Big-time frustrations lead small-town pols to join the race for governor

Tom Marsh oversees a workforce of 20, not counting teachers, and a budget of a little more than $12 million as first selectman of Chester, population 3,842.

He is looking to move up, take on a workforce of 55,000, a budget of $18.6 billion and a constituency of 3.5 million. Marsh wants to be your governor.

“It’s tilting at windmills, I understand,” Marsh said.

He is one of three first selectmen and three mayors running for governor on a common theme: We deliver services, always paying attention to costs.

Why can’t the state of Connecticut?

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Newington Mayor Jeffrey Wright and WFSB reporter Susan Raff prepare for ‘Face the State’ taping (Mark Pazniokas)

“It’s so frustrating,” said Mary Glassman, the first selectwoman of Simsbury. “That’s why there are so many mayors and first selectmen in the race.”

Most, at one point or another, give off the mad-as-hell, not-gonna-take-it-any-more vibe. They are not fans of state government, as currently practiced by a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature.

Marsh is a Republican, Glassman a Democrat. There’s also Rudy Marconi, the Democratic first selectman of Ridgefield. Their three towns have a combined population of 51,546.

The mayors are Republican Jeffrey Wright of Newington, a Hartford suburb of 29,000 overseen by a town manager; Republican Mark Boughton of Danbury, a city of about 80,000; and Democrat Michael Jarjura of Waterbury, a city of 107,000.

The six municipal officials barely have registered in early polling, their support not rising above the margin of error in the Quinnipiac poll, though a former mayor, Dannel P. Malloy of Stamford, is a serious contender for the Democratic nomination.

But they say they have altered the debate, forcing a discussion of some unpopular ideas.

Marconi was the first to push the idea of gateway tolls on interstates at the state borders, a new source of revenue that the frontrunners probably would like to avoid.

Tolls are opposed in the latest Quinnipiac University poll, 56 percent to 40 percent.

“But we need the revenues,” Marconi said told AFL-CIO delegates in Hartford last week.

Marconi raises tolls at every candidate forum, educating audiences about new technology that can collect them without traffic-clogging toll plazas, like the one on I-95 in Stratford that was the scene of a fiery crash that helped speed their removal.

“If you are going from Enfield to Stonington, you don’t pay. If you are going from Stamford to Mystic, you don’t pay,” Marconi said last week. “But if you leave and come back in, you pay.”

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Chester First Selectman Tom Marsh: ‘Tilting at windmills’ (Mark Pazniokas)

They are not always the most polished of candidates.

Marconi lost track of time during his closing remarks at the AFL-CIO forum, where a timekeeper cut off candidates who went too long. He left his audience with this puzzling, final line: “You know, my wife is a wonderful person. My time is up.”

His audience paused, then broke into laughter and applause. Marconi smiled. Later, he said of his unfinished anecdote, “It’s a good story.”

It’s never entirely clear what candidates with low name-recognition hope to get out of their campaigns. Do they think they will catch on, overcoming the front-runners?

“I believe I can make the right decisions to lead Connecticut’s comeback,” Wright said Sunday on WFSB-TV, Channel 3’s “Face the State.”

His appearance may be his swan song.

Wright, a certified financial planner, acknowledged after the taping that he has been urged to drop out and shift to the race for treasurer. Stay tuned.

Glassman actually has won a statewide primary.

In 2006, when Malloy won the Democratic convention’s endorsement for governor, she was his choice of a running mate. She won a primary for lieutenant governor, while Malloy narrowly lost to New Haven Mayor John DeStefano.

But she still is unknown to 83 percent of voters in the latest Quinnipiac poll.

For Boughton, his campaign has been an opportunity to present himself to a statewide audience as a capable mayor, not merely a politician known for his controversial clashes with illegal immigrants.

He was the only Republican to speak to the AFL-CIO delegates in Hartford last week, offering himself as a can-do chief executive.

“Danbury works, because we all work together,” said Boughton, who says his city is of the safest in Connecticut, with low unemployment and low taxes.

He said one of his role models is Fiorello LaGuardia, the legendary Republican mayor of New York.

“LaGuardia used to say there is no Republican way to clean the streets, and there is no Democratic way to clean the streets. They are either clean, or they are not,” Boughton told the labor delegates. “And folks, I’m here to tell you this one thing, there is no Republican way to run the state and there is no Democratic way to run the state. You either run it efficiently and effectively, or you don’t.”

Boughton and Wright are careful not to criticize Gov. M. Jodi Rell directly. Glassman and Marconi are not as hesitant.

Marconi contrasted his successful efforts to keep a major pharmaceutical company in Ridgefield, once he heard they were considering expanding out of state, with the state’s rocky relationship with United Technologies Corp.

“You don’t wait for the company to say, ‘We’re moving,’ ” Marconi said. “UTC should have been told for years, ‘What can we do for you? What do you need? How much more can we do for you?’ “

“We need a governor who is going to lead, not react,” he said.

At a forum last week organized by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, Boughton, Glassman, Jarjura, Marconi and Marsh sounded less like competitors and more like allies in a common fight to change state policy.

“We’ve destroyed our core cities, and we have a patchwork quilt of cities and towns going their own way. That’s why you heard such harmony among all the panelists there,” Glassman said. “It’s not a secret. We know what needs to be fixed. We just haven’t had a governor to fix it.”

All of the municipal officials say the nature of their jobs keeps them closer to constituents. Budget referendums force them to constantly tinker, balancing services against taxes.

“We’re showing that the only form of government that works is the local government. Why is that? Couple of reasons. We have creative solutions. We take bold action. And we pay as we go,” Glassman said. “We meet our pension obligations. We keep our bonding under control. We have reserves in our piggy bank. And when we run out of money, we find creative ways to save money.”

East Hartford Mayor Melody Currey, who presided over the CCM forum at the State Capitol, said she guesses that the campaigning is therapeutic for some of the candidates.

“I think being a small town first selectman, dealing with the issues on a regular basis and making the tough decisions, there is frustration not seeing the decisions made on [the state] level and thinking, ‘You know what? If I was in charge there, I could get them to make the decisions,’ ” Currey said.

Marsh did not disagree with Currey.

“I think at a very base level there is a belief that municipal government should not be lumped in with state government in its ineptitude and dysfunction,” Marsh said.

He does not excuse his own party, noting that Rell has no working relationship with the Republican minority in the legislature.

“I’m amazed, from our side, that the Republican executive cannot get along with the Republican legislators,” Marsh said. “That’s amazing.”

Muncipal officials watch the bickering with a sense of helplessness, he said.

“It all rolls down hill,” Marsh said. “We’re the tail on the dog here.”

Marsh said he resented listening to legislators talk about a need to entice municipal officials to experiment with regionalization. He sees no one in Hartford with any business advising municipalities.

Marsh said he gave running some thought when Rell announced she would not seek another term.

“The first thought was, ‘I’m doing a lot of complaining. Why not give it a shot and get on the podium and say your piece?’ ” Marsh said.

The final push came from his wife.

Marsh said his wife grew tired of him railing about the inefficiencies of state government and the political gridlock at the State Capitol.

“Either go talk where it matters,” she told him, “or stop talking to me.”