MIDDLETOWN – Democrats unanimously endorsed current Mayor Benjamin Florsheim as their candidate for mayor in the November elections on Monday night, praising his leadership during Covid and his work on a number of ongoing development projects at their nominating meeting on Monday.
Current Common Council Majority Leader Gene Nocera commended Florsheim for his handling of several projects that had been undertaken over the last four years, including the construction of a new Beman Middle School, the opening of the Rec Center, and Florsheim’s work on developing the riverfront.
“This is incredible progress for our community,” he said.
Several members of Middletown’s state delegation also expressed their support for Florsheim, including Lieutenant Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, a Middletown native. Bysiewicz underscored the $70 million dollars the state had given to Middletown for a variety of projects.
“The State of Connecticut invests when we believe in a town or city’s leadership,” Bysiewicz said.
Florsheim was elected to his first term as mayor in 2019, defeating incumbent Republican mayor Sebastian Giuliano and becoming the youngest mayor in Middletown’s history.
Democrat Ed Ford Jr, a former Republican Common Council member who announced in April that he would be running for mayor, was not present at the meeting on Monday.
Last week, the Republican Town Committee nominated Councilman Mike Marino as their candidate to challenge the Democratic nominee.
In his acceptance speech, Marino highlighted investment infrastructure, lowering taxes and supporting the city’s police officers as his key priorities.
“We can either be a city that’s known for its low income housing and high taxes, or a city that strives to have a more vibrant economic future where people want to invest their money by purchasing a home, starting a business, or perhaps even both,” he said.
A former Middletown police officer, Marino told CT Examiner he felt that officers did not currently have support from the mayor’s office and from the community. In his acceptance speech, he said he would not “vilify or accuse them of wrongdoing just because it’s in vogue on the national stage.”
Marino told CT Examiner that he does not support the creation of a Civilian Review Board, a move recently recommended by the town’s Anti-Racism Task Force and strongly opposed by the town’s police union. Current Mayor Ben Florsheim has expressed support for a Civilian Review Board.
“If I’m mayor, there will not be a Civilian Review Board. I think that goes without saying. I’ve been pretty vocal about that,” Marino told CT Examiner.
On Monday night, Florsheim emphasized the role of mental health in his approach to policing. He said the town had partnered with the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and River Valley Services to have clinicians on staff to respond to mental health calls during the day, and that they were working on expanding that service to the night shift. Florsheim also voiced support for creating a Civilian Review Board, and said he is working to create an ordinance that the town can vote to adopt.
Last week, Marino told Republican committee members that he wanted to eliminate “duplicate social programs” in the city, but declined to name any specific examples when asked by CT Examiner.
Marino also told CT Examiner that he felt the town needed to improve its schools, which he described as being “in total disarray.”
“There seems to be a lack of discipline in the schools, a lack of prioritizing the children that want to learn as opposed to the children that are there to just cause chaos,” he said, adding that he felt the city needed to do more to support teachers.
Florsheim said on Monday night the town had allocated coronavirus relief funding to the Youth Services Bureau to work with the Board of Education to conduct a “needs assessment” on students in the schools. He said this would give them a more clear picture of what students and their families are looking for rather than relying on anecdotal evidence. Additionally, he said, the town was using federal funding to create a Mental Health Resource Center in partnership with Gilead Community Services, which would help people navigate the mental health system.
“I think that there’s a lot of young people who are bewildered by what’s happened these past four years and are turning to dangerous behaviors to cope,” he said. “We need to be out there making sure that people understand that there’s other options.”
As for the idea of opening a charter school, Florsheim suggested the need to bring all the parties to the table so they can fully understand the implications on funding for the local school district and the school’s policies regarding retention and acceptance of students.
“The impact on the local school district is what we’re all trying to ascertain,” Florsheim said, adding that he heard and understood people’s desire for more educational options and a “race-to-the-top notion of competition.”
Plans for Capital Prep Middletown were put on hold when its funding was removed at the last minute from the state’s biennial budget.
Florsheim told CT Examiner that one of his major priorities for the next four years would be to see through to completion the use of the federal coronavirus relief dollars that have been allocated to areas like mental health, infrastructure, youth services and investments in Main Street that would bring housing, retail and new restaurants to the downtown.
“I think that we have a big job ahead of us in making sure that’s all spent effectively, because there’s a lot of reporting and a lot of paperwork and a lot of compliance,” he said.
