollars that have brought us to this point.

Legitimate reservations that led Connecticut's 2nd District Congressman, Joe Courtney, for example, to vote against the bill were set aside to allow the "rescue" to go forward. Courtney was the only member of the Connecticut delegation to vote no on a package that is coming back to bite us.

Saving Wall Street and such conglomerates as AIG trumped writing any oversight protection that would have prohibited this latest display of corporate greed (or should we call it welfare?). A blank check was given to George Bush and Henry Paulson to keep rewarding those who conducted business in ways that have contributed to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

"And there’s no quid pro quo here — nothing that gives taxpayers a stake in the upside, nothing that ensures that the money is used to stabilize the system rather than reward the undeserving," observed the NY Times' Paul Krugman last September.

The passage of the bailout is eerily similar to the 2002 Congressional authorization on the Iraq War that, in retrospect, ignored the War Powers Act and was adopted under false pretenses. How many times have we heard legislators from both parties say if "I knew then what I know now I would have voted differently."

We may be about to hear the same thing on the September bailout vote in Congress. The authorization of force in Iraq and the authorization of bailout money to financial giants showed a rush to judgment. Oversight by a lame duck and irresponsible White House and Congress was missing on both the Iraq vote and on a bailout that is creating anger and resentment across the country.

02 March 2009

The Courant: Then and Now

I had the privilege of raising money for Hartford's Camp Courant back in the early 1990s. For one year I walked to a small cubicle assigned me in advertising at the newspaper's 285 Broad Street offices to seek support for the century-old free day camp serving thousands of Hartford's 5-12 year olds. Every day I would go down a corridor passing stacks and stacks of the newspapers left for easy reference -- an experience akin to a kid in a candy store for someone like me whose first job out of journalism school was covering city hall, state government and anything else newsworthy for a weekly paper. In the early 1990s the Courant didn't publish just one or two editions, but more than 10 different "zoned" editions. Bureaus from the Shoreline to the Northwest hills were plentiful and the "oldest continuously published newspaper" in the country probably had three or four times the number of people in editorial and news than is the case now. Before online news took hold, CT's biggest daily offered a news digest every day at 3 p.m. faxed on one sheet to subscribers who wanted tomorrow's headline and stories a day early. I remember senior managers saying that lay offs just didn't happen at a paper that was so dominant in its circulation area.

All of this is a sentimental way of saying that things have changed drastically for our metropolitan newspaper of record. Until a few years ago, even as the internet became pervasive ,the Courant was a public utility for news and commerce that thoroughly "penetrated" the marketplace of ideas and business.

The business models of the linear age and the increasing concentration of newspapers into a few corporate hands are decimating what's left of newsrooms -- last week's Courant layoffs of State House reporter Mark Pazniokas and others being the latest blow to good reporting and decent coverage in the capital city. You would think the Courant would want to sell off some physical assets, or rent some of the empty cubicles on Broad Street to maintain that kind of experience and talent, if only for a while longer.

Here in New Britain the dismantling of the metropolitan newspaper is complete. The bureau and home to a string of good journalists through the years (Lisa Chedekel, Joanne Klimkiewicz, Mike McIntire to name a few) on South Street quietly closed, consolidated to a regional Middletown office. Gone is the coverage of important City Council meetings and other government actions on a regular basis. The reporters who are left are gamely covering many more towns and doing what they can to deliver the news regionally and with less space in the print edition.

To some extent the revival of The Herald and its new local ownership has abated a total news blackout of what's happening in politics and government.

And there is still the largely untapped potential of local journalism to define itself in cyberspace: "The ease of blogging and exchanges of opinions online are addressing some gaps in the greatly diminished coverage of the dailies. It's also true that there is infinitely more news and opinion available globally for any interested reader," a recent blog noted about saving the hometown dailies.

But the situation remains difficult for an effective "Fourth Estate" locally and regionally. The further erosion of reporting and coverage by the Courant is a painful reminder that a void in how we keep the politicians honest and stay informed will get worse before it gets better.

