GREENWICH – As tensions between the local Republican and Democratic parties mount, incumbent First Selectman Fred Camillo, a Republican, and his Democratic opponent Laura Erickson said they hoped for a spirited but respectful debate on long-standing issues like school funding and affordable housing.
In recent months, CT Examiner has received an increasing amount of letters to the editor from Republican and Democratic residents alike warning of “red toxic hazes” and “culture wars” seeping into town. Last year, Greenwich politics made national news in a New York Times article highlighting a growing division between the town’s traditional Republicans and Donald Trump supporters.
But in separate interviews with CT Examiner, Camillo – a former state representative seeking his third term as first selectman – and Erickson – a finance board member who’s served the town for over 20 years – said they look forward to setting an example of civility for residents this election season.
Focusing on the issues
“I know there’s going to be times where she’s criticizing me in the next three months, and that’s politics. Doesn’t mean she doesn’t like me, and we don’t like each other,” Camillo said of the Democratic challenger. “I think, hopefully, we can show that we can have spirited debate without animosity.”
Asked about division within the town Republican party, Camillo said he first noticed a growing interest in national politics among residents when Indivisible Greenwich – a local chapter of the national organization looking to counter “Trumpism” – started to organize following the 2016 presidential election.
“They were bringing national politics to the local scene, which had never been done before,” Camillo said.
In response to the growing “far left” presence in town, Camillo said, right-leaning groups began to form in Greenwich.
Camillo said he has been caught in the crossfire of the liberal versus conservative feuds many times since, but said town officials need to stand their ground and lead by example, which he plans to do in his campaign.
“You have to keep your eye on the goal and be true to yourself, and keep doing what you think is best for everybody,” he said.
Erickson told CT Examiner that her goal was to set a new standard for Greenwich politics by leading a quality campaign.
“Fred’s a public servant, I’m a public servant,” Erickson said. “I think we both respect each other very much, and we’ve worked together in the past.”
Erickson said a faction of “extremist Republicans” seem to have taken control over the Republican Town Committee, but she doesn’t assume that most town Republicans share their views. She said town officials from both parties have continued to focus on local issues, not national politics.
“Republicans and Democrats on the BET, on the Board of Selectmen, on the RTM – everyone was focused on, ‘What are our issues? What are our challenges, and how do we best address them?’” she said.
Comprehensive or partial funding?
While Erickson said officials try to work together, she acknowledged that they often have substantive differences in how they approach certain issues. And this year, town Democrats and Republicans were largely unable to agree on how to address outstanding Americans with Disabilities Act compliance issues in the public schools.
Ahead of the 2023-24 town budget vote by the Board of Estimate and Taxation in April, more than 100 residents attended a finance board meeting to call for adequate funding of school projects. At the time, the school board had requested nearly $122 million, with the majority of the funds designated for rebuilding Central Middle School and renovating Old Greenwich School as the schools lack elevators, ramps and modern HVAC systems.
Finance board Democrats, including Erickson, voted to fund the entire construction project– which would have allocated almost $35 million to a full Old Greenwich renovation and about $75 million for the Central Middle rebuild. Instead, the Republican majority funded piecemeal, immediate fixes – about $1.5 million for Old Greenwich elevators and sewage maintenance and $67.5 million for Central Middle.
Following the budget vote, the school building committees for Central Middle and Old Greenwich continued to iron out final costs as residents weighed in on the projects. Some town Republicans protested the proposed designs and cost projections for Central Middle. Meanwhile, another request for almost $40 million to fund Old Greenwich renovations in time to meet state deadlines was rejected by Board of Estimate and Taxation Republicans in June.
Republicans on the board said they didn’t want to rush the Old Greenwich project, and instead delayed the funding to consider a potential renovation of the school.
But Erickson told CT Examiner that she still doesn’t understand her colleagues’ opposition considering that waiting means higher costs
“It makes fiscal sense to file with the state earlier because… the building committee told us if we have to wait a year, it’s going to add $3 million to the cost,” she said.
If elected, Erickson said getting all Greenwich Public Schools compliant with ADA standards will be an “extremely high” priority for her administration.
