Sunday, October 14, 2007
October 2007 - Waterbury Mayoral Candidate Tony D'Amelio Q & A
Experienced State Representative, Intent On Cutting Red Tape
(Observer publisher John Murray sat down with State Representative Tony D'Amelio inside the newspaper office on Bank Street in late September for a wide ranging interview on ethnic politics, the health of the Republican Party in Waterbury, and how the leader of the the city should spend more time lobbying up in Hartford. D'Amelio has served the 71st District for the past 12 years. Photographs by Michael Asaro)
Observer: Your parents were both Italian immigrants and some people will look at Tony D’Amelio and say you are living the American Dream. Through hard work you started your own business, have been a community leader for 19 years, and now you are running for mayor in the 5th largest city in Connecticut? What has been the key to your success?
D’Amelio: A lot of hard work. I got involved in public service for the right reason and that’s why I’ve managed to have longevity. It’s about what you can do for your constituents and not what you can do for yourself. I honestly live that. My father came here when he was 18, my mom when she was in her twenties…
O: Were they from the same town?
D: From the same region. The towns were next to each other. My cousins John and Joe own D’Amelio’s restaurant and their father and my father are brothers, and their mother and my mother are sisters, so we call each other brother-cousins. I hope they never need a liver or a kidney, because we might match. (big laugh)
We are a tight knit family. I have aunts who are 10 to 12 years older than me and we all kind of grew up in the same house. My grandmother raised all of us because my parents went off to work. Being brought up in that culture affected my values. I watched my grandparents and parents helping each other out. If someone was sick or hospitalized they didn’t have to ask for help. Meals were prepared. Community values were instilled in me.
It wasn’t always easy for me because my parents got divorced when I was young. That was devastating, especially because they were Italian immigrants. As a young guy when that happened your whole world is taken from under you. But I learned from that experience that you have to work hard because no one is going to hand you anything.
O: How has politics changed in Waterbury since you were first elected to the board of education in 1989?
D: Individuals that are elected now take things more personal. When I was first elected Joe Santopietro was the mayor and I served on the school board. There was always give and take with the other side of the aisle, but after the meetings everyone would sit down and have a beer together. I don’t see a lot of that going on now.
Now people are often against a proposal because of who proposed it. They are against an individual and don’t see the bigger picture. Another difference is the confidence of the voters. Back then there was a lot of pride in Waterbury. I think people felt better about their elected officials. Don’t forget that since I was elected Joe went through his problems, Phil went through his problems, and then the Governor. There was pride when I was first elected and now it’s “what the hell do you want to serve for? Why are you running?” People looked at you back then with honor, and now when they look at you they don’t have the same amount of trust that they used to have.
O: Former Governor John Rowland called politics in Waterbury a “contact sport”. How would you describe the political process in Waterbury right now?
D: It’s still a contact sport, but I have always prided myself on sticking with the issues. I don’t hit on someone’s personality or someone’s character. But in Waterbury now it’s all about character assassination. If you’ve been in public service for a while you must be a crook. My opponent for the state rep race last election called me everything under the sun. He said I was a crook and that everything I’ve achieved in life is because of my political connections.
O: How do you deal with that?
D: I’m very grounded. I know who I am. I’m comfortable with who I am. It bothers my wife and family more than it bothers me. I know it’s politics and I’m just going to roll with the punches. If you are going to be in politics you have to have a thick skin. Especially in Waterbury. Your opponents are going to attack your character to try and show that you’re not the person you really are. It’s very difficult and that’s the reason it is so hard to get people who want to run. It is getting harder and harder to find people who want to serve.
O: Tony, you’ve been on a short list of mayoral candidates for the past 12 years. There was talk of you taking on Mike Bergin in 1995 and of challenging Phil Giordano in 1999. Every municipal election in the past 12 years your name has been bandied about as a mayoral candidate. The Republican Party leadership has begged you to run before and you always said no. What’s different in 2007? Why did you say yes this time around?
D: It’s very simple. I’m very much a family guy; my family comes first before anything else. I have two daughters in college now and I have a 12-year-old son. I wasn’t sure where my daughters were going to school and I wasn’t going to jump into a mayoral race. Both girls go to UConn so it’s affordable, but they could have chosen to go to Fordham or Yale. My wife and I are committed to giving our children an education and we don’t want them to have a huge debt. I never wanted to rely on politics for my livelihood because it’s so uncertain. So my family came first.
Secondly, I had to consider my business. I’m self-employed. I started Three Of A Kind restaurant with my two partners in 1983 and then in 1997 I opened Paisanos. I made a huge investment in that new building so there was no way I could walk away from that. I now have a good management team in place, and a great staff, so I can run for mayor.
On a personal note, the first time they wanted me to run in 1995 against Mike Bergin I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t ready to take on that type of position. Now I’ve been involved for 18 years. I’ve been a board of ed member, I’ve been an alderman, and I’ve been in the state house for 12 years so it’s a different day. I know exactly what this city needs.
