Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Broken Promise

Four-Term Waterbury Mayor Michael Jarjura Faces Internal Party Challenges As He Seeks Re-election In 2009
Story By John Murray

Photographs By John Murray and Michael Asaro

(Photograph of Mayor Michael Jarjura)

In the world of politics broken promises are like weather changes in New England –predictably frequent. Americans have come to accept broken promises as part of our raucous political discourse. In order to secure our votes most candidates will tell us what we want to hear, and then after the election, they largely do whatever is in their own best interest.

Welcome to democracy in America.

Although broken promises litter the political landscape like cornstalks across Nebraska, two broken vows has triggered a political showdown between three democratic leaders in Waterbury. The story began to unfold in July 2005 when Waterbury Mayor Michael Jarjura approached Waterbury Police Chief Neil O’Leary at a funeral. Jarjura was plowing ahead with his campaign for a third term in office, and if successful, he had stated it would be his last.

O’Leary recalled the conversation. “The mayor told me he wasn’t running for another term and told me directly that I would be a good leader for the city. The mayor encouraged me in July 2005 to consider taking the next step into public office in 2007.”

(Photograph of Neil O'Leary)

One month later Jarjura’s hopes for a third term were upended when Karen Mulcahy scored a stunning upset in the democratic primary, and it appeared Jarjura’s political career was toast. Devastated, Jarjura reached out to O’Leary and other influential democrats for support in an unprecedented write-in campaign that challenged Mulcahy and three other candidates in the November general election. O’Leary was instrumental in convincing political strategist Fran Sullivan to come down from Cape Cod and run Jarjura’s long shot campaign.

Two months later Jarjura made national news when he became just the fifth candidate in American history to win a major political election on a write-in ballot. After Jarjura’s victory he again re-iterated to O’Leary that he was serving his last term in office. Jarjura also met with aldermanic president J. Paul Vance Jr. and promised him that this was his last term as mayor.

Based on the direct word of Mike Jarjura, both Vance and O’Leary began to contemplate campaigns for an open mayor’s seat in the autumn of 2007. But in the spring of 2007 Jarjura changed his mind and decided to seek re-election to a fourth term.

“The mayor told me he wanted another term so he could prove that the write-in campaign wasn’t a fluke,” O’Leary said. “I promised to support him and he pointedly told me this was going to be it for him. One more term and he was out.”

Vance didn’t appreciate the mayor’s waffling around and decided to plow ahead with his own plans and primary Jarjura in September 2007.

Wanting to avoid a costly and divisive political showdown, Jarjura went to Vance’s kitchen table and assured him that a fourth term would unequivocally be his last. If Vance waited two more years, the coast would be clear.

“I did sit with Paul and his wife at their kitchen table,” Jarjura confirmed. “Paul told me he had been waiting in the wings and wanted to challenge me in a primary. I told him that I would hate to see that happen. I asked him to hold off and he could run in two years, I just wanted one more term.”

(Photograph of J. Paul Vance Jr.)

Vance and O’Leary holstered their ambitions and in November 2007 they both supported Jarjura as the mayor swept to a convincing fourth term in office. With Jarjura promising that this was his last term there was now an opportunity for any political aspirants to move forward with their own plans, and both Vance and O’Leary eyed mayoral campaigns in 2009.

Vance made the first move by filing papers in late May, just six months after the last municipal election, and 18 months before the electorate would decide Waterbury’s next leader. No one could recall a mayoral candidate declaring their intentions so early in the process, and the response from Mike Jarjura was shocking. During an interview with the Observer in early June, Mayor Jarjura announced he was strongly leaning towards seeking a fifth term in office, and that if he didn’t run, he thought Police Chief O’Leary would be an excellent choice to replace him.

Let the political sumo wrestling begin.

Vance no longer cared what Jarjura was or wasn’t going to do, and made his intentions official on July 11th, on his 34th birthday. “I’m in,” Vance said. “Several people have approached me and said I should just wait until Mike decides he’s through. Mike’s friends are concerned that he doesn’t have anything lined up, and he is unsure what he’d do afterwards. But really, what does that matter? Politics is not a career. Do a short time and get out.”