“We absolutely need to address it, but the way to address it is to holistically address it with a plan,” Erickson said. “Some of my colleagues from the other side of the aisle on the BET think that we’re just going to allocate money for an elevator, and we can slap on an elevator and that’ll solve the problem. And that’s not accurate.”
Asked for his stance on the June vote, Camillo said he disagreed with the Republican Board of Estimate and Taxation members’ decision. He added that he will continue to advocate for the renovation of the Old Greenwich School.
“We’re in agreement on most things, but when we don’t agree we’re going to do what we all think is best for the town,” Camillo said. “So I’ll continue to advocate, and I think renovating it there makes a lot of sense.”
He said that he would normally agree with building anew rather than funding a $40 million renovation, but said Old Greenwich has “good bones” and simply needed updating to be ADA compliant.
Camillo also emphasized that the town could not fund renovations for all of its public schools at the same time, but could prioritize specific schools as needed.
“You can’t fund everything at once and still have your AAA credit rating, and low taxes, and sense of order and balance, and the affordability for everybody to live here – not just people that are wealthy, but everybody. That all factors into it,” he said. “So you don’t just say, ‘We’re going to fund four schools at one time.’ You prioritize it.”
A local approach to affordable housing
Of late, 8-30g – a state law which allows developers to override local zoning laws for qualifying affordable housing projects – has also become a key issue for Greenwich officials
With about 5.7 percent of Greenwich’s housing stock designated as affordable, Erickson said the town has done an “okay job” complying with the state’s goal of 10 percent affordability. But as developer interest in Greenwich grows, she said, she understands resident concerns about a potential influx of large housing projects.
“I think some developers are using that law to build larger than they would otherwise build, perhaps,” Erickson said. “And there’s a lot of concern, and I think the concerns are valid. What does this do for our infrastructure? How does this impact our sewer system? What about the traffic?”
She touched on some policy-based changes the town has made, including amending zoning regulations to lessen restrictions on accessory dwelling units, but said that if Greenwich wants to meet the 10 percent marker — allowing the town to pause the 8-30g workaround — the first step is acknowledging the importance of providing diverse housing options near transit.
“We have multifamilies, we have apartment buildings, we have four train stations in town,” she said. “We need to recognize that as an opportunity.”
But Camillo pointed to another solution – renovating town-owned housing that currently fails to qualify for affordability under state rules.
According to Camillo, some housing complexes in town are technically affordable based on state regulations, but don’t count towards Greenwich’s affordability goals because the town has not invested $25,000 a unit in renovations since 1991 as required.
He said the town is currently renovating Armstrong Court, 144 units of townhouses built in 1951, and is also looking to renovate McKinney Terrace and Quarry Knoll.
“All of those will be counted,” Camillo said. “So we’re looking at, in the next three to five years, getting towards seven percent just on that alone.”
Camillo said Greenwich’s affordable housing plan has served as a strong example to other municipalities, and shown state legislators that the best solutions are crafted at the local level.
Incumbent vs ‘underdog’
Asked why he decided to run for first selectman for a third time, Camillo said he loves the job and wants to protect the town from state control.
“I love my hometown,” Camillo said. “There’s a lot to protect it from, [like] mandates coming from Hartford.”
As a member of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities Board of Directors, Camillo said he has constantly advocated for the rights of municipalities to create their own policies and trailblaze their own success as Greenwich has.
“It’s a destination. It’s always been well run,” Camillo said of Greenwich. “People are very welcoming here. They’re very civic-minded.”
Camillo also told CT Examiner that several projects he has spearheaded are currently underway, and he’d like the opportunity to see them through. For instance, he said, the town has been considering a rebuild of the former-Eastern Greenwich Civic Center for at least 35 years. Under his leadership, he said the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation, Inc. funded construction, and the center should be complete next year.
Erickson told CT Examiner that she is running because Greenwich needs a “reset.” Rather than focusing on national politics, she said the town needs to hone in on the issues that residents care about.
As a former Representative Town Meeting member, school board member and commercial banker by trade, Erickson said she is not drawn to local politics, but to the actual issues and potential solutions.
“I am not as well known as Fred, probably, in town. Obviously, I’m calling myself the underdog,” she said. “But I’m not looking at the race that way because I think there’s a lot of issues to talk about, and I think there’s a lot of residents who really want to talk about those issues.”