O: The Republican Party has a solid history of selecting young Italian males from Town Plot as its mayoral candidate. It hasn’t worked out all that well for Waterbury because the last two Republican candidates elected mayor went to prison. There is a very real fear in some quarters of this city from voters who look at Tony D’Amelio and say “Oh no, here we go again, another Italian male from Town Plot.” What would you say to those voters?
D: It angers me that this was even brought out. When I first announced I was running the mayor went on TV talking about Phil Giordano and Joe Santopietro. The only similarity that we have is that we’re Italian Americans from a certain area. That’s where it ends. I think I have proven myself. I’ve been involved in public service for 18 years and there’s not a blemish behind my name. With all the scandal that’s gone on here in Waterbury there’s nothing been said about Tony D’Amelio.
And this issue drives and motivates me. If I do become mayor I am going to do a fantastic job. The Italian community has been labeled because of Santopietro and Giordano, but that doesn’t mean that we’re all bad. I have daughters that are Italian-American and they shouldn’t be labeled because of what two individuals did. It is important to the Italian community to have me run and clear up this issue. They want this stereotype to go away.
The mafia originated in the Italian community, we all know that, there’s a history of that, but we’re not all Mafioso, or a part of that. We’ve contributed a lot to Waterbury and America. We are good hard working people.
O: I agree, but one of the challenges of your candidacy is to convincingly bring that point across. Voters around the city are concerned about this issue. Joe Santopietro was just arrested again this year for his effort to help the mob control trash hauling in western Connecticut. Giordano had links to the mob that were being investigated before he was arrested for pedophilia. This is not the Sopranos, this is Waterbury and the mafia has been right here in the city. Organized crime has been in the mayor’s office. This is a difficult issue for people to put on the table and ask you, but voters are talking about it all around you, behind your back. That’s why I wanted to ask you directly to your face and let you respond to the issue.
D: I appreciate that. The Italian-American community has struggled with the corruption of Joe Santopietro and Phil Giordano and that’s why the Italian-American community is thrilled that someone like me is running for mayor. They know me. I have a strong record of public service for the past 19 years. I’m excited to show Waterbury that this problem isn’t about all Italian Americans, and I think they know that. A lot of the politicos want to make a case to discredit me, they use a whisper campaign….he’s Italian, he’s corrupt, and the campaign started off that way this year. They wanted to put fear in people’s minds that here’s another corrupt individual. The minute that article came out that quoted the mayor as saying I was backed by crooks and felons, the stereotype was being put forward.
My daughter wrote a letter to the editor that expressed how she felt. It was very powerful. She didn’t tell me until after she sent it in. It brought tears to my eyes. My 19-year-old daughter wrote that her father had done nothing but serve the community, and opponents have no issues against him so they try and drag him through the mud by bringing in the Santopietro situation and the Giordano situation.
She wrote that she was an Italian-America and asked if that made her bad. Her letter was very powerful and that whole issue died down.
O: The one part that let’s people keep the issue alive a little bit is that you are very good friends with Jeff Santopietro. You don’t hide that, he doesn’t hide that. He’s in your headquarters picking up lawn signs. There is something radioactive about the name Santopietro, and suddenly he becomes the cunning fox pulling your strings. Is he?
D: Not at all. When I first decided to run people told me to keep Jeffrey out of the picture, in the background. That’s not me. I don’t hide my stripes. I am who I am. Jeff has been a dear friend of mine for the past 20 years. I became really good friends with him when he was going through the situation that he had. It wasn’t easy for him. His brother was a very popular mayor and his whole world collapsed. He was a young man, I think he was 19, and it was a very tough time. He has always been there to help me and we’re good friends.
If you look at Jeff today he is married, he is running a very successful business and he continues to give to the community in so many different ways. He is a great guy. If people are concerned about the Santopietro name, they shouldn’t be concerned with Jeff. He doesn’t control me in any way, shape or form. No one controls my decision-making. I have to do what’s right for me.
O: The last two Republican candidates for mayor, Mark Forte and Tom Tremaglio, both had innovative and refreshing ideas, yet both men said they were screwed over by the very Republican leadership that urged them to run. It’s been a tough time for Republicans in Waterbury. What’s your take on the health of the Grand Old Party in Waterbury?
D: I’ve helped energize the party with my candidacy. The majority of the party feels we have a legitimate shot. I understand how Mark and Tom feel, after the Giordano mess our party was splintered. I applaud them for taking the helm, for actually putting their necks out there. And Dennis Odle in 2001.
Even now, the party gives you the nomination and you hope for some help, but it all falls on your own back. Some members are great, and some members hand you the nomination and don’t volunteer or work hard. That’s in every political party.