Vance admits he is frustrated by Jarjura’s broken promises. “I’ve been a hothead and said the wrong things before,” Vance said, “ but I’m not going to break my word. Mike has done that two times now. It doesn’t matter what he says anymore. I’d appreciate his support, but if I don’t get it, we’ll let the voters decide what they want.”

Despite Vance’s seven years of aldermanic experience, some political pundits believe O’Leary presents a more dangerous internal threat to a fifth Jarjura term. O’Leary is a forceful man who has modernized the police department, created one of the most successful PAL programs in the country, and has overseen a drop in the city’s crime rate for six straight years.

“Ever since the mayor approached me at the funeral in July 2005,” O’Leary told the Observer, “I have had an interest in running for mayor.”

(Photograph of Neil O'Leary and Mayor Jarjura)

As O’Leary considers his options he is acutely aware of the Hatch Act, a federal law that prohibits local police officers from seeking “partisan” elected office. If O’Leary announced he was running for mayor - while still serving as Waterbury’s top cop - he would be in violation of the Hatch Act, could be fired by Mayor Jarjura, and find himself a target of a federal investigation.

“I have to be very careful what I say,” O’Leary said, “ but I will tell you that a significant number of people have approached me and asked me to run for mayor. I am flattered that so me people think I might do a good job as mayor, but because of the federal law I’m going to take my time and mull over my options until early January and make my decision then.”

If O’Leary were to run for mayor he would have to step down as police chief. It is his understanding that he could resign and announce his candidacy in the same breath. But during a telephone interview on December 9th he clearly stated he hadn’t made up his mind yet, and will continue to gather input from the community as to whether he should mount a challenge to a Jarjura fifth term.

“Everybody should do what’s in their hearts to do,” Mayor Jarjura said. “Who knows? Maybe they can win.”

But is Jarjura really going to run? During a Fox-61 interview in November the mayor said he would be announcing after the holidays and that it was premature to think about the next election. “People want to enjoy Christmas and the New Year,” he said. “But I have every intention to continue my responsibilities here. I think I’ve earned it.”

But while he was publicly proclaiming that to Fox 61 news, Jarjura had privately agreed to a power meeting with O’Leary in January that would bring the party leadership together to hash things out. Jarjura and O’Leary agreed to hold off on any political announcements until after the meeting.

Many big name players in the local Democratic Party are treading lightly around the subject of a Jarjura-O’Leary match-up because it has the potential to splinter a united party. Vance has a legion of supporters as well, but not among the leadership and deep pocket donors.

“There would be a lot of strained relationships if Neil ran,” Jarjura said. “But with the Independents and Republicans weakened, we could survive a three way splinter.”

When the Observer sat down with Mayor Jarjura in his office on December 4th he unexpectedly announced that “I’m 100% running for mayor and I’m going to win.”

(Photograph of John Murray interviewing Mayor Jarjura)

When asked about a power meeting in January the mayor confirmed it was going to happen. “Unless someone can convince me why Mayor Jarjura shouldn’t seek re-election, I’m running,” he said. “I can’t think of any reason not to run other than to step aside to promote the political aspirations of other candidates.”

Is the mayor trying to have it both ways? He promises not to run, and then he runs. He openly calls on all candidates to follow their hearts and run if they want to, and then he and his minions indirectly threaten people supporting other candidates with lost board appointments and lost job opportunities. Several people have confirmed that Vance supporters and O’Leary supporters have received threats via the grapevine that they are in harms way if their candidate challenges Jarjura.

“There’s a lot of passive-aggressive stuff going on in Waterbury right now,” Vance said. “And I don’t like it.”

But to many insiders that’s just old school politics and the way the game is played in Waterbury.

Vance bristles at that notion. “We can be better than that,” he said. “Look at President-elect Obama and his team of rivals. Look at how Obama handled the nasty campaigning that came his way. When it got ugly he didn’t respond with the same tone. I won’t get personal with Mike Jarjura. I’ve run with him four times. I respect him, but I don’t like the game he is playing right now.”

Jarjura doesn’t believe he is playing any political games. He said he is too busy governing to be focused on others’ ambitions.

“The city is at an important juncture in its history and we need to have a steady hand on the wheel,” Jarjura said. “Continuity is very important and we need to be more progressive right now. We’ve been focused on reorganizing and I now want to focus on infrastructure and programs. Another term will give me the opportunity to do that.”