(You can make a donation to Camp Courant at the above referenced website. It's a nonprofit bearing the newspaper's name that is a very worthy cause in Hartford)

26 February 2009

Rell's Local Aid: Placing More Burdens On Cities

The mayors of Bridgeport and New Britain have forged a bipartisan alliance to praise Gov. Jodi Rell's budget package for level funding of education aid to cities and towns. All cities and towns will get the same amount for the single largest local expense item -- the schools.

According to a New Britain Herald op-ed by Bill Finch (D-Bridgeport) and Tim Stewart (R-New Britain) and James Craven's story sharing their togetherness, Rell's proposal is a good start to the budget process for their towns. To be sure a status quo Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) for all 169 cities and towns is a good idea. It will mitigate somewhat the annual tug of war between city halls and boards of education.

But a closer look at Rell's state aid formula shows that cities lose out in a big way compared to their suburban neighbors. At a February 19th Democratic Town Committee meeting on state aid and the federal stimulus package State Rep. Peter Tercyak (D-26) pointed out why Rell's budget -- estimated to be $2 billion out of balance in the early going -- tilts against cities and their residents more than suburbia.

Cities such as New Britain have always relied on payments in lieu of taxes -- PILOT funds -- to offset the presence of state property, hospitals and agencies in their towns. Otherwise, taxable land is tax free when a state- or nonprofit owns it. The economically distressed cities, by and large, house the bulk of tax exempt property; the more affluent towns do not. PILOT funds, though not providing a dollar for dollar exchange back to the community, offset the presence of tax-exempt property with much needed revenue.

Rell's budget slashes PILOT funds by double digit percentages. In Bridgeport, the Governor would cut PILOT money for colleges and hospitals from $11,200,500 to $10,041,445, a 10.35% decline. Aid for state-owned property in goes from $2,676,768 to $2,450,950, an 8.44% drop.

According to the percentage decreases, New Britain takes a bigger hit than Bridgeport on PILOT money. The current $3,561,936 for colleges and hospitals will drop down to $2,793,464, 21.57% less; payments for state-owned property go from $4,255,399 to $3,407,080, 19.94% less.

While Rell's 0% decrease on ECS is welcome news for Bridgeport and New Britain; it's equally welcome news for every town, rich and poor. Finch and Stewart may as well have been the mayors of New Canaan and Avon in offering praise for Rell's budget.

The PILOT funding shows that in tough economic times Rell gives the rich towns a better deal than economically stressed cities. It's just one more disadvantage that cities face and the long driveway towns won't in paying for and delivering essential services.

That's something Finch and Stewart can't be so happy about and didn't mention in their strong praise of Rell for level ECS funding. The Legislature now has the hard task of setting aside Rell's fuzzy math and dealing with the most difficult budget cycle since the early 1990s.

18 February 2009

Ethics Flap Prompts Billy Mac To Resign From Board; Salvio's Complaint Called Another "Fishing Expedition"

The resignation of former Mayor William McNamara from the city ethics commission adds another partisan twist to the sorry state of affairs on a board charged with keeping municipal officials honest.

The Courant and Herald covered McNamara's move this past week.

Billy Mac, a supporter of the incumbent Mayor and the emcee at Stewart's inaugurals, derided a decision by the Common Council not to accept a ruling against Ald. Paul Catanzaro for participating in a Council discussion related to work at the Parks and Recreation Department. Republican Ald. Lou Salvio, a prolific filer of official complaints against Democrats, brought the original charge. On the first go around the ethics commission threw out the allegation. But it got a second life as the Herald's James Craven reports:

A quorum of the commission dismissed the complaint 2-1, but on Dec. 22, commissioner Jill Kemp, a Republican, made a motion to reconsider the dismissal. During a Jan. 21 meeting, the commission heard testimony and added two letters to its investigation. After reviewing the material, Republican commissioners William Dworski, Jill Kemp and Carmelo Rodriguez, along with Democrats Kemp and McNamara, voted unanimously that Catanzaro be reprimanded for two violations.