I am one of the few people who get along with everyone. I was good friends with Nick Augelli, I was good friends with Sam Caligiuri. There was a big split there from what Sam did to get the leadership of the board of aldermen from Nick. He did what he did, but I remained friends with him. Now we’re even better friends since he came to the Statehouse and we work together and we have really gotten to know one another. Nick I served with for years on the board of aldermen. When everything went down with Joe Santopietro it was Nick Augelli who was our leader. I was on the school board at the time but he was the figure that kept us all together. He said we can’t get discouraged, we have to stay together, and not long after that Giordano got elected. But Nick was the leader that held this party together and a lot of people forget that history. If you look at all the camps out there today there is little factions everywhere. Not everyone is happy with his or her party, and that’s just something you come to live with.
O: 34% of all tax dollars in Waterbury go to unfunded pensions and retiree medical costs. Despite the unfunded $450 million pension nightmare. Some of your opponents have stated that the medical costs to retirees is likely an even larger liability to the taxpayers. How would you tackle the problem?
D: That’s the next huge hurdle that Waterbury is going to face. We don’t know what that exact number is yet, but we have to find that out and deal with it the same way we are dealing with the pension fund, and that’s pay as you go. Some people may disagree with me, but when you have a debt of that magnitude, when the actuarial reports say we must pay $40 million a year, we have to do that. Waterbury is not out of the financial woods yet. We still have a huge debt. It’s no different than your home. You have $100,000 debt on credit cards and you borrow against your home and start making monthly payments. You think you’re out of the woods, but you still have that debt. Unless you sell your home that debt is not going to go away until you pay it off. It’s going to take us 18 years to get out of debt but we have to do this. When we find out what the health care costs are we are going to have to do the same thing.
O: How do we figure out that number?
D: That’s a good question. For years I don’t think anyone knew what they were doing in dealing with health care benefits. Now that we are addressing this issue I think it’s scaring a lot of people. Just imagine what the state of Connecticut is on the hook for. But whatever these numbers are we are going to have to deal with them head on. No smoke and mirrors. Whatever the debt is we’ll have to tackle it. Sam Caligiuri proposed legislation in Hartford that would have the state bond the money for the pension fund and then Waterbury borrow that money. But there is only $25 million in the bonding package before us right now and Waterbury needs $450 million. There are 78 communities out there right now that have a pension fund problem so it’s going to take a while to convince Hartford to actually bond that money. That would be the best scenario because we would bond that money at the state rate and pay that debt slowly.
These issues bring to light our financial situation in Waterbury. We have a $7 million surplus this year. That’s nice to say that but we have a $460 million pension fund debt, and whatever that health care cost is going to be. We’re not sitting as pretty as we think we are.
O: The Republican mantra is always to cut taxes, or to keep taxes as they are. Waterbury has the highest tax rate in Connecticut. People are drowning here. And another pig is about to drop on the table with the health care costs. The bad news isn’t over is it?
D: No. The Oversight Board did yeoman’s work by reversing a lot of the sins that occurred in the past 30 years of mismanagement in Waterbury. The $40 million a year that we have to contribute every year is because of the mismanagement of city finances. We are paying for that. I would love to be able to say that I will cut your taxes but that’s not who I am. I can’t lie to people.
There are things that can be done and I think economic development is the key to that. It’s no different than my business. I have fixed costs just like the city and those costs go up every year. Lights, fuel, payroll, health care benefits, they are not going to go down. Unless you bring in more revenue to cover that, the money has to come from somewhere. So what do you do?
Can you go to the taxpayers? No, people are tapped out. Everybody is just barely surviving in this area. We are a blue-collar town.
O: So how do we attract more businesses here?
D: We need an aggressive economic development plan. First we need to encourage developers and businesses that Waterbury is a place they want to be. One thing I learned in Hartford is that there are 169 communities in this state and we’re all competing for the same factory, the same fuel cell business, everybody is in on this game. Years ago suburbia wasn’t in on this; they wanted to maintain their same small town character. But that’s changed. The small communities now understand the importance of economic development in keeping their taxes down and they’ve created industrial parks like the one in Watertown.
I propose that we pre-permit sites in Waterbury. One of the things Waterbury is known for is that when a developer or new business comes here they get discouraged with red tape and bureaucracy. They decide its going to take them too long to get up and running and they go somewhere else. But if we pre-permit sites, we have so many Brownfields, and buildings falling in disrepair that are no longer viable, that we need to get them ready for change.
O: How would you do that? Pick out a site and take us through the process.
D: We are trying to do this with the Harper Leader property on South Main Street. We have applied for money to remediate that property. It was an old fuel company that fell into disrepair. We would take that property and apply for all the necessary permits on the state level.
O: You’d take it by eminent domain?
