State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, is running on the Democratic ticket for First Selectman of Westport. Jim Marpe, the incumbent, is not seeking reelection. Marpe most recently won reelection in 2017 with 50 percent of the vote, compared to his Democratic opponent’s 45 percent.
Steinberg will face off against Republican Jennifer Tooker, who currently serves as selectwoman, for the open seat.
The Connecticut Examiner spoke with Steinberg about his campaign and priorities if elected to the seat.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
What inspired you to run for First Selectman of Westport?
I’ve had the great blessing of growing up in Westport and raising my family here, and have also had the honor of representing the town in the state legislature for 11 years now. I have a good number of ideas to make Westport even better, and I think my years in the state legislature have prepared me to be very effective in this role. It’s something I’ve been contemplating for a good number of years, and now seems like the right time.
How has your experience in the state legislature prepared you to run Westport?
I’ve served as chair of the Public Health Committee for five years, so I’ve been directly involved with addressing the challenges of the pandemic, working with the Governor and the Department of Public Health. Those have been sobering experiences. But as contrasted with many states, Connecticut has dealt with it very well, and I’m proud of our response and collaboration with the administration in trying to mitigate its worst effects.
I’ve also been involved with some very important legislation, like the elimination of the religious exemption for children’s vaccines while strengthening the medical exemption. That was obviously a controversial bill, but it was more important in hindsight than we ever would have guessed. I also passed Tobacco 21 legislation that seeks to limit if not eliminate teen vaping and have been directly involved with important legislation on energy, the environment, and transportation.
I would also like to focus on my commitment to fiscal accountability and responsibility, and have been a leader of the Moderate Caucus, which is really focused on that aspect of fiscal moderation. I chaired the Pension Sustainability Commission that sought to find ways to mitigate the state budget’s biggest problem, which is pension obligations. I served on a state Spending Cap Commission to look at ways in which we could do that. As a result, we instituted a number of controls that have led to a much better fiscal outlook for the state, and our budget is in a much stronger position than when I came in 11 years ago.
To what extent would you hope to follow in First Selectman Jim Marpe’s footsteps? Are there any decisions he made that you would have handled differently, had you been in office?
He’s been a good manager, and Westport is in really good shape, with a robust grand list and incredibly low mill rate, wonderful amenities, and a great school system. I give our current selectman credit for managing us through the pandemic fairly well and following most of the guidelines that came down from the state. I will take exception to the fact that he recently kind of quietly agreed to allow no masks in gyms because a few other towns have done that. To my mind, that runs contrary to CDC guidelines, state guidelines, and common sense.
I also believe that we’ve missed a number of opportunities as a community — failures to make timely investments in infrastructure that have come back to bite us and led to a further worsening of traffic issues.
Our town is environmentally progressive – we were the first to do a plastic bag ban – but I’d be a lot more assertive on environmental issues, waste and wastewater management, and thinking more broadly about resilience. We are a shoreline community with a river, and that creates flooding downtown, and I know we’re not being proactive enough about planning for an inevitable future of extreme weather and sea level rise.
He’s not been a bad environmentalist, but there is a huge distinction between what he’s prepared to do and what I’m prepared to do to protect our citizens as we prepare for the global climate crisis.
Will you stay on as a state legislator if elected?
I know there are examples of people who have been able to do both, but in almost every instance, the selectman’s role in those communities has been more ceremonial, and they have someone like a town manager to help them. The committee process in the legislature and the budget process for municipalities is on almost the exact same timetable, with all of the action in the spring. I struggle with imagining a scenario where I could do justice to both roles, so if elected first selectman, I would resign my position as a state representative to ensure that I could honor my commitment to my community.
Why, right now, would you rather be a first selectman than a state legislator? What are the specific levers of power that you’d want to wield as a first selectman that you’re unable to as a state legislator?
It’s still a collaborative role, because you work with the Representative Town Meeting, but the first selectman has a role managing the town workforce. In that leadership capacity, the selectman should be the one articulating a clear vision for the community, explaining not only what we should do, but why we should do it.
Something I learned through years of practice in the legislature is how to build consensus. When you share power with other entities, it’s not good enough simply to articulate a vision, you have to be willing to negotiate and compromise to get to a point where you have significant agreement. You can do all of the studies and have all of the conversation you want, but you have to persevere and commit to executing and getting results when you’re leading a town.
Do you see a world where, if you were first selectman, Westport residents might see a raise in local taxes?
I’m not going to do a “read my lips, no new taxes,” but I don’t want to start with the presumption that to fund projects, we need to raise taxes. For example, we haven’t had a charter revision commission in over 20 years, which is a long period of time. I would like to have a conversation about whether our municipal workforce could be made even more efficient and effective, maybe by re-purposing some people in town based on how the needs of the community have evolved. We can get more done and be more effective without having to raise taxes.
I also want to have the conversation about where our priorities ought to be. I want to put a real focus on a capital forecast that reflects our community’s priorities and makes sure that the things we’re discussing are at the top of the list.
A few years ago, we had a middle school that was discovered to be full of mold and had to be stripped to the studs. We spent $30 million to bring it up to par, and it was a real challenge. We have a number of elementary schools that are even older than the school that had those problems. When I look in the capital forecast, there are a few hundred thousand for this year or next year to address these issues, but we must keep our schools safe and healthy learning environments, so that should be moved to the top of list, not just band-aids, but the fixes necessary to make sure our schools are safe and healthy.
What sets you apart from your opponent?
I believe she’s effectively running as the incumbent’s third term. She mentions fresh ideas and a fresh point of view on lawn signs, but I wonder what her fresh point of view actually is. She’s been in office for four years, so where have those ideas been if she’s only coming up with them now?
We’ve been on the record as solutions-driven, and specific in our remedies. I get the sense that they’re content with keeping things as is, but I believe we can be even better. We are much more serious and innovative when it comes to offering up solutions that can make our community and quality of life better. We’re all about getting results, and my running mate and I have a track record of accomplishment. Even though our opponents have served in town government, I don’t know if they can demonstrate the same level of actual accomplishment.