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.”