Former State Rep. Aundre Bumgardner is challenging incumbent Keith Hedrick in the Democratic primary for the Groton City mayorship on Monday, March 8. Bumgardner, who represented Groton and New London in the General Assembly from 2015 through 2017, was sworn in at the age of 20, making him the youngest state representative in Connecticut history. He has served on the Groton Town Council in 2018.
Bumgardner was elected to the statehouse as a Republican, but left to join the Democratic party in the aftermath of the 2017 Charlottesville riot, when then-President Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” of a deadly protest over a confederate monument.
Hedrick, who served for decades in the US Navy, is endorsed by the Groton Democratic Committee and is running for his third term.
Bumgardner needed to gather signatures from five percent of electors on the active enrollment list, or 92 signatures, to force a primary. He submitted 168.
In a conversation with Connecticut Examiner, Bumgardner shared how he would run Groton City differently from Hedrick.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Why did you decide to run for mayor?
We need leaders who will speak truth to power and tackle the challenges confronting our community for years to come, such as this coronavirus pandemic, as well as racial justice and climate action, which are once-in-a-lifetime crises that we have to confront now.
I’m uniquely positioned to bring a cross-section of people to the table to do that. After announcing, I solicited nearly double the number of signatures needed to force a Democratic primary by going door-to-door in the City of Groton and getting 168 signatures verified by the City Clerk.
I announced a few days before the insurrection at the Capitol. Seeing what happened when rioters descended on Capitol Hill spewing hate showed me that I had an obligation to go out there into my community and explain to my residents why they deserve strong leadership at the local level.
What role can a mayor play in responding to a global challenge like climate change?
The mayor of the City of Groton is the municipal CEO, so they oversee the city police department, fire department, as well as Groton utilities. I hope to utilize that role to move the ball on tackling climate change at the city level. I’ve called for committing the city to 100% renewable energy by 2030, which is five years earlier than the Green New Deal target. Rising sea levels are a new normal, and Groton is projected to see a 20-inch sea level rise by 2030, so it must become a more resilient community.
The recent disaster in Texas taught us that clean water infrastructure and electric grids have to maintain resilience to operate during extreme conditions and extreme weather events, which are only becoming more common. Here in Groton City, Groton Utilities quickly restored power to city residents, and even assisted neighboring communities served by Eversource. Eversource privatized their gains and socialized their losses, leaving customers in dark and in debt, whereas we quickly restored power, and we have a track record of doing so, in blizzards and hurricanes and other extreme weather events.
You also mentioned racial equity as an issue you’d focus on as mayor. How do you think the Mayor’s Office could be better used to combat racism?
I have been someone who has been very outspoken about tackling police misconduct and accountability, and I would have supported the police accountability bill had I been serving in the statehouse at that time. I am a man of color, and my family has had several interactions with our city police department.
My brother is on the autism spectrum. Several years ago the city, under the leadership of Chief Michael Spellman, implemented ALEC training, which trains officers to effectively communicate with individuals on the autism spectrum. There have been many times where family has had to call the police because my brother’s emotions got the better of him, through no fault of his own. During those interactions when officers have come into our home, they’ve shown a tremendous level of professionalism and compassion for my brother, and he’s even developed personal relationships with them. It’s so important that officers develop rapport with community members, so they do not feel criminalized, but feel protected.
How would your tenure as mayor differ from Mayor Hedrick’s?
Mayor Hedrick has cited his extensive supervisory and management experience, but a leader listens and has the capacity to work with people. A strong mayor does not command city employees or workforce, a strong mayor governs by consensus. That is something I pledge to do. Whenever I’m making a major decision, I intend to host town hall meetings, coffee hours, and engage the public through social media. That’s something that has not been happening from the mayor’s office. I use Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter as tools to inform the public. Unfortunately, the mayor doesn’t use those effectively, and we can do far more to engage folks not typically well informed on city business.
The mayor has said he has not raised taxes over the last three years, and that’s patently false, because he’s shifted millions of dollars from the city government budget to the Groton Utilities budget by moving the sewer operation budget. Now, residents have to pay, in some cases, $50 to $100 more in utility bills to pay for sewer service. It’s dishonest to state that he has not raised taxes when he has shifted that expense to residents directly.
Can you point to any specific decisions Mayor Hedrick made that you would have handled differently?
Many municipalities are moving in the direction of launching or offering high speed broadband internet, ideally free of charge, to residents. I believe that just like electricity and water, internet should be viewed as a public utility. My opponent voted to sell Thames Valley Communications, a public internet service provider, to a private equity firm for pennies on the dollar, and had Groton carry outstanding debt, which residents and ratepayers had to pay off. Had we continued to own Thames Valley Communications, we could have been able to offer high speed internet access to residents in need during the pandemic so they could connect to remote learning and communicate effectively with loved ones in assisted living facilities. Residents did not have that opportunity because the mayor sold and privatized one of our most significant assets.
In 2014, you became the youngest state representative ever elected in Connecticut, and you are still only in your mid-twenties. Do you feel you have the experience necessary to run Groton City?
I’m the only person in the race who has served in three levels of government: city, town, and state. I served as state representative for the 41st district, Groton and New London. As a state representative, I served on the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, and worked line by line on a 19 billion dollar budget. I never missed a vote or public hearing or committee hearing despite significant health challenges. I was diagnosed with a benign tumor while serving as state representative and had surgery at the time, but still showed up, did my job, worked collaboratively with my colleagues, and provided strong constituent services.
I also served on the Planning and Zoning Commission, where I voted to advance construction of the South Yard Assembly Building in preparation for the Columbia-class submarine program in Groton for the US navy. I advocated for smart growth, and making our community more pedestrian and bicycle friendly.