Vance said the mayor has a right to change his mind, but this is the right time for Paul Vance to step into the ring. He and his wife Michelle are expecting their first child in the spring and they’ve bought a house in Town Plot. “Most of our friends have moved out of Waterbury into the suburbs,” Vance said. “I don’t like where the city is right now. I see the big picture and believe being mayor is about more than flag raising ceremonies.”

Vance said he’s running “not because of Mike or Neil, I’m running because I think I can do a good job, and if the voters agree, they’ll hire me. If not, I’ll continue to practice law.”

So what’s going to happen? Vance and Jarjura are running, and O’Leary is pondering his future like a cougar eyeing his prey. After several years of relative calm in the city’s Democratic Party, expect all hell to break loose in 2009, and don’t be surprised if Democratic Party Chairman Ned Cullinan develops an ulcer.

(Photograph of Ned Cullinan while he's still smiling)

As Jarjura puts it, both Vance and O’Leary would take considerable risk in challenging a popular four-term mayor.

“Paul is risking his political future at a very young age and Neil would be losing his job as police chief,” Jarjura said.

Jarjura said he has no problem working with O’Leary and Vance in their official capacities as they try to move the city forward. “There won’t be anything that strains my friendship with Neil,” Jarjura said, “and I’ll try to be professional with Paul.”

Asked if he would try to broker a deal and promise Vance and O’Leary that this would be his last term in exchange for their support, the mayor rolled his eyes and said, “Oh no, I’m not saying that again. That keeps getting me in trouble. But I will say that I have ended up serving longer than I anticipated – by necessity - not by design.”

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Importance Of Ralph Nader

The public safety crusader brought his powerful anti-corporate message to Waterbury, Connecticut, in September 2008

Story and photographs by John Murray

If Ralph Nader were a consumer product this would be a lot easier. Nader, standing on familiar ground, would fight like a bulldog to get the public to understand the importance of bringing that product - which makes us all safer - into every home in America. The product, he would tell us, holds the key to crushing corporate power out of our political process, and would return democracy to the American people.

Who doesn’t want that?

But Ralph Nader is not a product, he’s a 74-year-old man wedded to the lifelong pursuit of making America safer. It was Nader’s tireless consumer advocacy in the 1960s and 1970s that brought us seat belts, air bags, food labels, clean water, clean air, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Nader’s work for public good is astonishing, and led to him being selected one of the 100 most influential men in American history.

But when Nader took his consumer advocacy crusade into the political arena and started running for President every four years - he got screwed. His idealism collided with modern American politics. Nader was caught in a vice between Republicans and Democrats, a two-party system he calls a “duopoly”, which was long ago hijacked by corporate money, lobbyists and greed.

Nader entered the political arena to try and pry corporate fingers off the steering wheel. Nader’s weapon was a brilliant mind and suitcase full of ideals. He two opponents , however, were armed with money, guns, knifes and pepper spray. Without a means to spread his message to the American people he didn’t have a chance.

The system is stacked against Nader and any other third party candidate who challenges the iron fisted rule of Republican and Democrat power. Many Americans don’t know that Nader is on the ballot in 45 states in 2008. Why? Because the mainstream media has effectively censored him. Nader said the New York Times and The Washington Post have told him they aren’t going to report about his campaign this year because of the negative impact they believed he had on the 2000 race. (Nader received 97,000 votes in Florida, a state won by George W. Bush by 543 votes)

The media should give the public the information and let the voters decide. An abundance of information should flow through a free country like blood through our veins. We need vigorous journalism to provide the public with more information, not a high minded few applying a tourniquet to the flow of news about Ralph Nader.

It’s un-American. And it’s wrong.

The rap about Nader costing Al Gore the 2000 election is also mis-guided and wrong. Consider the facts: 12% of Florida democrats (200,000) voted for Bush, and all the other third party candidates tallied above the Bush margin of victory – Reform Party (17,000), Libertarians (16,000), Worker’s World (1800) and the Socialists Workers (562).

Why isn’t their fault? Why pin the Bush victory on Ralph Nader? It makes no sense.

