Stonington Candidates for First Selectman Outline Party Planks for the Fall Elections

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STONINGTON — With Saturday’s addition of an unaffiliated fourth candidate running on a ticket that includes the Democratic, Republican and Forward parties, this year’s now four-way race for for First Selectman has increased in potential to break up a a board that has governed the town together since 2019. 

Incumbents Danielle Chesebrough, First Selectman, now of the Forward Party, Democrat June Strunk, a Republican Deborah Motycka Downie were first voted into office in 2019 and ran unopposed in 2021. 

As of Saturday, the first selectman’s race includes Michael Spellman, a former selectman and police chief of Groton City, who threw his hat into the ring with Frank Todisco, former chair of the Board of Education, for second selectman. Both will run as unaffiliated petitioning candidates. 

Now a four-way race, Spellman joins Chesebrough, who formerly ran as an unaffiliated candidate, Democrat Laura Graham, Pawcatuck resident, and Republican Bryan Bentz, longtime board of finance member, on the ticket. 

Also significant is the second selectman race because incumbent Strunk lost the Democratic endorsement to the ticket of Graham and Ben Tamsky, former chair of planning and zoning, in a 25-12 vote.

However, Strunk told CT Examiner on Friday that she had just picked up the paperwork to primary against Tamsky for a place on the Democratic ticket. 

“The first thing was a dozen people said, ‘I hope you primary,’” Strunk said.

Reflecting on her work with Chesebrough and Downie, Stunk told CT Examiner, “I need to be on the ballot so there’s a chance we could continue.” 

Meanwhile, the Republican Town Committee endorsed longtime Board of Finance member Bryan Bentz for first selectman. 

For second selectman, Republicans endorsed incumbent Downie in a 19-15 vote over Tracy Swain, who could primary Downie for a place on the ticket. Swain had not announced a decision in time for publication. 

To force a primary on Sept. 12, Strunk and Swain must gather signatures from five percent of the active registered voters from each of their parties. 

With the election season just getting underway, CT Examiner asked the four candidates for Stonington First Selectman – Chesebrough, Graham, Bentz and Spellman –  to outline their campaign platforms for the fall elections.

The incumbent: Third party, grants, connectivity

“The big idea is bringing people together who have different perspectives, but who all agree to a set of principles, and the principles are really around respectful listening, collaborative dialogue, transparency, and then support for electoral reforms,” Danielle Chesebrough told CT Examiner about her running as a Forward Party candidate. In past two elections she ran as an unaffiliated candidate and was endorsed by one or both parties. 

Chesebrough said the two major parties are focused on their separate ideologies, but the Forward party wants to talk and collaborate with people of different ideologies to solve the town’s problems. 

“It’s really about a new kind of party, a new way of looking at things, that brings a bigger tent and brings people together to say we know we have challenges, let’s not think we have the solutions already in mind – but we’re gonna get there by listening to people with different perspectives, and to really collaborate, and then come up with solutions. And if the solution doesn’t work, you redefine it and keep working at it,” she said. 

Chesebrough said she had previously  helped with advocacy efforts with the Serve America Movement, known as SAM, which merged with Forward and Renew America.

“I feel like it’s just how I naturally felt about government and leadership and how we should be working on this, so it just kind of all clicked… We’re gonna create a real third-party movement, it’s gonna take a long time. It’s going to take a lot of different people in towns and cities across the country running for board of ed, board of finance, first selectmen, state rep, and other levels, to create this change.”

Before her election as first selectman, Chesebrough served for two years on the Board of Finance and three years on the Economic Development Commission while also working as a senior analyst in investor relations for the United Nations. She moved to Stonington in her sophomore year of high school, and earned a B.A. at Clemson University and a Master of Social Work degree from UConn. She is married to Sam Chesebrough and the couple have three young children. 

Chesebrough said she wants to serve another term so that she can continue a number of projects that are underway in the town, including the Mystic Boathouse Park and the Circus Lot. 

She said the town had received more $6 million in grants over the last four years of her tenure in office and she wanted to continue to be part of the team to bring those grants forward and secure new ones. She said she directly wrote some of the grants and is helping to implement them, including fulfilling the reporting requirements. 

