NEW BRITAIN – Three weeks after Election Day New Britain Republican Mayor Erin Stewart finds herself in a familiar place: getting ready for the next two years as mayor.
The 36-year-old city native won her sixth two-year term for mayor on Nov. 7, defeating Democrat Chris Anderson by more than 1,000 votes. In this city, where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by about 4-1, Stewart told CT Examiner in an in depth interview in her City Hall offices Monday that she believes it’s her message and her family’s roots in New Britain that have played a large role in her winning election after election.
Asked why she believes she won another term, Stewart said: “It’s because our message is what resonates with the people here. And, our message is better than theirs. And, you know, I am also successful here because of the community connections that my family has here. I can’t hide from that.”
Stewart is a fourth generation New Britain resident and she followed in the footsteps of her father, Timothy, who served four terms as mayor.
Stewart said she’s not only proud of being a lifelong city resident and a graduate of the city’s public schools, but noted that many families – like hers – have a long history in the city. That, in the end, played a part in putting her in the mayor’s seat for a sixth term.
“My family has a history with a lot of the families that are still deeply rooted in New Britain and a lot of those people are still here,” Stewart said. “Their family members are still here; they still own property here; their cousins are still living here. That makes a big difference.”
Since 2021, Stewart has enjoyed a 12-3 Republican majority on the council; that changed on Election Day, as many voters split their ticket – voting for Stewart at the top of the ticket and Democrats for council and other posts, giving Democrats an 8-7 edge for the next two years.
Working in a collaborative way with the Democratic majority is priority number one, she said.
Stewart said she wants to build “relationships with the council” to ensure “that this new structure of government succeeds.” Stewart said continued economic growth and a strong education system are also vital, but said, “First and foremost, I think we really have to work on and make sure that this new minority party representative government is doing the things that it’s supposed to be doing and working in the way that we want it to and for all that comes with taking time to relationship build.”
That, Stewart said, means not only having conversations about policy with her Republican council members, but also with Democrat Francisco Santiago, the new president pro tempore, and John McNamara, the new Democratic majority leader on the council.
Despite a contentious and often-heated mayoral race between McNamara in 2015, Stewart says she’s optimistic that she can have that cordial and productive relationship on policy issues with both Santiago and McNamara.
Stewart, who was sworn in to her sixth term on Nov. 14, said she’s already had several phone calls with both men and, she said, the two sides have already agreed to compromise on an issue related to who can address the council during council meetings.
Currently, only city department heads and or city officials can address the council during a council meeting. The Democrats had wanted to allow anyone to come up to address the council in the middle of a meeting. But, Stewart said, as a compromise the two sides agreed that any resident would be able to address the council if both Stewart and Santiago, as the council’s presiding officer, agree to it.
“We are off to a good start,” Stewart said.
In her wide-ranging CT Examiner interview, Stewart also touched on policing and public safety, economic development, and education.
Stewart, a big supporter of Matthew Marino when he was one of several applicants to become the city’s new police chief, said she believes he will be a force for good in the department and will move the department forward. Marino, a 37-year-old city native, started as chief on May 1. He has 16 years of experience on the local force.
“I’m confident that the hiring of Chief Marino will continue the progress that we’ve built over the last decade with our Police Department, especially as it comes to community relations,” Stewart said. “Building relationships with our Police Department in the community is the most important thing for us to ensure that our community trusts the work that our police do.”
Stewart said Marino “grew up here and knows the city through and through. Trust is a big thing. All of the details that come along with that; with changing the course of our police work all stems from who you have as chief. Chief Marino understands the needs of the community. He is going to know how to run this department.”
Stewart said the relationship between the police and the community is “in a very, very good spot” although, she said, it can always be improved upon.
Crime she said – from nuisance crimes like motor vehicle thefts to more severe crimes like assaults – are an issue in all urban centers.
Stewart said the state legislature needs to “step up” and “needs to realize that it is their responsibility to look at better ways to allow the justice system to make sure that people are learning from their mistakes.”
As it relates to juvenile crime, Stewart said many young people know that they will be out on the streets very soon after committing crimes.
“I don’t think you should throw every kid in jail,” Stewart said. “But the restorative justice approach needs to be supported. They need to be funded and they need the legislature to take a harder look at the work that service bureaus across the state are doing.”
Economic development, especially downtown economic development, has been a cornerstone of Stewart’s tenure and something she touts every election run. It is an area where the future is bright, she said.
Stewart said that – over the next 18 months – there will be more than 350 units of housing in the city. “That’s going to be a game-changer for Main Street in New Britain. That is going to be feet on the street that can support business growth. Everybody likes to talk about seeing more storefronts open, yes, but that doesn’t happen unless you have people that are going to be there.”
Stewart added that, “You want to change the way people look at downtown New Britain. We are never going to be West Hartford Center, but I’d love to be a spot where people would consider saying ‘Hey, let’s go to downtown New Britain for dinner tonight. I truly think we are going to be there within the next few years.”
Stewart mentioned The Assembly Room, a downtown eatery; and ‘I Know You Know,’ a city speakeasy. “As long as we continue to build on those [establishments] we are going to be a downtown that is exciting and it’s going to be virtually unrecognizable from the downtown in New Britain that I think people have a reputation of.”
From her first years as mayor, Stewart said she has been a proponent of providing more funding and resources for the city’s homeless. She created the ‘Building Hope Together Task Force: New Britain’s Permanent Workplan to End Homelessness’ early in her tenure. And, in 2019 initiated a program called ‘New Britain Recovers.’
Of New Britain Recovers, Stewart said: “It’s a holistic approach to dealing with not just homelessness, but substance abuse and youth and drug and alcohol prevention issues. We have dozens of community partners at the table who support the work that this initiative does. Is it perfect? No. Is there enough money? There is never enough money. The point being there is a whole network of care being done that goes toward helping the homeless that a lot of people do not see because all they see are tenants and the exit ramps [where homeless sometimes congregate].”
As Stewart hopes Marino brings positive change to the Police Department, Stewart said she’s also optimistic that Tony Gasper, the city’s relatively new Schools Superintendent, can make a difference in the city’s schools. The city has had the lowest test scores in the state for several years, something Stewart said she’s hoping Gasper can change.
“I am optimistic that this year we may get out of last place.” Stewart said. “We have a new set of standards for our schools to follow and we also have a brand new reading curriculum aimed at increasing student performance. We are starting to see the results of that with some of our midway test scores.”
Mentors and influencers
Stewart said she takes political advice from several people – including her father and her first chief of staff, John Healey – but said it was former Congresswoman Nancy Johnson who is a mentor; who she looks up to; and who gave her her first taste of politics.
“She was my very first boss in politics,” Stewart said. “She hired me in 2006 when I was a freshman in college.”
Stewart said she talks to the 88-year-old Johnson “all the time; we text all the time. I was just sending her pictures of my baby.”
Stewart said Johnson taught her to be “humble and to never forget the people that helped put you where you are and to never forget the people that you serve.”
The one piece of advice she learned from Johnson was to always send thank you notes.
“Nancy taught me the art of the personal thank you note,” Stewart said. “She had a built-in desk [in her car] and, throughout the week, she would keep a note in her notebook about all the people that did nice things for her throughout the week and she’d write people thank you notes.”