Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons at his desk (Credit: CT Examiner/Hewitt)

Stonington’s Rob Simmons Takes a Bow

in Stonington

STONINGTON — After November’s election, the blue SUV with “GUNG-HO” license plates won’t be parked at the Town Hall lot as often. That car belongs to First Selectman Rob Simmons, 76, who has chosen not to run for a third term this November. 

But the message on the license plates, originating from the Chinese “gōng hé,” which translates as “work together,” reflects Simmons’ attitude toward life, the town, his tenure as a leader and any position that allows him to be of service. 

Simmons, a Republican, said he “threw his hat into the ring” in the summer of 2014 when a vacancy was created on the Board of Selectman after the resignation of Stonington’s first female Selectman, Glee McAnanly. At the time, phone texts of a sexual nature by First Selectman Ed Haberek were surfacing after lengthy action in the courts. Haberek later resigned. 

Simmons credited his father, who concluded grace at every Sunday dinner with “let us seek opportunities to be of service.”

“I did not anticipate or predict that this thing would occur but because it did occur, I’ve always felt one should seek opportunities to be of service,” Simmons said in an interview at his office Thursday afternoon. “I grew up coming here in the summers and loving it. My wife and I met here, we were married here, we chose to raise our kids here and pursue our careers here and it hurt me to see the town being badly considered in the public media because of the failure of certain individuals and I wanted to fix that, and I think we have. I think we’ve gone a long way toward recovering the very positive reputation of this town.”

Simmons credited his father, who concluded grace at every Sunday dinner with “let us seek opportunities to be of service.” 

“He didn’t say let us seek opportunities to be of service at the highest level or in the most prestigious job that you can find or the most lucrative field,” Simmons explained. “No, public service comes at all levels.”

After a lifetime of service that has included stints in the Army, CIA, the General Assembly, the United States Congress, and as an advocate for business in Connecticut, Simmons said never expected he would serve as his town’s first selectman — but when the call came, he answered. 

“When I did, I wanted to be a cheerleader for the Town of Stonington. I wanted to talk it up because people were talking it down,” he said. “We have a wonderful town. We have wonderful people. We have an incredible history going back hundreds of years. We have the Mystic Seaport. We have the Mystic Aquarium. We have events throughout the year that bring in 2 million visitor to come to Stonington, to Mystic, to the borough, to Pawcatuck.” 

A history of service

In 1965, Simmons enlisted in the U.S. Army as a private and graduated from Infantry Officer Candidate School in 1967. During his 19-month service in Vietnam, he earned two Bronze Star Medals. In 1969, he began his 10-year career as an operations officer with the Central Intelligence Agency. In 1979, he joined the staff of Sen. John H. Chafee (R-Rhode Island) and, two years later, served on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence as Sen. Chafee’s professional staff member. From late 1981 to 1985, he served as Staff Director of the Senate Intelligence Committee under Chairman Barry Goldwater (R-Arizona).

In 1985, Simmons’ first attempt to run for selectman was unsuccessful. He went on to serve as chair of the Stonington Board of Police Commissioners for two years and the Stonington Republican Town Committee for four years.

In 1991, Simmons ran successfully for Representative of the 43rd District in the Connecticut General Assembly — a position he held until 2001 when he ran for U.S. Congress, serving Connecticut’s 2nd district

In 2001, voters sent Simmons to Congress where he served Connecticut’s 2nd district until 2007. As congressman, in 2005 he worked with Connecticut Governor M. Jodi Rell to prevent the Naval Submarine Base New London from closing. Later in 2007, Rell nominated Simmons to be Connecticut’s first Business Advocate, a position he held until the end of 2008. In 2010, Simmons unsuccessfully made a bid to run for the U.S. Senate but was defeated in the primary. 

Simmons served as chair of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy, as vice president of the Stonington Historical Society and as chair of the Board of Directors of the Stonington Community Center, among other boards. 

Seeking economic development

Simmons said when he came into office, he worked to take steps toward building the grand list because the town’s growth had been “lagging behind.” The changes resulted in a rapid increase in growth. 

“Over the past three years, the value of commercial and residential building permits applied for totaled $216 million which is just short of the value of the previous eight years at $222 million.” 

“We amended the Plan of Conservation and Development to make it more business-friendly than it was, and that’s a critical consideration — but it had to be business-friendly development within the character of the town,” he said. “Over the past three years, the value of commercial and residential building permits applied for totaled $216 million which is just short of the value of the previous eight years at $222 million.” 

Simmons mentioned several large projects — some underway, some finished — that came about during his tenure, including the Perkins Farm project comprising Hartford HealthCare’s $20 million, 47,000-square-foot medical facility, as well as a 121-unit apartment complex and 50 townhomes. 

“We completed Masonicare, got a $1 million grant to Davis-Standard so they could add on to their business, saw a multi-million addition to the YMCA, did the Thread Mill housing project,” he said. 

He also pointed to the construction of two affordable housing complexes in Pawcatuck, Spruce Meadows (completed in 2017) and Spruce Ridge (under construction), that have 43 total apartments with a mix of affordable and market rates. Another 40-unit housing project created under the state’s 8-30g affordable housing statute is underway not far from the two complexes. Of the Thread Mill’s 58 units, 30 percent are classified as affordable. 