Chesebrough said the town received a $2.9 million federal grant to fix the fire department’s “water loop” in Pawcatuck where there were two deadends in the water system that would have required major water shutoffs if there had been a water main break in the area. She said the town has also received $900,000 to repair the town docks and $250,000 from the Port Authority to fix one of the piers. 

She said she has worked to create stronger connections between public works, Town Hall, the police and the school, partly by creating liaison roles. 

“It just made such a difference creating these kinds of connections and partnerships and building trust and relationships has really helped on all fronts. We’re supporting each other more and sharing more, it’s just more transparent. There’s less fear of how funds are being spent because it’s just such an honest relationship.”

The town has also made strides in reducing its outflow of solid waste by initiating textile recycling, and state grant funded curbside composting – Chesebrough said she would like to see it used as a model statewide. Prior to the changes, the town already produced 50 percent less than the state average trash per capita, she said, and the goal is to reach 70 percent less using the three programs. 

Chesebrough said the town will update its Plan of Conservation and Development and has started updating its zoning regulations – and her administration is working to provide platforms for the public to engage in the processes. 

“It’s a big pivotal moment for the community to say what they want, what they like, where they want to go,” she said. 

Chesebrough said it’s important to create zoning regulations that can ensure the town is both friendly to entrepreneurs and people who need more housing, and to look at the diversity of housing options – but also not to overburden the town, its current residents and emergency services. 

She also said she was proud of the bridge inventory program her administration had started, to evaluate every bridge in town and determine funding needed for maintenance and repair.

If re-elected, Chesebrough told CT Examienr she will continue to strengthen relationships among town staff and departments and with the nonprofit and business communities

“It’s about pulling people together more and just bringing out the best in all of ourselves,” she said. “We have amazing people and volunteers who contribute so much, so it’s recognizing that and then empowering all of us to come together to do this work together. And I hope we can keep building on that.”

Graham: Access, housing, affordability

Laura Graham said that on day one in office as first selectman, she would increase public access to town government by rescheduling the meeting time of the Board of Selectman from 5:30 to 7 p.m.

“That is super important because working people cannot make meetings at 5:30 usually and I’ve also noticed that a lot of town meetings happen during the work day so I’d like to push things to the evening and make it more accessible,” Graham said. “It’s really important that people of all social demographic backgrounds can participate in the process.”

She said she would also look into the costs of videotaping meetings so that people who missed the meetings or had to work would have access.

Graham said she would look at housing affordability in Stonington, and work to keep property taxes as low as possible, because “a lot of people feel priced out because of the property taxes in Stonington.” 

Graham said her mother, Marilyn Graham, had been working to renovate houses in New London, using “small amounts of funding” for low-income families to become homeowners, an alternative to “models [that] put millions into a project that is basically enriching huge out-of-state developers.”

“We have a housing crisis and this needs to be addressed, but how we address it, I think, is extremely important. And especially how we sell it to the public [and] bring the public on board because they don’t want their tax dollars wasted,” Graham told CT Examiner. 

Grahams said she felt that sometimes Democrats “get maligned for not being wise with money.” 

“I would like to show the Democrats can be very pragmatic and smart with money. I’m a small business owner, so I think that’s really important, too,” said Graham, who owns Drink with Food, a sales and marketing company.

Graham said the 8-30g law – which allows developers to override local zoning laws if 30 percent of the units are designated affordable – is well-intended and can be implemented successfully, but often the projects are not done in a way that’s beneficial to the public. 

She said the Threadmill project in Pawcatuck was a “hugely successful 8-30g project” in an “existing historic building that otherwise would have struggled to find development and it has been turned into really beautiful affordable housing.” 

She said the town also has “pretty cheap” 8-30g projects, “despite all of the tax benefits and advantages that 8-30g provides.”

“We have buildings that have poor-behaving owners and management and you have residents who are living terrified because they are afraid to complain about broken doors, mold, rats. They’re afraid to raise their voices because they’re always afraid to be kicked out,” she said. She said she knew a tenant who constantly worried that their income would rise above the designated amount, forcing them to find a new home. 

