Republican Ed Chmielewski is running for First Selectman of Salem against Democrat Hugh McKenney for an open seat left be departing incumbent Kevin Lyden, who has instead opted to run for the position of selectman.
Lyden served six terms, running unopposed in 2019, as a petitioning candidate against Democrat Sue Sprang in 2017, as a Democrat against Chmielewski in 2015, and as a cross-endorsed candidate in 2013. Lyden won handily, with 69 percent of the vote in 2017 and 65 percent of the vote in 2015.
The Connecticut Examiner spoke with Chmielewski about his campaign and priorities if elected.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
What inspired you to run for First Selectman of Salem?
I’m running because I love Salem and believe I’ve got the experience to be a successful first selectman. My family has lived in Salem for 23 years. My wife and I raised our children here, and both of our children were fortunate enough to graduate from Salem School and East Lyme High School. We hope to raise our grandchildren here, and we plan to retire here.
Kevin Lyden has been our first selectman for 12 years, and it’s been an honor and privilege for me to serve under him as our town’s acting first selectman. Kevin’s hugely popular in Salem, I learned that when I ran against him in 2015. That race really brought us together, and now I’ve been Kevin’s acting first selectman for two terms, and was unanimously voted in by the Board of Selectmen. I’ve also been a selectman for nearly eight years, so when Kevin told me he was going to retire, I asked him if he would run for Board of Selectmen and reverse our roles, and he agreed to do that.
I’ve also got a long history of community service in Salem. I’ve been on the Board of Education for eight years, and I’m president of the Salem Seniors group, which has helped me to be mindful and supportive of the needs of Salem as a whole. It’s a small town, but it’s like a big extended family. We all look after one another.
To what extent would you want your administration to follow in Lyden’s footsteps? Are there any ways in which you would lead Salem differently?
Salem has been responsibly and effectively run under Kevin, keeping spending under control and not raising taxes in five years with a well-funded emergency surplus. If I’m elected as first selectman, I would want Kevin to be an advisor as a member of the Board of Selectmen, because I would want to continue with Kevin’s good work.
Still, I might try to enhance some of the communication efforts Kevin started. For example, we have a publication that goes out to all of our residents called Our Town Salem, and I might provide more updates on our various boards, commissions, and things that happen in town. I’ve also talked to Kevin about a potential Facebook page where the town could communicate more rapidly or give information out in a quicker manner.
What sets you apart from your opponent?
I can’t imagine stepping into the role of Salem First Selectman without first having the training and experience that I earned as acting First Selectman of Salem for the last four years and as a selectman for the last eight years. Kevin has provided me with a valuable mentorship training program. I could literally hit the ground running on day one and have a great team to help me govern.
According to the new Census data, Salem’s population has gotten significantly older. What does that mean for the future of Salem?
I saw this trend several years ago as a member of the Salem Seniors, and see it now as president. I’ve only been in town for 23 years, and some folks have been here for 30, 40, or 50 years. Families go back generations, and we really owe everything to our seniors. It’s because of their hard work that we get to enjoy this beautiful town.
Senior housing is a priority for us, because our seniors in town consistently run into the challenge of no longer being able to maintain a house or farm but wanting to still live in Salem and maintain contact with their friends, but maybe moving into an assisted living community. We have a senior-friendly housing unit going into town with over 40 apartments, with walk-in, one-floor, one-bedroom units with ADA accessible bathrooms and drive-in garages. There’s a lot of excitement in town from our seniors that they might be able to stay in town.
Do you see a world where, if you are elected First Selectman, Salem residents might see a raise in local taxes?
We’ve gone five years without a mill rate increase. Our services have been enhanced and we’ve provided more with less, but the reason we’re able to do that is because we’ve got a great leadership team who really thinks outside of the box and communicates, though one of my goals is enhancing that communication.
So while there is a possibility of raising taxes down the road, we’ve been very fiscally responsible and it would be a town decision if it happens. The first selectman can’t unilaterally raise taxes, the budget is voted on by the townspeople, so if in the future we have a need for a tax increase, it will be up to the townspeople to do that.
Your opponent mentioned your decision to create incentives for older teachers to retire as one reason why the education budget could go up in the long term, as younger teachers age and need raises. Do you feel that was the right decision for Salem?
When the education budget request came in at a significant increase, we thought about what we could do to think outside the box to come up with a win-win for the town, teachers, and students. My wife is a retired special education teacher, and I was on the Board of Education for eight years, so I have my finger on the pulse of what is going on with education in Salem and other districts. I had the idea to come up with this teacher incentive.
A top step teacher with a masters degree is making a $120,000 salary on top of benefits, and so when we could possibly bring in a newer teacher fresh out of school with some new ideas for $40,000, it makes sense to give that valued, beloved teacher an incentive to retire. You can get two or three teachers for the price of one, so even if every year that salary is going to go up a bit, we’re going to save money for years.
How would you have handled the fire company dispute differently than First Selectman Lyden? Do you think Salem needs two separate fire departments?
We have two excellent volunteer fire departments, and I have always supported them both. I appreciate everything these volunteers do to keep us safe. I am a member of the Salem emergency management team, so I had an opportunity during Hurricane Henri to see both fire departments in action firsthand. Both departments had 10 to 15 people volunteering and ready to respond, which was a humbling sight.
There is a lot of pride in both departments. There has been a history of controversy going back to before I was born, and sometimes it has been challenging, but I try to pour water on a fire rather than kerosene. I was appointed selectman liaison to emergency management last August, and in that capacity, I’ve met with both chiefs and deputy chiefs, and I hired a director of emergency services who oversees our full-time and part-time firefighters. I got everyone together, and I looked around the room and said, when’s the last time you did this? I have known them all for years, and they said, we haven’t all met together in 10 years. I said, let’s share phone numbers, and now, everybody is on everybody else’s speed dial.
We’ve been meeting for the last year, and have talked about consolidating training and equipment, because it can be challenging to have two fire departments and then full-timers who have to respond with both departments when the departments aren’t communicating, and, for example, don’t have the same type of portable radio so they can communicate with each other. This is the stuff that as a former military officer and police officer, I know about, because it makes sense to standardize, consolidate and work together. Things have really moved forward since last August. I’m happy to say that during the last Board of Selectmen meeting, Kevin signed a new agreement with the chief of Gardner Lake, and I think it’s a great deal. It’s all about working together for the betterment of the town.