“What is the growing need in southeastern Connecticut with EB dramatically expanding its hiring? It’s workforce housing… I’d love to see it in Mystic.”

With all of the affordable housing being built in Pawcatuck rather than the borough or Mystic —  a trend Pawcatuck residents have voiced as unfair — Simmons said it was a matter of economics because the locations were tied to land prices, adding that the need for housing, both affordable and market rate, was projected to increase. 

“Affordable housing goes where the land prices are congenial, and it tends to go where you have the infrastructure,” he said. “What is the growing need in southeastern Connecticut with EB dramatically expanding its hiring? It’s workforce housing… I’d love to see it in Mystic.”

On April 2015, Stonington voters approved a $68 million bond to renovate two elementary schools, which Simmons said was the “biggest bonding project in the history of the town.” 

“These are huge projects that we’ve done at a time when we’ve still kept the mill rate down and we’ve been increasing the value of our grand list, which went up 4.64 percent last year — the largest growth in a decade and the first time since 2008 that we exceeded 1 percent growth,” he said. “These are good numbers and this is what we wanted to accomplish. This is good stuff because it allows us to keep the tax rate at an even keel so people can stay in their homes and not be forced out because of higher taxes.”

Creating change through zoning

Working with floating zones has enabled the town to redevelop some areas though investment can be slow to follow, he said. 

“It is very hard to engage in complicated projects without having a floating zone approach,” he said. “That allows you to do big things like Perkins Farm and big things like the Mystic Seaport parking lots that were done some years ago — nobody in Mystic wanted the Seaport to bring in those parking lots and so they created a zone and they brought the public in and they had a conversation about it and now you look at it and now there’s no problems. People have accepted it. It’s okay.”

In downtown Pawcatuck, the Planning and Zoning Commission approved PV5, a floating zone that allows for mixed use and greater density. But some blighted areas have yet to see redevelopment, he said. 

“We took down the Campbell Grain building, which if it had caught fire would have created a conflagration across Pawcatuck and into Westerly, with all that asbestos siding it would have been a disaster,” he said. “I’d like to see it sold and developed because it could be a tremendous location for housing with ground floor parking and housing above and views down the river, and turn Cogswell Street into a much more congenial location with a bridge across the Pawcatuck River to the train station.”

The 1848 Stillmanville Mill on Stillman Ave., which collapsed in May and required extensive demolition and debris removal, remains a problem, he said. 

“What I’d like to see there is that property cleaned up, I’d like to see the town and the owner address the issues of cost and future disposition, I’d like to come back in a few years and see a beautiful passive recreation open space park along the river because I don’t think owner is going to reimburse the town for the cost of demolition,” he said. 

Planning for a transition 

“In the military you always plan for the time when, in combat you might be wounded or killed, but if you’re in peace time, you always plan for a time when you’re going to rotate out and somebody else is going to come in,” he said.  

He acknowledged the passage of time and said he wasn’t retiring in the regular sense of the word. 

Simmons, whose full name is Robert Ruhl Simmons, pointed out his grandfather, Robert Ruhl, who was the editor of the Harvard Crimson in 1903. (Credit: CT Examiner/Hewitt)

“When I started this job I was happily married with two kids and now I’m happily married with two kids and their spouses and three grandchildren,” he said. “I’m turning the town over to the next generation, whoever that may be.”

“In the military you always plan for the time when, in combat you might be wounded or killed, but if you’re in peace time, you always plan for a time when you’re going to rotate out and somebody else is going to come in,” he said. 

Simmons said that once he steps down as first selectman, he and his wife, Heidi, who both speak Chinese, will have the time to travel to China and Vietnam, as well as to the family homestead in Wexford, Ireland. 

“I feel that things are going well. I’m not looking for this to be a forever job, I never came in with that in mind,” he said. “And as a state rep. after I won my fifth term I said I’m not going to run again even though I won by 70 percent in a Democratic district — after a certain period of time it’s time to move on.” 

Staying Gung-ho

Simmons said “remaining enthusiastic” was his highest accomplishment during his tenure.

“When I first came into office they said you have to do a welcome message, welcome to the wonderful Town of Stonington — and I still believe it,” he said. 

As for the next first selectman or selectwoman, Simmons said it was essential to listen to the town staff when making decisions for the town. 

“Whoever wins in November — they’re all good people — listen to the professionals who have been working in this building and working at the police station and working in the school system for years and years and do what’s best for the town,” he said. “It’s not about you, it’s about the Town of Stonington and villages and the people.”

Summing it up for his successor, he said he had three pieces of advice: “Remain enthusiastic, listen to the staff, love the town.”


In response to a request by Edward Haberek, we have edited this interview, to reflect our uncertainty regarding the motivation for his resignation and acceptance of an academic position in Seattle. Before his resignation numerous newspaper accounts suggested a misuse of town communications, which included approximately 18,600 messages over a four month period, many of a sexual and private nature with numerous women. Haberek was also criticized at the time for using the town attorney to block the release of the phone records. This controversy stretched over a number of years prior to his resignation.

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