“So basically, if we’re gonna give millions and millions of taxpayer dollars to something that’s highly profitable for the investors, it just seems like there’s other ways we might be more creative, especially watching my mother do it with a much more focused use of those dollars in terms of actually helping the people who really need the help,” she said. 

Graham, 56, grew up in Mystic and central Stonington, and attended Stonington schools K-12. She graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and studied in Italy where she met her husband, Ezio Genovesi, who recently retired as the head of RISD’s program in Rome. The couple have two children in their twenties. Graham lived in Italy for 20 years and bought a house in Pawcatuck in 2013. She has not served on any town commissions or committees, but told CT Examiner that her focus instead has been on community organizing. 

“I have to say for a woman who’s been involved on a ‘part-time basis,’ I think I’ve managed already to have a pretty good impact in representing the residents and their ideas, so I’m really excited. I’m excited that the DTC is putting their trust in me and I’m also glad because in 2019 many people were encouraging me to run but it just wasn’t the right time. But now’s the right time. My husband’s retired,” she said.

Graham was active on social media advocating for the completion of sidewalks in Pawcatuck. 

“I’ve spent a lot of time on social media, so people know where I stand on different things. They’ve got a pretty good idea of my ideas. And so, in that sense, I feel like I’ve always been a very open book with people. The causes that I’ve advocated for are pretty clear and memorable,” she said. 

Graham said it was important to acknowledge and help people who are struggling in Stonington, and to acknowledge the town has problems, for example, with opioids.  

“I think in Stonington people assume everyone is wealthy and everyone is fine. Stonington is a wealthy town but that doesn’t mean that people aren’t struggling within our community. This is something I want to make very, very clear,” she said. “I want to put a spotlight on that and try to find really common sense pragmatic action that can help those people and to step outside of ideologies and really get at the nuts and bolts of what can actually help people – this is what drives me. If we’re going to take taxpayer money out of taxpayers’ pockets, we want to make sure that money gets used in extremely smart and effective ways to help the people who really do need the help.”

Graham described herself as “fundamentally very Yankee” and said she believed in local control. 

“With affordable housing, I am really hoping that we can do some really good work of planning and zoning and at the Board of Selectmen level to really look at what affordable housing would be in Stonington, what it means exactly, and how we can help the people who really need the help.”

Bentz: Finance, development, a long-term vision

“We’ve redone the schools, we’ve generally funded services at a reasonable level, but I can see that this could get expensive really fast. There are a lot of proposals coming along for this and that as if the money is just going to show up. I want people who live here, who grew up here, to be able to stay here,” Bryan Bentz told CT Examiner. 

As a 20-year Board of Finance member, Bentz said if elected first selectman he would take a close look at how the town is spending money. He said that even though the town has done well financially so far, “spending can easily grow,” which is hard on people living on fixed incomes. 

Bentz said he would also look at the impacts of development in Stonington and consider what will help the town. He said that “growing the grand list blindly” may not be productive given that municipal expenses can grow at the same pace, resulting in a more crowded town where the average resident’s taxes have not decreased. 

“I’ve lived in towns where there’s a lot of development and what happens is… you find that now you need more police, you need more sewage treatment, you need more of everything so the costs rise as well as the grand list. And before you know it you could be living in a very crowded place and the taxes are still just as high as they were before,” he said. 

He said it was important to encourage businesses to come to Stonington that will offer the most to the community while having the least impact on municipal services and traffic. 

He said he would encourage “the kind of development that keeps the character of the town to the extent that we can.” He said the working waterfront, boating, tourist industry, and farming, among other attractions, has created Stonington’s “unique character.” 

“You need a mix here, and to the extent that one can, I’d want to rationally guide this process and make sure that we don’t radically change the nature of the town,” he said. 

Bentz grew up in Stonington and graduated from the high school in 1977. He studied physics and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is the owner of Bentz Engineering. Besides the Board of Finance, he served as a Quiambaug volunteer firefighter for 10 years. He and his wife, Mary Ann, have grown three children.

Bentz said that he would like to see the Plan of Conservation and Development used as a strategic plan for looking at the town’s long-term needs and for prioritizing future problems. 