D: We can, but with this new Brownfield legislation it’s going to be a lot easier for the city to go in and take these properties. We could work it out with the existing owner who doesn’t have the funds to clean the site. We can do all the necessary legwork as a city to get this property ready to be permitted. They we can go out and market it. If we want we can apply for the money and clean the property and get it ready for a potential developer or factory owner. By doing this we can take all the leg work out of the project for any developer or business looking to move in. This will get rid of the stereotype Waterbury has that nobody moves fast enough and you’ll get tied up in red tape. If we pre-permit these sites we could get the Waterbury Development Corporation to remediate the property and then we could sell it to a developer. We would get back the money we spent cleaning the property up and we’d have a new addition to our tax base.
O: It’s interesting that you talk about the feedback you get from businesses and developers about their frustration dealing with Waterbury’s red tape, and we just had the top two leaders at the Waterbury Development Corporation leave in frustration that the city is imposing red tape on them making it difficult to start projects.
D: Alderman Paul Vance proposed to have everything go through the board of aldermen and that’s not what WDC was created for. It was a shoot off of the Naugatuck Valley Development Corporation and was supposed to get rid of all the red tape. If you look at all the projects NVDC did in downtown redevelopment like the Palace Theater, UConn and the magnet arts school, all that money went straight to NVDC. In Hartford we didn’t want that money going straight to the city because it would slow down the process. The most recent example is the money to fix the football field at Municipal Stadium. We earmarked the money to WDC because we wanted to avoid the nightmare of having the project bogged down in the city’s bureaucracy.
I got a $150,000 to fix up Town Plot Park a year ago and nothing has been done. The money is to buy new playscapes, to fix the walking trail, to fix the sprinkler and other maintenance things.
O: Is the money still in Hartford?
D: No, the money was earmarked to the Park Board and it hasn’t gotten done yet. The city for some reason sits on its hands. There is no motivation to go out and do these projects. That’s what has to change. So I don’t blame Mike O’Connor (the former executive director of WDC) for being frustrated, and he started to air some of that frustration about the City Hall project. That project was adopted after a painful referendum on the issue. On May 30th of this year the aldermen adopted the $39 million project. It’s October 1st and we don’t even have a contract yet. That’s obscene. When there is a standard contract used throughout the industry, and it’s the same one Michael O’Connor used for the $300 million downtown development, we need to sign that and get the project started. It was good enough for the Palace and UConn, it’s not good enough for City Hall?
O: The mayor just came firing back with an op-ed piece in the Republican-American newspaper saying that standard contract was set up to protect the contractors and not the city. He said a new contract would better protect the citizens.
D: Maybe that’s his belief, but I’ve spoken to attorneys who deal with this issue all the time and they have told me that the contract doesn’t protect the developers. There is equal protection and that’s why it’s an industry standard. There was a 30 day grace period after the referendum in case someone challenged the results, but during that time the mayor could have had someone working on a contract. There is no excuse for the delay. So imagine you are a private business having to go through this, where every single day is costing you money, you couldn’t do it. That’s why the real money, the real businesses that we look to bring into the city don’t even look at Waterbury. They get frustrated and aggravated that everything takes too long.
O: So how do you fix WDC?
D: By having leadership. The mayor has to take a strong lead on these things. He has to be an ambassador for development in Waterbury. Whoever takes that seat has to dedicate a majority of their time to economic development. If that doesn’t happen we are in deep trouble. Because our costs are only going up. If you look at our tax bills from ten years ago and compare them to today’s, they have almost tripled. So how much more can you ask from a taxpayer? We can’t ask for anymore.
O: So you have to take a pair of scissors and cut the red tape?
D: Absolutely. Not create more of it like they are proposing to do now. The mayor is seeking more control over WDC and that’s not why they were created. WDC has an executive board, the neighborhood has some people, the chamber is on that board, and then there is a board of directors of 25 individuals. There is checks and balances with WDC. You want to take it out of government’s hands because any time the government gets involved it will take you forever. I see that on the state level. State projects take forever because you have to go through all that red tape.
O: Downtown Watertown is fully occupied and flourishing, and Waterbury’s downtown isn’t. Why is that, and what can you do to specifically help downtown Waterbury?
D: If you look at what Carl Rosa and Main Street are doing they have some great ideas. As a mayor you have to become a part of that, you have to become a real cheerleader for Main Street.
I did a merchants walk and the number one concern from the merchants was parking. They complain that sometimes a customer will pull up and run in and get something quick and when they walk out there is a ticket on the windshield. We have sent the message that we won’t tolerate illegal parking, but we have to go beyond that and address the parking so businesses can survive downtown.
Another issue is that property owners want to put money into their property but they will have to pay more taxes on the improvements and there is no guarantee they will get tenants. So we need to give tax breaks on property improvements to help get things going. These are ideas that the property owners have come up with. There are beautiful buildings down here with spaces that can turn into apartments so we can create more living space downtown. A lot of kids getting out of college would love to live downtown in a one of these apartments but we have to market that and have to give the landlords and property owners an incentive to rehab those apartments.
O: Just so I’m clear, what would you do with the parking tickets? Would you stop issuing parking tickets?