I was too young to fully appreciate Ralph Nader in his prime, but my mother was enthralled with him. She read about him in the daily newspapers, watched him on the Phil Donahue Show, bought his books, and went to see him when he visited New London, Connecticut, back in the 1970s. My mother was inspired by Ralph Nader and wrote hundreds of letters to corporations and businesses to complain about their products, and when she didn’t get the response she thought was warranted, she wrote more letters.

Nader reappeared on my radar screen in the early 1990s when he launched his first write-in campaign for the presidency. I was working at the Register-Citizen newspaper in Torrington at the time, and Nader, being from neighboring Winsted, was of intense local interest. One of our reporters, Jedd Gould, was given the assignment to cover Nader’s campaign in New Hampshire. Jedd was so inspired by Nader that he eventually left the daily newspaper to launch The Winsted Voice, which was entirely written by the citizens of Winsted, giving the people the chance to cover themselves.

I remember visiting Jedd in his apartment in Winsted after he published his first issue. The morning changed my life. As one of more than 100 employees at the Register-Citizen I believed you needed reporters, photographers, salespeople, a production department, a vast distribution network and a printing press to publish a newspaper.

But here was Jedd Gould sitting at one computer in his disheveled apartment with a frisky Labrador Retriever bounding between piles of dirty laundry. Jedd sold the ads, made the ads, laid out the newspaper in his computer and cut and pasted the contents together into one mechanical copy. Then Jedd would take the one copy of his newspaper to a printer where they would print thousands of Winsted Voices and drop them back off at his apartment the following day. Jedd would then personally deliver the papers at dozens of locations around town.

He was a one-man band, and his success became the blueprint for the Waterbury Observer. One year after Jedd launched The Winsted Voice, a fellow journalist at the Register-Citizen, Marty Begnal, approached me about an idea he had about starting a newspaper in Waterbury. My first move was to consult with Jedd to see exactly how he published The Winsted Voice - what equipment did he have, what software programs, how much money did he need to start the business, how did he figure out his ad rates, and was it hard to get businesses to distribute a free newspaper?

Ralph Nader inspired Jedd Gould to launch a community written free newspaper in Nader’s hometown of Winsted. Without Ralph Nader there wouldn’t have been a Winsted Voice, and without Jedd Gould there wouldn’t be a Waterbury Observer.

One of the last projects I worked on at the Register-Citizen was an investigative piece about the horrific impact industrial cleaning solutions were having on the workers at the Becton Dickinson (BD) plant in Canaan, Connecticut. The company manufactured hypodermic needles for the medical industry and used a variety of methods to sterilize the product, including radiation and ETO gas. I spent a year interviewing injured employees and reconstructing a nuclear accident that had occurred inside the plant. When it was time to publish the story the editors were terrified that a multi-billion dollar corporation would sue the family owned newspaper. It took months for the story to make the rounds through every editor, the publisher, and finally, the owner of the paper.

The article finally had the green light, but just days before publication, the Journal Register Company, an aggressive business corporation with a reputation for destroying a newspaper’s soul, purchased the Register-Citizen. Dozens of employees were let go and the story was killed.

Frustrated, I took the story to Jedd Gould, who was now publishing The Winsted Voice, and The Canaan Voice. Jedd immediately agreed to publish the story and every home in Canaan received a copy of The Canaan Voice with an eight page expose on the dangers inside Becton Dickinson, the largest business and employer in the region. There was some talk from BD officials about suing Jedd for publishing the story, but the specter of Ralph Nader looming ominously in the background might have squelched that idea.

A few months later, Agnes Mulroy, the BD employee who had risked her life to bring the story forward, was flown down to Washington D.C. to receive a Citizens Courage Award from Ralph Nader.

Fast forward 15 years and I get a call from Silas Bronson librarian, Anita Bologna, telling me Ralph Nader was coming to Waterbury for a rally. Despite the indirect impact that Ralph Nader had on my life, I was uninspired to go out of my way to see him. Like many Americans, I had swallowed the propaganda, and saw Nader as a polarizing figure who helped deliver the White House to George W. Bush in 2000.

I was sluggish going to see Nader in downtown Waterbury in late September, but I went. Ralph was 30 minutes late and walked into the Independent Party headquarters and headed straight for the food buffet. He nibbled on some treats and was whisked into a back room for a private audience with journalists from the Hartford Courant, the Republican-American, the Observer, and a two film crews.

