Given longtime Republican First Selectman Jayme Stevenson’s decision not to run for another term, Democrat Tara Ochman is hoping to turn Darien blue.
Stevenson ran for reelection without Democratic opposition in 2019, and garnered 90 percent of the vote against a petitioning candidate. In 2017, she beat out a Democratic challenger with more than 70 percent of the vote.
Ochman, a former chair of Darien’s Board of Education, will face off against Republican Monica McNally, a member of the Board of Selectmen and eight-year veteran of the Representative Town Meeting.
The Connecticut Examiner spoke with Ochman about her campaign and policy priorities if elected.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
What motivated you to run for First Selectman of Darien?
I live in town with my husband and three kids, and we’ve been here for 14 years. I run the school-parent organization, I was a board of trustee at the library for six years, and I’ve done five years on the Board of Education with three years serving as chair, so this just felt like the next step.
I was asked to run last election cycle, but I really wanted to take the time to understand the issues and where I can add value. I don’t like to do things unless I feel like I can add value, and it kind of came together this election cycle. I think that my forward-thinking, strategy-based way of looking at things will give us a good blueprint for what’s next for Darien. All of those experiences have helped me be known to the community, and the community can trust that I’m really here for Darien.
What about your tenure on the Board of Education has prepared you to run Darien?
I really loved my work on the Board of Education. I love how engaged Darien parents are. Sometimes, I talk to board chairs around the state, and they have no one at their meetings. We always have people at our meetings. I think that gives you a great sounding board for different viewpoints. I am very proud of the work we did, and very proud that my chairmanship always passed a Republican-majority board, because our goal was to work together beyond party lines.
We would have healthy and robust debates about what’s best for our kids, and I think that was good for the health and overall well-being of our schools. I was proud as board chair to bring in three of the lowest budgets in recent history, and I think we were able to do that because we worked well together.
What would be different about your administration, compared to your predecessor?
Our current First Selectman is leaving office, so I don’t want to cast aspersions there, other than to say that I do think Darien needs to be future-forward, and I think we have stalled out a little bit.
I’m trying to really look at where we have been, what we could be doing better, and where we are going. I wish Mrs. Stevenson well, but I do think that we need to really tackle some tough issues if we want to take Darien forward.
What are some specific decisions she made that you would have handled differently, had you been in office?
Darien was one of the towns that was severely hit by flooding, and our flood mitigation committee hasn’t met in 10 years. There are a variety of studies and plans that need to be reviewed and looked at, and the impacts of flooding are really being felt by residents. We are a coastal town that is subject to the environment in many ways, so there are no easy fixes, but it’s important for us to be engaged on this issue.
What sets you apart from your opponent?
I think it’s really going to come down to who has the experience to lead on these issues. I don’t have bad things to say about my opponent, but I do think it matters where you’ve been and what you’ve done. I’m glad to hear that my opponent also wants to reestablish the flooding committee, but why hasn’t the committee met in ten years? We have had flooding and repeated flooding in certain areas within the past ten years. We should have action, not just words. I’m glad to hear that the other side would like to take up this tissue, I just think that if it hasn’t been taken up before, I don’t know why it would be taken up now. I think residents would have appreciated it coming up beforehand as well.
To what extent has Darien’s growth and development been a strain on the city?
Darien is 98 percent developed, so we’re going to reach a point soon where we’re going to meet our maximum saturation. Some of the concern around flooding has been, have we overbuilt? The most recent building has required flood mitigation, so in some ways, the most recent building is actually helping with the problem.
What is upsetting to me is when I hear the idea that this is all about personal responsibility, and people can just apply to FEMA, leave, or build up. I don’t think that’s what Darien is, because we’re not about saying that to people who have faced repeated loss. I don’t think we want to lose those members of our community. We have to balance what we as a town want to take on, because there absolutely are instances of personal responsibility, but it is a balance that needs to be met.
Do you see a world where, if you were first selectman, Darien residents might see a raise in local taxes?
Our general fund is currently 17 percent over guidance, and to keep our AAA bond rating, we generally look to be about 12 percent over guidance, so I think really the discussion should be about what projects need to be a priority, what money we have, and what money we should tax for. That’s a conversation I really haven’t seen. On the school side, we have a five-year capital plan, so we do a five-year outlook on projects and the town is aware of what’s coming. On the selectmen’s side, it’s just looked at on a given year, and I would really like to put in place a five-year capital plan so we can have that discussion about priorities. Part of it is a conversation with the town about what they prioritize and value, so I think that before talking about raising or lowering taxes, we have to understand what needs to be done.
A Republican first selectman has run Darien for a long time. Why do you think that, as a Democrat, you have a real shot?
I think voters in Darien are most interested in having really solid leaders, and I think that political party is secondary to that. That’s why experience in this campaign is really so key. Do I think there is an opportunity for a Democrat to be elected? Yes, because I think most people in Darien really value the stewardship of their town, and I have the history and resume to show that I care about that, whether in my volunteer work, my work on the Board of Education, or testifying in Hartford.