The reconsideration has brought charges from Democrats that Salvio openly violated the ethics rules himself by disclosing information that is supposed to remain under wraps as part of the ethics process. And then there is the matter of Billy Mac himself. Members of the ethics commission, while they can contribute to political candidates, may not endorse or campaign for a candidate. By all accounts, former Mayor McNamara has been a public supporter of Stewart during his re-election bids.

All of this tit for tat, of course, doesn't have much to do with grand lists, fiscal prudence, essential services and keeping the city afloat during one of the worst recession's in anybody's memory. Come to think of it, it may not have much to do with conflicts of interest or ethics either.

The allegation made against Catanzaro raises again the issue of what elected officials who are connected to the city by reason of employment can and can't do in their elected capacities. This two-hatted group includes Mayor Stewart (on loan from the fire department), Alderwoman Tonilynn Collins (water department)and Catanzaro
(a rank and filer at parks & rec).

Salvio alleges that Catanzaro's Council vote to have the city perform a landscaping job instead of a private contractor created a conflict because as an employee of Parks & Rec Catanzaro "would be benefiting himself." Catanzaro, a city alderman with responsibilities on budget matters, says that he felt obligated to support the city doing the work "to save money." He went further by saying he would not be involved in doing the work that was estimated as a two-day job with $120 in labor costs. But that's not Catanzaro's decision. It would be up to Parks Director Bill DeMaio or a supervisor to assign a worker to do the job, including Catanzaro if they so chose. And Catanzaro should have left well enough alone by excusing himself when the ethics report arrived this month.

The real issue is whether Catanzaro stood to directly gain financially from participating in the city versus private contractor vote. Did Salvio find a smoking gun? Was there a documented request by Catanzaro to his bosses that he wanted the work for himself and/or his union? The answer appears to be no, lending credence to the claim made by North-Oak Street neighborhood activist Rich Marzi at a February Council meeting that Salvio is engaging in "a fishing expedition." Salvio admitted as much at a January 21st ethics hearing on the matter by saying he "now believes Catanzaro would not have benefited directly as a result of his actions," according to a Herald story in the hearing.

This Salvio complaint follows a string of other complaints against Democratic members of the Common Council since Mayor Stewart, using his authority under a new charter, appointed a new ethics commission in 2004 at the start of his administration. A January 2004 Herald story "Stewart picks ethics panel" by Penny Riordan points to a Republican strategy of complaints aimed at Democratic aldermen and unionized city employees from the earliest days of Stewart's administration. Rather than take a bipartisan approach to appointments, Stewart took absolute control. Not surprisingly, the Stewart-appointed commission has been unanimous in casting aspersions against Democratic aldermen.

The Commission also turned aside a complaint early on that, as an elected mayor connected to the city fire department, Stewart was required to file a statement with the ethics board so he could carry out his elected duties while on leave from regular city employment. Stewart never filed a statement despite specific requirements for a mayor that are set forth in the code of ethics.

Another complaint that alleged Stewart intervened in fire department personnel matters was also rejected by the ethics panel. Subsequently, Stewart and the city have lost labor board and court rulings by denying Firefighter Ed Preece a promotion despite Preece' high exam scores. Preece was replaced by lower scoring candidates connected to the Mayor. And the case has cost the city a chunk of change for nothing in return.

If nothing else the controversies at the ethics board during the Stewart years have undermined a Commission that needs to be set up above the political frays that are an inevitable part of the process.

There are well-intended arguments that city employees should not be allowed to run for municipal offices as is the case with the state and state legislators. But that is not the case now. Stewart, Catanzaro and Collins were elected by voters with policy making and budget roles. They can and should recuse themselves if they or family members stands to directly benefit from their actions. Otherwise, let them govern.