But Marino offered a laundry list of evidence that local public schools were failing, including a long waitlist for enrollment at Vinal Technical School and increased interest in Mercy and Xavier High Schools. He said that he knew of some parents who had taken their children out of the Middletown Public Schools and were teaching them in small groups, with a tutor.
“If the schools are being successful and the parents thought that their kids were safe and that there was a good learning environment, I don’t think that would happen,” he said.
Marino said Middletown should turn its focus from building apartments and do more to encourage people to purchase houses in town. He also discussed changes he wanted to make in the city’s Human Resources Department, saying that city employees he’d spoken with “feel like they have to walk on eggshells.”
“I think for a long time the city’s had a reputation, whether it’s warranted or not, of cronyism,” said Marino. “I don’t feel that the employees of the city feel they have the support, or at least not the majority of the employees.”
Other Republican candidates
Common Council nominees by the Republican Town Committee include current Common Council members Tony Gennaro and Linda Salafia, current Board of Education member Jon Pulino, Bill Wilson, Callie Grippo, Deborah Kleckowski, Kurt McAuliffe and Nigel Macon-Wilson.
Gennaro told CT Examiner he wanted to do more to bring small businesses into the area’s downtown — he said many had closed during the pandemic, leaving empty storefronts.
Pulino said if he were elected to Common Council, he wanted to create a joint task force between the Board of Education and the Common Council to address issues in the schools.
Macon-Wilson, who is also running for the Board of Education, said his goal as a common council member would be bringing in more businesses and making the city both safe and clean.
“I want to be a city where people actually want to come for more than just parades. I want businesses to come and stay and thrive and people should be able to walk around at two o’clock in the morning,” he said.
Macon-Wilson criticized the literacy and math achievement rates of the school district and what he saw as the failure of parents and teachers to check the behavior of students. He said that as a Board of Education member, he wanted to take a harder look at the funding given to the district.
“We have all this money going [into] education. They’re demanding more money. I’m trying to figure out — where is it going?” said Macon-Wilson. “It’s like … here’s the money and [it] just disappears into this void. But the results are getting worse. So, clearly, there’s a disconnect somewhere, and either people are afraid of talking about it, or they’re in on it.”
Matt Schwartz, a Board of Education nominee who is starting law school at Quinnipiac University, echoed Macon-Wilson, saying that the students were graduating unprepared for the workforce and not literate at a high school level. He said he wanted to improve relations between Democrats and Republicans on the board.
“I feel like our current Board of Education is focusing more on internal fighting than anything else,” he said. “You look at a Board of Education meeting — it’s literally like a pack of dogs tearing each other apart.”
Other Board of Education nominees include Kleckowski, Wilson, and Morgan Monarca. Candidates for Planning and Zoning are Marcus Fazzino and Bill Perkins.
Other Democratic candidates
For Common Council, the Democratic Town Committee nominated current Common Council Members Eugene Nocera, Grady Faulkner, Jeanette Blackwell, Vincent Loffredo, Anthony Mangiafico and Darnell Ford and newcomers Steven Kovach and Kelly Sweeney.
Nocera underscored the need to continue the current work on economic development work, including the distribution of federal coronavirus funding to local small businesses. Faulkner said the town needed to create more spaces for young people.
“We built some centers. They’re supposed to be community centers. When you go by there, [they’re] basically senior centers.” he said. “[The young people] need space — space to be together.”
Blackwell told CT Examiner that her priorities included establishing a fair rent commission in the town, furthering the riverfront development project and creating a network of resources for minority businesses through collaboration with the Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Commission.
“I think the pandemic certainly impacted minority-owned small businesses disproportionately,” Blackwell said.
For Board of Education, the committee endorsed Susan Owens, Rakim Grant, Elizabeth Crooks, Harold Panciera and Sheila Daniels.
Owens told CT Examiner that her priority was making sure that students were safe at school, and said she would support installing metal detectors.
“We have a problem country-wide as far as gun violence with our teenagers. I believe that we need to make sure that guns, weapons don’t get into the school,” said Owens.
She also said the board needed to show support for the teachers, who she said were “wearing many hats” and needed to know they were appreciated.
Grant, who graduated from Middletown High School in 2019, said he wanted to hear more from teachers and students, and to better understand the discrepancies between White students and students of color in areas like academic achievement and discipline.
“I just want to make sure that everybody’s heard. Students — make sure that their perspective is heard. Make sure teachers’ perspectives are heard,” said Grant. “Because even though those are the most important people in the education system, sometimes those are the [people] least paid attention to.”