Nader’s posture was slouched and he looked straight at the floor as he uncorked a blistering attack on the $750 billion Wall Street bailout package just passed by Congress. Pulling no punches he called the package a bailout for the reckless and the greedy that contained little to nothing to help homeowners about to lose their homes.

“This is taxation without representation,” Nader said. “Congress is bailing out Wall Street with $750 billion without a single minute of a public hearing. This is the worst piece of legislation I have seen in 40 years.”

And for the next 30 minutes Ralph Nader stood in a cramped room with six journalists and delivered the keenest insights about democracy and the modern political process that I have ever heard. The words tumbling from his mouth were like notes from a Mozart tune - crisp and clear.

He didn’t lose Al Gore the 2000 election, he said, Al Gore lost when he couldn’t deliver his own home state of Tennessee, and despite all the focus on Florida and the recount, it wasn’t Florida that swung the election to Bush - it was the Supreme Court of the United States that swung the outcome when they voted along party lines to give the throne to “King George IV.”

Nader’s message is as sharp as an ice pick, but he can’t effectively deliver it to the American people because he isn’t allowed to debate Barack Obama or John McCain. The Commission on Presidential Debates is a private corporation run by the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and the former chairman of the Democrat National Committee. They decide which candidates voters get to see, and despite 66% of the American public wanting Nader on stage with Gore and Bush in 2000, the commission not only froze him out, they threatened to arrest Nader if he entered the hall with a legitimate ticket to simply sit in the audience.

The justification for Nader’s exclusion was that polls indicated he didn’t have enough support to be a factor in the race, which makes no sense, because after the election he was blamed by millions of Americans for being the biggest factor in the race.

“Which is it,” Nader said. “You can’t have it both ways.”

Nader received almost three million votes in 2000, and snagged 10% of the vote in Alaska. Many national experts have stated that if Nader were allowed to debate his presidential opponents, his 3% in the polls would swell to 25% to 30%, not only making him a major factor, but also forcing the two political parties to adopt some of his platforms, which can be viewed at

And it might be one of the planks in Nader’s platform that keeps the debate door slammed in his face. Nader has spent his life challenging corporate America to provide better and safer products to Americans, and one of his first moves as president would be to launch an aggressive crackdown on corporate crime and corporate welfare. The political process in America is now driven by corporate interests, so does anybody in their right mind believe that the major corporations in America have any interest in letting Ralph Nader expound his views of democracy and civic duty to the American public?

That’s why he’s barred from the debates - he’s too dangerous to corporate interests.

Amazingly, it is through the efforts of the local Independent Party in Waterbury that Nader is even on the ballot in Connecticut. Independent Party chairman, Mike Telesca, met Nader in New Hampshire in 2004 at a meeting of independent political candidates. The Independent Party was fresh off a major victory after they had swept local Republicans out of office in Waterbury, gaining 8 elected seats.

This eventually got Nader’s attention, and during a rally the following year in Hartford, Nader saw Telesca in the crowd and said “Mike is doing amazing things in Waterbury. Come up here and tell us how you did it.”

Nader then walked off the stage and gave it to Mike Telesca. Earlier this year a Nader coordinator called Telesca to ask if the Independent Party would be interested in working with Nader to try and get the 7500 signatures needed to get him on the Connecticut ballot.

“I was thrilled,” Telesca said. “ And I promised our support.”

Then Telesca and a group of highly motivated volunteers went out and gathered more than 15,000 signatures to insure Nader was on the ballot. Incredibly, Nader is running on the Independent Party ticket, and is using local party headquarters as his state headquarters. The Independent Party started in 2001 in Waterbury and now has candidates for office in Naugatuck, Winsted, Newtown, Norwalk and Milford. And now the Independent Party has Ralph Nader at the top of their ticket.

Although it’s clear that Ralph is never going to be invited to any presidential debate, his mere presence in the 2008 race is a benefit to all Americans. His tenacious pursuit of democracy is not only inspiring, it’s heroic. By hurling his body against the corporate wall of politics Ralph Nader has created a crack in the fortress, an opening for the rest of us - if we ever wake up - to march through and reclaim our democracy.