D: No. That’s another stream of revenue that the city has, but I think there needs to be some common sense applied. If you see someone pull up to Louie’s Pizza to run in and grab a grinder we shouldn’t be racing over to give that customer a ticket. If the car is sitting there for an hour, tag them. You don’t want to create the image that we’re giving away free parking, that’s not what I’m trying to say. We just need to use wiser judgment to make it more business friendly. I go to Tony’s Men’s Shop all the time, I buy the majority of my suits and clothes from Tony’s and I go to Fine Crafts because they are specialty shops. It’s a little harder to convince our wives because we have become a mall society. But we have great ramparages downtown and we need to do a better job marketing that they are clean and safe. Maybe we should offer free parking a few days out of the year to try and get more shoppers downtown. Once they are downtown they can see that we are safe. The image is that downtown is not safe. We have the buses on the Green, and the people that hang around the Green might be good people, but they make some people uncomfortable.
We have a beautiful downtown and if we can get the transportation center going I envision parking all around the Green. Maybe we can open up some of those shops on West Main Street. Parking is the number one issue, and number two is giving incentives to property owners to rehab their buildings, and number three is to go out and actively recruit.
We had the Information Technology Zone down here and that was extremely successful, but we didn’t reapply for that money. I don’t know why the city would let that money go. I was told that 23 applied for the ITZ and 15 are still here. That’s pretty successful.
Carl Rosa and Main Street just put on the BeerFest in Library Park and 1000 people came into downtown. We need to do more of those types of events. I’ve talked to Carl about creating a restaurant zone in downtown Waterbury. The workers clear out of the insurance companies in Hartford after work, but people come back into Hartford to eat at Max’s Downtown, Hot Tomatoes and the Trumbull Street Grill. We can do that here in Waterbury. Look at City Hall Café and Diorio’s, we just need more places.
O: Part of the difficulty is that when people walk out of the Palace Theater they run smack into a fortress of UConn. If you look to the left it’s dark and creepy, and people do one of two things – they head to the parking garage at UConn, or the one behind the theater. People aren’t wandering around downtown. There are tens of thousands of people coming downtown and we don’t have a really good way to capture them after a show.
D: You’re right. But if we can turn that dark area into Max’s or a Hot Tomatoes people will come down even when the Palace isn’t open. Food attracts people from all over the place. I’m not talking about Subways or my place, but fine dining restaurants. Higher end restaurants. Carmen does a great job. Nobody thought he’d make it with a high end steak house on Chase Avenue, but he’s doing a great job. Diorio’s is doing a great job and attracts people from all over the state. That’s the kind of caliber restaurant I’m looking for. I talk to Carl about creating incentives for restaurants to come down here to liven up downtown after office hours. But we do have to clean up the image of downtown. We have to provide better lighting. Maybe create more off street parking along East Main Street, and create more parking around the Palace Theater. Maybe there’s streets we can totally block off and create outdoor dining. That’s what people want these days, and we have to give them what they want. The restaurants will help attract more speciality shops, places where you can’t go anywhere else to get the product.
O: In December 1993 you were the sole alderman to vote against a plan by Mayor Bergin to purchase and renovate the Palace Theater for $4 million. You clearly stated that the city and its taxpayers should not own the theater. Ten years later the Palace Theater was renovated for $30 million and the city of Waterbury now owns the theater. What do you think now of this arrangement?
D: Two different scenarios completely. Back in 1993 Mayor Bergin’s proposal was to have the city buy and renovate the Palace Theater. We couldn’t afford to do that. Being involved in government back then I saw that we couldn’t even run our Park Department in the right manner so what made us think we could own and operate a theater. The city has no business being in the theater business. The structure that they had in place was all wrong. We were going to create another layer of bureaucracy by creating another city department and hiring all kinds of people. Once we made that investment Waterbury was going to be married to that project for years and years and years and we weren’t going to get anything in return for it. So it was a bad idea, but it wasn’t an easy vote for me because the night of that vote it was the who’s who of Waterbury that came down and spoke in favor of it. But being in the restaurant business, and being with the average Waterburian who works hard every day, I knew that they didn’t like this idea, and I didn’t either. I voted my conscience. After the vote the who’s who belted me saying I didn’t know what I was doing and that I should be ashamed.
O: Well the Republican-American loved you. They wrote an entire editorial praising your courage.
D: But I didn’t know they were going to do that. Later we had a referendum on the project and my vote really stood out because I had the pulse of the people. I work with the people, it’s not a magic formula, when you work with the people every single day you know what they are feeling. This time around the Governor proposed doing the theater with state money. It was all state money that came in and we did it the right way. We created the Palace Theater Board, they are running it. They’ve done a great job and God Bless Jim Smith from Webster Bank for stepping up and pouring a lot of money into that endowment. So it’s not costing the city. We might own it, but the city’s involvement is not there. It was a completely different proposal that is not costing the taxpayers of Waterbury any money to run. You could argue that it’s still taxpayer dollars no matter how you look at it, but we have a tourist tax in Hartford that funds a portion of it and the delegation needs to keep fighting for funds to help run the theater. I think the way Steve is running the place he is doing a great job, I mean Frank, Frank Tavara.