By applying that standard, the latest complaint by Salvio has all the earmarks of a partisan and spontaneous attack on a fellow council member. Salvio's actions have been aided and abetted by Mayor Stewart who keeps the make up and structure of the local ethics board under his thumb. He can go to work at City Hall knowing that he and members of his administration are above any ethics problems because he has the votes to make it so.

Billy Mac is right about one thing: it's a waste of time to serve on the current ethics commission. The situation, however, leaves the city without a process to handle the real conflicts of interest that may be lurking at City Hall.

07 February 2009

Andy Stern On The Delay In the Solis Nomination: "Unacceptable"

Last month President Obama nominated Congresswoman Hilda Solis to be our next Secretary of Labor, but conservative Republicans are blocking her confirmation simply because she supports working people.

I just recorded a short video message about this unacceptable obstruction and how you can help.

Watch it: http://action.seiu.org/page/s/confirmsolis

Please take a minute to watch my video, then sign our petition to the Senate supporting Congresswoman Solis for Secretary of Labor.

Congresswoman Hilda Solis is the embodiment of the American Dream.

That conservative Republicans are choosing to obstruct her nomination is an insult to every working person in America.

Stern is the President of the Service Employees International Union

Photo: New York Times

01 February 2009

State Republicans Retreat To New Britain

The Republican State Central Committee, hit hard by losses in state House races last year, left Hartford for New Britain's A.H. Harris Building in December in office space that is "twice as big as our current digs and provides us with some exciting new opportunities," according to a GOP blog. The opportunities, say the Republicans, involve a facility big enough for in-house training classes "so that our candidates can improve their communication skills, learn about web-based tools...and engage in discussions on key policy questions with the smartest people we can find."

In Scott Whipple's recent Herald story on the Republicans' move, State Chair Chris Healy explained:

"New Britain is really the heart of the state..Not just geographically. It's emblematic of the kind of hard-working, family-oriented, community-involved city where we want to be.....The city has its own notable Republicans: Mayor [Tim] Stewart, Nancy Johnson and Tom Meskill. We didn't need to be in the capital city, yet we wanted to stay in metro Hartford."

Nonetheless New Britain seems an unlikely place for the state GOP to locate an office. There are 18,072 Democrats here (12/31/2008) compared to about 3,699 Republicans -- part of the surge that favored Democrats everywhere in 2008. When unaffiliateds (11,749) are counted, Republicans account for little more than 11 percent of the electorate. Republicans would counter that they hold the Mayor's office with incumbent Tim Stewart, who rode into office when residents were hit with 40% revaluation hikes a few years ago. Stewart certainly didn't get elected because he is a Republican; the electorate in a divided government mood voted the incumbent out for ignoring assessment hikes in a property tax system that state Republicans, by and large, want to maintain. Two years ago, however, Stewart's expected coattails didn't materialize as the GOP lost ground on the Common Council. His state party's presence is also a double-edged sword for the Mayor. The only party affiliation you'll find on his lawn signs is "Democrat" (as in "Democrats for Stewart"). The same could be said for former Congresswoman and New Britain resident Nancy Johnson who finally lost in 2006 when her Republican antics and actions in Washington finally outpaced her moderate, bi-partisan tone back home, complete with the "Democrats for Johnson" lawn signs all over town in her recent elections.

The often acerbic and confrontational Healy appears to be borrowing a page from the national strategy of former Democratic National Chair Howard Dean whose 50-state strategy is credited with turning red states to blue in the Presidential and congressional races last year. He says his party's candidates need to get support from all parts of the state, not just Fairfield County where even the last of the GOP members of Congress in New England, Chris Shays, lost last year.

Healy's challenges, however, run much deeper than finding and training candidates to run for office. In the Herald story, he unwittingly lets us in on the problem with the Republican brand:

"I'm not worried. We have plenty of talented people who want to run. We've got Republican mayors in Danbury, Middletown and New Britain with ability and passion. Democrats will always have people who want to make a career out of politics. A lot of Republicans come from the real world; they're not interested in government."

