GROTON — Democrats have held all nine seats on the Town Council since 2017 when they swept the election, a victory that followed years of Republican control of the council.
This year five Democratic incumbents are campaigning with four newcomers, hoping to beat the seven Republican candidates on the Nov. 2 ballot.
One of the factors that led to the Democratic sweep in 2017 included the council’s cut of about $5.2 million from the school budget after Gov. Malloy’s office threatened to eliminate state school funding.
In an email to CT Examiner, Natalie Billing, vice chair of the Democratic Town Committee, said the budget cut was about the Republicans “being more concerned about taxes than supporting quality schools.”
In 2021, the elephant in the room is the Mystic Oral School project, which town councilors have been advised not to speak about because of potential legal issues. Only two Democratic incumbents — Portia Bordelon and Aundré Bumgardner — have spoken publicly in opposition to the project.
Other issues include the return of vacant school buildings to the tax rolls, resiliency and sustainability in the face of climate change, and community policing.
CT Examiner spoke with all of the Democratic candidates individually by phone to find out why they’re running and what they and the Democratic party hopes to achieve in the coming term.
Bordelon has been a topic of controversy since she withdrew her support from the Mystic Oral School project at the June 1 Town Council meeting, after being advised by the town counsel to remain silent on the matter.
Since then she has remained steadfast in her opposition to the project and in her position that her role as town councilor is to be a voice for her constituents.
Bordelon told CT Examiner she wants the council to examine, reconfigure and restructure the town’s development agreements and RFPs so that the council will be part of the interview process of developers on a project.
“It’s important to be able to be around that table and ask those tough questions at an earlier stage, rather than ‘here’s your preferred developer.’” said Bordelon, who was raised in Groton, is married with two sons and works as a medical assistant.
She said she is in favor of increasing public comment at town council meetings — which is now once a month — to a minimum of twice a month, and to increase community engagement with “more transparent conversations where folks are able to ask questions and share insights.”
She said the town needs to engage communities near the school properties that are for sale to find out exactly what the constituents want before the RFP and development agreement are in place.
“I’m a firm believer in economic growth, but it needs to be responsible and environmentally sustainable. It’s one thing to bring in taxes and money, but it’s another to make sure we’re not changing the unique tapestry of our town, and making sure we’re keeping at the forefront the environmental and the economic impacts [development] can bring.”
Bordelon petitioned to be on the Democratic primary ballot after the Democratic Town Council declined to endorse her for re-election. As the top vote-getter in the primary, she gained a spot on the Democratic slate, edging out incumbent Conrad Heede, who is the chair of the Democratic Town Committee.
Bumgardner said he is the only incumbent running for office who supported the candidacy of Portia Bordelon. He also told CT Examiner that it was “long past time to terminate the agreement with Respler Development for the Mystic Oral School property, given the findings that the developer pled guilty to four counts of fifth degree conspiracy.”
“I would never want to put our town in legal jeopardy, but I also recognize that the overwhelming majority of residents would not at all condone the council continuing to be beholden to a contract that locks us into essentially working with or providing funding to a preferred developer,” he said.
Bumgardner was appointed to the council in 2018 and was one of the top vote-getters in the 2019 town council election. Previously he ran as a Republican for state representative and served from 2015 to 2017, but switched parties in 2018 in the aftermath of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. He lost his challenge for the Groton City mayorship to incumbent Keith Hedrick. He serves on the Groton City Planning and Zoning Commission.
“We’re at a crossroads, there is no shortage of issues to tackle,” he said. “I think it’s important that we have the capacity to work in a bipartisan manner and to leave the ego at the door, and work with our fellow constituents to tackle issues concerning our community.”
He said he will work to continue efforts to build the town’s resiliency in the face of climate change, including funding the resilience manager position in town hall.
“Groton is expected to face 20 inches of sea level rise by 2050. We are not at all prepared for that when it comes to our interests, our physical infrastructure but also our utility infrastructure,” he said. “It’s super important that the Town of Groton works with all of our local utilities and Eversource to ensure that we can best protect our infrastructure from the inevitable extreme weather events that are happening with far greater frequency than ever before.”
“I’m a moderate Democrat who takes a very realistic approach to issues that come before us,” said Franco, who is in her second term on the council.
‘“I’m running for a third term because I think there’s a lot of things in Groton that we’re still working towards and the work is not finished and I want to try and make Groton a great place and increase everybody’s quality of life,” she said.