O: You’ll give Frank an identity crisis.
D: (laughs) I don’t want to do that.
O: Part of your economic plan is to capitalize on your contacts in Hartford to help secure more funding for development projects in Waterbury. Former Governor John Rowland pushed the Waterbury envelope for ten years. Isn’t Hartford a bit tired of Waterbury right now?
D: Absolutely. Before John Rowland, Waterbury got nothing out of Hartford. We were like the state’s step child. But a lot of that falls on the leadership of the city. I’ve seen how communities present their ideas up in Hartford and how they get money. Bridgeport has a $1.6 billion proposal that Magic Johnson is involved in to develop a waterfront park. We need to get on the ball here and it has to come from the mayor’s office. Every year before our legislative session we sit with the mayor, it doesn’t matter who is the mayor, to come up with a legislative agenda for the city of Waterbury. We want to hear what the mayor is proposing that year and we bring those ideas up to Hartford. We create bills and try to convince our colleagues to support our ideas, but we have to remember there are 169 communities in Connecticut and they are all doing the same thing.
The chamber of commerce has a legislative agenda and some of the items they are looking for mirror what the mayor is looking for, and some are separate. We look to help them achieve some of their goals. And then you have individual legislators who are looking for their own area. I’m looking for park money here, we’re looking to do municipal stadium, we’re looking to do Fairlawn Park. We get some of the funding because we have a great delegation that works well together. There is no politics when its comes to the seven of us working for Waterbury, but the problem we have and why we’re not really getting what we should is because other communities, their mayors, their first selectman, come to Hartford. And when they come to Hartford they come with their city planners, they come with their chamber members, they come with their business community, they come with 15 to 20 people as a team.
They come with blueprints and when they go into the Governor’s office their delegation is part of that, and then they convince the Governor what the project can mean to not only Waterbury, but greater Waterbury. This is what we need to do.
O: Mike Jarjura isn’t doing that?
D’Amelio: No. That’s never happened in my 12 years in Hartford. It doesn’t matter who is mayor they never come to the capitol with the chamber of commerce or as a team. Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim was a pain in John Rowland’s ass because he was up in Hartford all the time looking for money. Bridgeport came as a group, a team, it wasn’t just the mayor’s idea.
We can get money to fix the stadium, but to get the real money the mayor has to work with the chamber of commerce and go to Hartford as a team. Our mayor needs to show real leadership in creating a vision for Waterbury and that isn’t happening now. That’s what I want to do, it’s the only way to do this. We have to sell Waterbury to Hartford. We have to sell the governor and the other legislators, we have to show them what this project can mean to Waterbury, and that’s not happening now. We need a united front. We shouldn’t have a mayor’s agenda and a completely separate chamber agenda, there are differences but they have to work more closely together. Government and business have to be on the same page on what we are going to do for Waterbury, and then we’ll get things done.
O: Forty percent of students who enter 9th grade in Waterbury public school do not graduate four years later. The truancy and dropout rate is a full-fledged crisis in this community. Do you have any ideas how to address this nightmarish problem?
D: I served a four year term on the board of education and I went to visit the schools. On a weekly basis I would go into a different school and it was an eye-opening experience. I had no idea about some of the hardships going on within the community. There are a lot of kids struggling. We want them to have higher test scores, but do we know what’s going on with them? Some kids are being brought up without any parents, or their parents are alcoholics or strung out on drugs. It’s hard to compare the test scores from Cheshire to Waterbury. I bet a majority of kids in Cheshire come from a two parent home, the family is making good money and not struggling like a lot of the families in the inner city of Waterbury. That’s why our test scores aren’t doing that well.
What can we do about it? We have to listen to the educators that are on the front lines every day, and that is our teachers and administrators. If they are spending 80% of their time trying to calm one or two kids down it’s not fair to other kids who are there and want to learn.
O: Some of this isn’t about test scores. Forty percent of the kids aren’t graduating on time or are dropping out of school. That is an outrageous number. What happens to these kids? Where do they go? Many of them end up in shitty jobs or in a dead end scene. That’s the future of Waterbury. What are we going to do about this?
D: For Waterbury to succeeed we have to have a strong educational system. That’s why I favor the neighborhood school concept. The middle schools are what is driving middle class out of the city, or they are sending their kids to private schools. There is a lot of fear about what’s going on in our middle schools. I was in the second graduating class from Westside Middle School. Prior to that was Barnard School, which was my neighborhood school. My cousins, myself, we went to school together. Everyone in our neighborhood went to Barnard School. There was a sense of community. Everyone knew who your parents were, my parents knew the other parents and there was a lot more respect and a lot more pride in the neighborhood. If there was an activity you could walk to your school. Let’s not forget there is a lot of people in Waterbury that don’t drive and we are busing their kids half way across town. It doesn’t matter which ethnic group you belong to, everybody wants neighborhood schools. They work. The middle school concept has failed us.