“We can’t predict what’s going to happen, but… it’s like when you’re fixing your house, you want to make sure the foundation is solid before you start doing stuff elsewhere. I just don’t want to be bouncing from problem to problem as they pop up,” he said. “Sometimes you can prevent the fires in advance, you can prevent problems by thinking about it beforehand.”

Bentz said he would like to see town government operate with the overall picture in mind, taking into account the infrastructure of the town. 

“For me, the long-term risks for the town are things like solvency and success of the Water Pollution Control Authority, which is sewage treatment, and failures in that or changing government regulations can cost the town quite a bit. That’s not something you can ignore,” he said. “That’s a long-term thing that we just have to keep sound or things could get very expensive very fast.”

Bentz said that two years in office “isn’t that long a time” but he would work to get a consensus on where the town is going in five years, and raise issues that will affect the town in the long term.

Spellman: A better tomorrow, finishing projects, leadership

Reached by phone on Monday, Spellman told CT Examiner that the focus of his and Todisco’s campaign will be “a better tomorrow” for Stonington. He said they planned an “aggressive door-to-door campaign” to meet and listen to residents and business owners. 

“You’ll never listen your way out of a job, and we’re gonna listen to their concerns – the direction they feel the town is going in, where they want it to go,” he said. “We’ll do the best we can to serve them and to serve the people,” he said. 

Spelling said that by being unaffiliated, “we’re beholden to no one, we’re not beholden to a party.”

“Together we call on residents tired of partisan party politics, and at times personal political agendas to embark on a new constructive course. We believe our inclusive and open approach to government, and our demonstrated records of fiscal conservative but socially moderate approach, will resonate with the majority of Stonington residents and voters. We are prepared to govern from Day 1, and we will serve all Stonington residents. As Lincoln called for, “government of the people, by the people and for the people”, not one of ideology, political party and personal status,” Spelling and Todisco said in the Saturday announcement of their campaign on Facebook. 

Spellman told CT Examiner the town had “a lot of projects out there that have not come to fruition” and that his administration would work to bring those concepts to completion 

“Both Frank and I have demonstrated experience that we’ve taken projects from concept to completion and cost effectively. And it’s both our belief that we’re going to need experienced leadership in the days ahead of higher interest rates, and the household budget is stretched real tight. You’re gonna need cost-effective government and as I’ve said before, government is a balancing act. There’s wants and there’s needs and you’re going to make sure that it’s an affordable government and they get the most bang for your buck,” he said. 

Spellman said two unfinished projects of concern were the Connecticut Casting Plant, which he said he supported during his tenure as selectman from 2014 to 2017, and  the Pawcatuck water loop project, which he said would protect firefighters from problems with water pressure during fires. 

Spellman said his experience managing complex projects included his work at the Connecticut State Police, where he “took a quality of life task force from concept state to completion and wrote protocols for it that are still in use today.” He said that as Chief of Police in the City of Groton, he brought the department to accreditation status and helped them join the state police radio system. 

He said that while on the board of selectmen, for example, he was part of formalizing the Plan of Conservation and Development and most recent charter revision, which involved “working with a number of stakeholders in getting the PV-5 passed, which was one of the largest zoning changes that benefited the underperforming grand list of Pawcatuck.”

“I’m proud of my record  and I look to serve people with the heart of a public servant… and to help Stonington and get Stonington to a better place,” he said. 

Spellman is a lifelong resident of Pawcatuck and graduated from Stonington High School in 1981. In 2017, he was promoted to Police Chief of the City of Groton and served until 2021 as Chief and Emergency Management Director. He is currently working in the planning department in Hopkinton, R.I. Spellman and his wife, Heather, have two grown children. 

In his Facebook announcement, Spellman said change will be necessary to keep the town vibrant and affordable, which requires leadership.

“Today it has become increasingly difficult to find leaders focused on the community and its residents, not on political parties, bureaucratic processes, and at times the political insider. We seek an administration focused on the needs of the Stonington resident and business owner. You the taxpayer. Ultimately to ensure a strong and vibrant school system, a positive business climate, and a safe place to call home,” he wrote. 

This story has been updated to include the candidacy of Michael Spellman