They're not interested in government. That statement provides as good an explanation as any of the mounting foreign and domestic troubles of the country with Republicans in charge of the White House and Congress over these last eight years. You might say Bush and the Republicans "weren't interested in government working effectively," leading to the train wrecks left to the Obama administration to solve now.

And in New Britain, Healy couldn't be thinking of his Mayor, Tim Stewart, with his lifelong career in government in the Fire Department. Nor his local party chair, Paul Carver, who left the private sector years ago to take a Rowland patronage appointment to the DPUC. Actions speak louder than words, and phony arguments that always tear down the public sector can't help our current difficulties when public and private solutions are needed for the recovery. Whatever happened to that well-known Republican Abraham Lincoln who famously said the role of government is "to do for the people what they can't do for themselves."

Healy's mantra and that of many of his Republican brethren remains that the individual is more important than the community; that private interest and gain should always trump the public interest even in these dire economic times. Witness the incredible display of selfishness by Republican House members last week in Washington: not one GOPer voted for a federal stimulus and reinvestment package that would reach down and provide some measure of relief to local governments, schools and the unemployed. Better to fork over more tax breaks to the wealthy and continue Wall Street welfare; promise that all of the government largesse will eventually trickle down to the rest of us living in Hooverville.

The acerbic Healy knows that that message will never sell in New Britain. He must know that a conservative Republicanism serving the interests of corporate giants over Main Street and small business is morally and politically bankrupt. The only thing left to do is to keep tearing down Democrats without offering much in the way of solutions or programs in return. In his new New Britain digs, Healy joins kindred spirits with the likes of Mayor Stewart, Ald. Lou Salvio and Chairman Paul Carver who could write a book on petty politics. Instead of reaching out to govern on a bipartisan basis between elections, their tactics frequently involve personal attacks, using official complaint processes for partisan ends and losing one Freedom of Information case after another to keep public information from Democrats and everyone else.

Let the battle for the hearts and votes of New Britain voters begin in 2009. Meanwhile, New Britain Democrats welcome the state Republican office to New Britain.

And kudos to State Party Chair Chris Healy for demonstrating that New Britain is not a bad place to re-locate a business or a group seeking to rebound from a disaster.

Photo Credit: http://forwardliberally.wordpress.com/2008/11/21/more-from-the-republican-civil-wars/

31 January 2009

Railing Against Highways: Is Momentum Building For Expanded Rail, Bus Service?

Connecticut is a tale of two places when it comes to use of public transportation. There's the Gold Coast and the Metro North line with hundreds of thousands of riderships on trains that need replacement and upgrade. Then there is the rest of us in central and eastern Connecticut with limited bus services and downtowns where the biggest retail businesses may be parking lots and garages. When he opened his restaurant a few years ago the late Hartford Mayor Mike Peters quipped that he could offer you a $7.50 hamburger but it would cost $10 or more for parking during your visit to Hartford's central business district.

News stories this week suggest that the policy and plans on mass transit may be getting greener and less dependent on automobiles. A January 30th story by the Courant's Don Stacom addressed the issue of a new approach and targeted use of federal stimulus money to push public modes of transit and reducing what the Al Gore crowd calls our "carbon footprint."

The take away from the Hartford meetings attended by legislators and advocates was that it's time to push a new agenda for the sake of the environment and for economic recovery built around new thinking on transportation. "With the federal stimulus plan moving quickly through Congress, leaders from a variety of alternative transportation fields agreed that they have a narrow window of time to influence how Connecticut uses its share of the money," noted the news report.

On January 29th, the Courant's Stacom reported on an even more tangible proposal to activate long dormant railroad tracks on the Waterbury to Hartford route, including stops in New Britain and neighboring towns.