We have to look at the curriculum in high schools. Why are so many kids dropping out? Well maybe they know they aren’t college material and we aren’t given them a purpose to come to school. We aren’t training them for any type of job skills. We need to address that. We need to change that. When I went to Kennedy High School we had college prep, business, and industrial arts courses. If you were geared towards college you’d be in the college prep course, business you’d study business, and if you were in industrial arts you studied shop or auto mechanics so you felt like you were learning something useful to help you get a job. We have to go back to that concept and make sure the students not going on to college are prepared and trained for some type of job. Not every kid is going to college and when they get to a certain age they are bored and ask themselves “what am I doing this for?” God knows what these kids are going through at home. For a kid to drop out you have to wonder if the parents are actively involved with them. There are a lot of reasons why these kids are dropping out and we have to figure out why.
O: The Observer was involved in helping to launch a youth newspaper this summer called Young Voices. We had 12 public school students sit down for two days to brainstorm all the reasons they believed their peers were getting discouraged and dropping out of school. After lengthy discussion they zeroed in on Waterbury’s strict dress code as the #1 reason kids were dropping out of school. Every one of the students had been suspended for being in violation of dress code. One student received in-house suspension for wearing the wrong colored hair tie to school. The students believe the teachers and administrators are spending too much time enforcing a bizarrely strict dress code. Last year for example there were more suspensions in 9th grade than there were students in 9th grade. The kids say they are suffocating under petty rules, get sick of the daily hassle and drop out? What do you think of the situation?
D: These kids are faced with a lot. That’s why I think it is so important that the mayor gets involved with the education system. We need to listen to the teachers. The board of education is probably putting the pressure on the schools about the dress code.
O: Dr. Snead (superintendent of schools) loves it. He absolutely loves the dress code. He said that the students know what the rules are and the should follow them or be held accountable.
D: Maybe teachers can share with you. A teacher might step forward and say the situation is ridiculous, that this is a great a student and it doesn’t matter what color hair tie she has on today. Maybe our teachers are frustrated with the dress code too. We have to ask them and find out what’s really going on in the classrooms. One thing I learned by being on the school board is that we have great educators here in Waterbury. They are very caring and concerned, but we tie their hands in many respects. I wonder how many school board members actually go around and visit the schools. We grab these ideas like the dress code, which can be good in many ways, but maybe there’s problems too. The idea was that everybody looks the same now. I think it’s a healthier environment with a dress code.
O: All the kids on Young Voices agree there should be a dress code. No one is saying there shouldn’t be a dress code. They are saying it’s too anal. They feel they are being choked for ridiculous things.
D: My daughter got a demerit because one of her buttons was undone. Does the board of ed really understand what this policy is doing? That they are discouraging people from learning.
O: The mayor has created a blue ribbon commission to address the truancy and dropout rate and there are 50 community leaders involved and there are hardly any kids involved in the process. There are some minorities represented on this commission, but it’s mostly middle aged white folks trying to figure out why blacks and Hispanics are dropping out of school. There is a total disconnect. These kids want to talk, they want to express themselves to the board and tell them what is really going on inside the schools. Students want to bring their ideas forward and if you are elected mayor would you be willing to hold a Youth Summit to allow the young people of this city to speak out?
D: I think it’s important that we do that. We need to hear what their frustrations are. A lot of kids won’t participate, but the ones that do will give you a good insight. I have two daughters that recently graduated from high school. My wife and I take a strong interest in our kid’s education so we kind of knew what was going on in the schools as they were developing. But we really need to figure what is going on in those classrooms. Teacher bashing is the easiest thing. People say look at how much money they make and our test scores are down, but there are reasons and we need to look deeper into the situation. We also need to look at different teaching methods and how some principals are motivating their staff and students. The principal at Wendell Cross got his school engaged by offering to kiss a pig if they did good on their test scores. They did, and he kissed a pig. By looking at what is working, by studying success, we can find out how to spread this throughout the school system. Look at Rotella School, it was selected the best magnet arts school in America. How is that principal motivating her teachers? We need to study that and learn. How do we do that? By having a mayor who is willing to get into the schools and engage the teachers. I will do that.
Some senior citizens aren’t concerned with the school system anymore. They raised their kids already so they aren’t worried so much about what is happening today, but its of great concern to the entire community because the school system determines what your real estate is worth. If you have a strong school system, where people want to come in, that will create more demand and the price of your home will go up.
O: You are a former alderman so you experienced the stress of having to make big decisions with little information, or information given to you at the last minute. Do you think we should provide aldermen with a support staff so they can better handle the important issues coming before them?