Franco, a lifelong Groton resident, said she is pro economic development and would like to see the revitalization of the downtown Groton area.
“I would like retail and restaurants to come and want to be in Groton and have a thriving community because Groton used to be that thriving retail restaurant community and I want that back again,” she said.
She said marketing the town’s empty school buildings was the best bet for more immediate economic development since private development could be a longer term prospect.
“We’ve given incentives to private property owners and now it’s up to them to take advantage of that and we’re waiting for them to do so. I think we need to work more so with those private owners and try and see what they need, and maybe with commercial real estate agents to try and get more development into our community. I like development that fits the Groton neighborhoods, that’s something that I think is very important.”
Franco said she was also an advocate of community policing with social workers and community collaboration.
“I’m a big proponent of that — I’ve worked actually with the police and town manager to bring those forward and and I’m on the safety committee.”
She is the business manager at Norwich Family Dental Associates and handles their accounting, payroll and human resources. She created the Beautification Committee during her first two terms in office.
Juan Melendez Jr.
Melendez, who was elected in 2019, said if re-elected he will focus on the $8.6 million dollars the town will receive from the American Rescue Plan.
“I will make sure that money is used for people affected by the pandemic. It’s a great opportunity to invest in our community and to help those who have fallen behind on mortgages and rent payments,” he said.
He said the town is in the midst of an opioid epidemic and he would support adding an addiction counselor to the town staff.
Melendez, who served on the town’s Water Pollution Control Authority from 2015 to 2017 and on the RTM from 2017 to 2019, encouraged voters to choose the entire Democratic slate. “Any one councilor can’t get things done on their own, we need a majority of people that are like minded.”
He said the Democratic slate supports taking steps toward building Groton’s resiliency as a coastal town to combat the effects of future climate change.
“We believe in conservation and open space. We [instituted] the plastic ordinance ban and established the resiliency coordinator position,” he said. “We are strong advocates of investing in our future in terms of education — we understand that investing now in education is the best way for our community to grow and mature and be successful.”
He said that the Democratic town council also provided a science-based response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our covid response was we listen to the science and the experts and if the CDC recommends something, we would recommend that,” he said.
“People” was the answer Parker gave when asked what issues she would focus on in her campaign for a third term on the council. .
“They’re young, as young as a month old baby to seniors — everything’s tied into being in this community and what the community needs right now. There are mental health issues and people that are struggling — we need to make sure we’re out there and helping them” said Parker, who is certified as a Connecticut Municipal Officer and has worked for the City of Groton Police Department for 14 years.
Parker has deep roots in Groton — her grandparents worked in the public school system and she is a lifelong resident, raising her two children there. She said when she grew up in Groton, the town was full of mom and pop businesses in town and she would work to find a way for them to return.
“Nothing wrong with big businesses, we need those too. We need a combination of everything to show how diverse our community is and welcoming small businesses is just as important as big business. I’d love to see downtown boosted up…. Groton was a booming place back in the day and I would like to see that and offer it to our young kids again — showing young kids that they can do something, build a business here, have family here, be in the school system here. It all revolves around community and people.”
Parker, who served on the RTM from 2013 to 2017, said she brings broad work and volunteer experience, including navigating the school system and working for the police department.
“As a young minority, I see it from all angles, so I want to be a role model for my community. I believe in volunteering and giving back my time. I believe my experience [shows] I tried to do my best for what’s good for Groton, no matter where they live, no matter who they are. It’s important for our community to keep going forward.”
“I originally decided to get involved in politics because I’ve always been drawn to public service. I was a volunteer firefighter while I attended college and then I became a police officer. I left my career after my son was born because my husband and I were both police officers with difficult schedules — I really just was eager to get back into the community and do something good again after having to leave my career,” said Cassiere, who has two young children in the Groton schools and is running for town council for the first time.
Cassiere said if she is elected she would bring a unique perspective to the council and emphasized the importance of parent representation on the council, especially parents with younger children who will be in the school system for many years.
“There are no other counselors with a law enforcement background, there is no one else that has been a volunteer firefighter. And I just want to go back to the parent representation, I think it’s really important that there is a mom that is on the council that has young children in the school. And I think all of those things just brings a completely different perspective that’s not seen on the council right now.”