Officials with Pan Am Railways told lawmakers that for $52 million, their company could bring the tracks on the Waterbury-to-Berlin stretch up to federal standards for passenger service and also build small stations in Bristol, Plainville and New Britain

The quick start up idea from Pan Am stands in stark contrast to the slow moving and increasingly costly busway plan first proposed in 1998. This plan would make downtown New Britain the terminal at the former Greenfield's store site for a bus lane into Hartford aside tracks that are now used infrequently for freight.

State Senator Don DeFronzo (D-New Britain), along with colleagues Rep. Betty Boukus (D-Plainville) and David McCluskey (D-West Hartford) said the Legislature will examine these options toward mass transit closely in the first part of the current session. Joe Marie, the state's new transportation commissioner, will be looking at this Waterbury to Hartford connector route that could be expanded and linked to local bus service if ridership demands increase. Marie will discover that old and steady habits die hard in Connecticut. But he is a departure from transportation commissioners of the past having come from Boston and the MBTA.

This may signal the end of the line for the New Britain-Hartford busway plan. From the start old transportation regimes said busway was preferable over rail because the ridership wouldn't justify a rail passenger system. That limited vision seems to have doomed the once promising Griffin line (Hartford to the airport)in the 1980s and left the busway stalled and steeped in cost overruns.

If the Waterbury rail idea gets approval, New Britain's downtown could benefit from being a stop on the line as much if not more than the busway. Transit-related plans for downtown economic development would stay on track, and residents could get an alternative to I-84 snarls and parking fees.

24 January 2009

Hello Sweet Heart, Get Me Re-Write: Herald, Press Survive

The New Britain Herald and Bristol Press, left to die by the parent Journal Register Company (JRC) late in 2008, will survive.

Today's Herald story by Scott Whipple confirmed that Michael Schroeder, a veteran newspaper exec from Newsday, has made good on his promise to be the white knight entrepreneur for the two local dailies and three weeklies in central Connecticut.

[Photo credit: Movie poster The Front Page (1974)]

Schroeder is the president, publisher and chief executive of the group [Central Connecticut Communications], and will manage all operations from the newspapers’ offices in New Britain and Bristol. The daily papers will continue to publish seven days a week, and the weeklies will appear Fridays.

“This has been an exciting process, getting to know the staff and the people around New Britain and Bristol,” Schroeder said. “We will be building on a great paper, with a team that is ready to move forward and not look back.”

Jeff Pijanowski, a longtime colleague of Schroeder at Newsday who now writes his own blog, leaves little doubt that the new publisher has journalism in his blood and may be in this for more than the money: "He's one of the top journalists I have ever met. He brings a level of excitement in the newsroom few other executives can. He's not afraid to take risks when necessary, he'll roll up his sleeves with his staff, and he certainly can breathe life into a news organization that was close to shutting its doors."
As doubtful as it appeared in our earlier posts here of November 27 and December 31, a best case scenario has emerged for the hometown dailies -- a publisher committed to keeping two institutions of commerce and coverage alive and adaptable to new kinds of news delivery in print and on line.

This happy ending wouldn't be complete without citing the alarm bells first raised by State Rep. Tim O'Brien (D-24) about the loss of the daily papers in central Connecticut. O'Brien, soon joined by other legislators and the mayors of New Britain and Bristol, wrote to the state Department of Economic Development (DECD) asking for its assistance in finding a buyer. Contrary to some misguided commentary that the lawmakers were looking for a bailout that would lead to government control of newsrooms, this was a case of elected leaders looking out for the well being of their communities and advocating for preservation of fourth estate that is indispensable in a democracy. It's not clear whether the state DECD will be offering specific assistance to the local newspapers via small business loans or other incentives. But the enterprise should receive the same concern that any other business would in the effort to save jobs and promote commerce in the region.

The ruckus raised by O'Brien and other public officials was certainly loud enough to be heard by Schroeder, leading to this week's improbable rebirth of the dailies.

17 January 2009

A Good Bet: Amann Will Exit Gubernatorial Race Quickly

Former Speaker of the House Jim Amann is ramping up a run for Governor. He's sent no less than five e-messages to Democratic leaders over the last month.