D: Absolutely. People have to realize there is virtually no pay involved in the job. You do get a stipend, I don’t even know what it is, $4000 maybe. The most frustrating part for me is that you have to seek out your own information. If you’re working full-time and trying to juggle your family and everything, it’s very time consuming to get into the meat of an issue. You won’t know where the issue came from or whether you were casting the right decision on this. Basically you are depending on the mayor’s office for whatever information you have. Corporation Counsel provides information, but they are pretty much run by the mayor. In Hartford I have a legislative aide that is shared by five legislators. We need to create some type of system like that here in Waterbury where an alderman can call up the aide and say there is an important issue going on in the south end of Waterbury and I don’t really understand it. Can you research it and provide all the data. This would give the alderman more of a comfort level on the issues before they cast a vote.
O: Plus you’d get an independent assessment of what’s going on, something different than a partisan mayor’s point of view.
D: That’s important. I would like to create a legislative aide that is bipartisan. Not one for Republicans and one for Democrats. We need a researcher. Whatever the pressing issue that we need research on they have to conduct it. And most likely when they do that research it’s going to be for the entire board. We do have staff that provides that, but it’s not a bipartisan staff. Let’s face it, when a mayor is in office, the corporation counsel and every department head will go along with the mayor. So it’s very difficult as an alderman and that’s why you see a lot of the votes going the way they do. It’s just so much easier to say no. Mike Bergin used to do something that Phil Giordano never did, he called individual aldermen in. He would say this is the issue and if you’re going to break my balls on it I want you to know why I think it’s important and this is how I came to my conclusion. That tactic worked. 90% of the time he was right, and it was very hard for me or the other alderman to go against him. John Rowland did that a lot in Hartford. Personal lobbying showing you facts. You had to doubt them, but if you don’t have someone doing that independent research it makes it very difficult to go against them.
O: Mayor Jarjura has actively been involved in personal real estate development around the city. The mayor says he’s just investing in the city he loves, what’s your take on the issue?
D: It’s easy to sit here and say that the mayor is lining his pockets as mayor, but you have to understand that Mike and I go back. I know Mike, I know him as a person. I don’t have a problem with Mike making money in real estate. He’s a good person. He’s an honorable guy, there is no question about that. The problem I have is that when you are mayor there is a fine line sometimes. When you have a million dollars invested in a piece of property and you need a city board to pass that development it can be very tempting to get involved. How can you keep your hands out of that?
O: Especially when you have appointed members to the board that you are seeking approval from. And when the head of the Inland Wetlands Commission is appointed by you, and works at a city job, like Kathy McNamara does, it places her in an awkward spot.
D: Exactly. Everything could be above board but it’s the public perception that will hurt you. Mike has to realize what Waterbury has gone through, not only with two mayors, but a governor. There is a lot of distrust out there, and now you have a mayor who is a developer and it makes people scared. I said in the beginning of the interview that I don’t ever want to rely on public service for my livelihood, I own a business and would continue to manage the restaurant from a distance if I was elected mayor. Mike was a developer before he was mayor and has continued to manage his developing from a distance. But when you are mayor and developer you open yourself up to criticism. He took some hits for his project in Middlebury when his office space lured doctors out of Waterbury and the city lost revenue. It was a good business deal for Mike Jarjura, but not so good for Waterbury. If Mike wants to continue developing then a fair amount of criticism will continue to come his way. He needs to understand that many people, myself included, don’t think you should be mayor and developer. It’s a bad image.
O: There seemed to be several different ideas how to develop senior centers around the city, what are your ideas on this issue?
D: I’ve been lobbying in Hartford for the past three years to expand the Chase Park house. Joe Savoie is the Town Plot neighborhood president and they came to me and said they wanted a senior center in the Town Plot area and I believe sooner or later we are going to be able to secure those funds. Chase Park is an existing structure and we want to add on to it to create a space for seniors to meet.
Dennis Odle has an idea to create one big senior center for the entire city and build it out in the East End. It will be like the original Palace Theater proposal under Mike Bergin, it will create another department and more bureaucracy. We have five senior centers in the neighborhoods and we should continue to keep them in the neighborhoods. It’s where they belong. People are used to going down the street, they don’t want to be transported across town.
O: If you had one minute alone with every voter just before they entered the voting booth, what would you say to convince them to vote for Tony D’Amelio?
D: I am truly a public servant. If you look at my 20 years in politics I am not a headline grabber, or someone who wants to stand out in the limelight. I just truly want to serve. I am someone who truly cares. I’m not going to change. I haven’t changed. I love the constituent service I have provided to the people I represented in the 71st district. As a small business owner in Waterbury I know what has been lacking and that’s what has propelled me to do this. In order for Waterbury to survive we need to change our course. I can provide the leadership we need. I am the type of individual who will bring people together. I’m not stubborn and say I have all the answers. I am willing to listen and to create new ideas. I want the business community engaged. I want the neighborhood communities engaged. I hope Waterbury is ready for that type of leadership, because we haven’t had it for a long time.