She commented that the Democratic ticket represented Groton’s diversity.
“If you look at our slate, we represent Groton. We have candidates in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s and I think that’s a really amazing thing that we are really representing the [town’s] demographics.”
“I’ve come to conclude that the best work gets done when you’re kind of spearheading it, or you’re the individual that’s able to work with the residents, so that was one of my driving factors. I believe I can facilitate more efficient and effective government,” said Jacome, who serves on the RTM and is running for town council for the first time.
Jacome graduated from Fitch High School in 2014 and, after college, worked for Bob Stachen’s state senate campaign for the 18th district. He has also worked for the campaigns of State Rep. Joe de la Cruz, D-Groton, and State Rep. Christine Connolly, D-Groton.
He said he thinks the town council needs younger individuals to represent the emerging demographic that’s growing in the town.
“As we know we have General Dynamics, Pfizer and there’s a lot of younger individuals coming here. Also I’m Hispanic and we must not forget our minority demographic,” he said.
Jacome, who previously worked as the assistant clerk for the Veterans Affairs Committee of the General Assembly, said he wanted to make sure the town provides resources for the younger people who are struggling to find housing and childcare.
“I’m for economic development, or like I like to say, economic growth, and being fiscally responsible and putting development there that adheres to the neighborhood,” he said.
Jacome described himself as a “motivated, passionate individual” who can “bridge divides and can work well with others” and said he’s running for council partly to give back to “a town that gave me so much.”
“Groton gave me an opportunity, actually gave me scholarships and gave me the opportunity to afford college. I’m one of the first in my family to graduate and I think it’s time for me to give back when I can,” he said.
Open space, small businesses, and seniors are the top three issues for Jones, who said he’s running for town council for the first time because he wants to increase his commitment to public service.
He’s a recently retired graphic designer and has served on the RTM for two years and the board of SEC-TV for about four years. A resident of Groton for five years, he’s heavily involved with the Groton Open Space Association.
“The open space and the trails kind of relate to conservation and dealing with climate change,” Jones said. “We have an amazing system of trails here that most communities don’t have and they have proved invaluable — so keep that strong, keep that active and going.”
As a former owner of a small graphic design company, he supports small business as part of the town’s economic growth.
“I love small business, you know I’m always trying to convince people to do it, which relates also to economic development,” he said.
“The third one is senior issues. We have one of the best senior centers in the state, award winning. We have tons of programs and it’s a fairly new facility. Keep that strength there, keep it going, keep it growing,” he said.
He said as a town councilor he would continue Groton’s focus on protecting the coastline and would apply his experience in dealing with business and conservation issues.
“Groton took a stand on our plastics, we did the single use plastic, the straws, the clamshell, the coffee cups. We’re a coastal community and we can get rid of some of that stuff and make it biodegradable,” he said. “I can bring my experience to the table — I’m good at asking good questions.”
“My perception and reasoning for getting involved in Groton is I think I can utilize my experience and my knowledge in key areas to help Groton to move forward as it has been. I think the future’s very bright and I want to really utilize my experience to get involved and really propel Groton forward to be one of the leading municipalities in the New England area,” said McBride.
David McBride is the director of finance for the City of New London. He previously served as the executive director of Thames River Innovation Place and as the director of finance for the Mohegan Tribe.
McBride said his main focus would be on the town budget.
“I think that the budget area for Groton as well as any municipality is extremely important. It’s big numbers and I think my level of attention to detail will help ask the right questions and make sure we’re spending money wisely, making sure our government is being as efficient as possible,and making sure we’re using technologies to utilize the budget process where we can,” he said.
He said that many municipalities use outdated budget processes and he wanted to develop “a more long-term perspective to financials, including long-term cash flow considering state revenue, education expenses and police.”
McBride said he is a proponent of smart economic growth, “making sure it’s fully transparent and making sure the residents are involved in providing their opinions and thoughts.”
“It’s important to grow your tax base so you can provide better services to residents, but I also think you can’t do it in a vacuum — you need community involvement.” McBride is also the founder and vice president of the James Greenleaf Memorial Scholarship Fund and the Treasurer of Groton Long Point. He manages the financial activities of his family’s businesses, including four Dairy Queens, two Aroogas Sports bars and some real estate.
This story has been corrected to reflect that Bumgardner lost his challenge to the incumbent mayor, but succeeded in the primary.