They reflect a hectic schedule and agenda: advocacy for more "Hollywood East" state tax credits (before the Democratic caucus even considers it), an invitation to his portrait unveiling, another invitation to a charity fundraiser and finally news of a January 29th announcement in Bridgeport when he will make his gubernatorial intentions known.

Now comes the news that Amann's plate gets fuller with the appointment to be a senior advisor to the House Democratic leadership. It's just too much and foretells that Amann's gubernatorial run is likely to end very quickly after it leaves the dock.

Putting aside this highly problematic assignment for the moment, too many political factors mitigate against the ex-Speaker getting any traction in the race for Governor in 2010.

For one thing history is just not on Amann's side. Ex-Speaker Ernest Abate, a downstate lawmaker from the 1980s, sought the Governorship without success. More recently, Senate Majority Leader George Jepson, a capable and effective legislative leader, did not survive the 2004 state convention and accepted the lieutenant governor nomination, earning creds for party service and a future run for statewide office. State lawmakers have fared much better moving up the political ladder by seeking a seat in Congress (a young John Rowland, Chris Murphy in 2006) or a constitutional office (Comptroller Nancy Wyman, Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, Attorney General Dick Blumenthal, all of whom came out of the Legislature).

Amann also lost considerable credibility in 2006 when he endorsed the independent run of Joe Lieberman for re-election after Ned Lamont became the Democratic nominee. The progressive faction of the party that lifted up Lamont cannot be easily dismissed in putting together a winning strategy for the nomination for Governor.

And finally Amann comes up against a deep and qualified bench among Democrats who would be Governor and have a measure of statewide exposure already. Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy has all but announced, having gained statewide experience and support in a 2006 bid that ultimately went to New Haven's John DeStefano. Secretary Bysiewicz, respected for her campaign skills and reaping kudos for the Democratic surge in enrollment last year, may be looking again toward the corner office. There's also Comptroller Wyman whose frequent and depressing pronouncements on the deficit give her creds as a knowledegeable office holder on the budget for very tough fiscal times. And have I mentioned Dick Blumenthal? All of the above except Amann would step aside for him in the unlikely event that he gets a case of gubernatorial fever. Don't count on it.

To his credit the affable Amann rose to become Speaker among the sometimes discordant factions of a growing Democratic Caucus during an 18-year legislative career. His story of overcoming a serious illness is a compelling and inspiring one. He's a hard guy not to like.

But the ex-Speaker is not coming from a position that elevates his prospects based on history and the political realities within the Democratic Party. His new policy role in the employ of House Democrats cannot possibly help his ambitions either. If there is one thing they teach at campaign school: you need to be fully committed to run for the better part of two years.

It's a good bet that he will be the earliest to leave the gubernatorial race even before the aforementioned others enter it

03 January 2009

Commuter Question: Rail Over Busway

Today's Courant story by Don Stacom reports on a brewing change in legislative thinking on public transit in the area led by State Rep. David McCluskey of West Hartford.

McCluskey, disturbed over the lack of progress by the Department of Transportation on the New Britain busway, recently called for dumping the New Britain/Hartford busway as too limited for emerging needs. This would sink New Britain's terminal station planned for the former Greenfield's property and force a change in thinking for downtown development.

From Don Stacom's story:

"The busway was supposed to be a way to keep from building another lane on I-84, but I don't have much faith that people are going to drive into New Britain to take a bus to Hartford," McCluskey said. "But would people in Bristol and Plainville and New Britain use a train to Hartford? And would people in West Hartford welcome a way to get to New York? I think so."

With last summer's gas prices a harbinger of things to come and a surge in demand for rail service (even in Connecticut), McCluskey has a point. Investment in rail on existing tracks may be where we should have started 10 years ago. It's another indication that Connecticut has had more of a highway department than a true Department of Transportation through the years.

Related: Rep. McCluskey's blog frequently reports on transit conferences and meetings at http://ctprogressivedemocrat.blogspot.com/