GOP Mayor of New Britain, Ct., Battles Fiscal Catastrophe

Monday, 21 Apr 2014 11:17 AM

By John Gizzi

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New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart spelled out to Newsmax her plan for the rescue and renaissance of the beleaguered municipality, as Connecticut's sixth-largest city is gripped by a $19 million deficit for fiscal 2014 and is facing a $33 million deficit for next year.

"With bonded debt we're carrying, we've in effect maxed out our credit cards and everything is on the table except public health," said the 26-year-old Republican, thought to be the nation's youngest big-city mayor.

When Stewart, then a member of the board of education, unseated New Britain's Democratic Mayor Tim O'Brien for the two-year term in November, Connecticut GOP Chairman Jerry Labriola Jr. proclaimed: "A star is born!"

Her victory was all the more impressive considering that New Britain, population 73,153, has only 3,377 Republicans out of 34,000 registered voters.

The daughter of four-term Republican Mayor Timothy Stewart, Erin Stewart is a self-styled "fiscal conservative and social liberal" in the mold of such 1990s Republican mayors as Rudy Giuliani of New York and Richard Riordan of Los Angeles.

At her office in City Hall, Stewart explained that she planned to eliminate 28 full-time city government positions, and instructed city department heads to "cut their own budgets and to closely monitor unnecessary overtime. And I'm closely monitoring requests for anything and denying and denying. Anything that could add to public debt is going to be scrutinized."

Like Wisconsin GOP Gov. Scott Walker, Stewart hopes to achieve further savings through the attrition of public jobs as incumbents retire.

Emphasizing that she "never promised as a candidate not to raise taxes if we absolutely had to," the Republican mayor said her fiscal rescue package will also include a tax increase that works out to roughly $600 per person.

"But that could have been as high as $2,700 per person if we didn't take the measures we did to roll back spending," Stewart said.

"We are at this point because for 15 years, mayors of both parties refused to make cuts, renegotiate contracts with public-sector unions, and take the steps necessary to get our fiscal house in order," she said. "And yes, I include my father in that category. He's going to be mad when he reads this, but go ahead and print that."

Contrasting her style with those of her predecessors, Stewart recalled how she met with local leaders of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union.

"I listened, got a list of their suggestions for cuts, and appealed to them for help in explaining the situation to their membership," Stewart said.

In selling her "tough love" program to the City Council, the mayor said that "after beating each other up in council meetings, we would sit and relax in my conference room. I got to know the members more and learned things, such as one councilman losing his wife to cancer and having a son who was an accordion player. They learned more about me, that I was not just my father's daughter. It doesn't have to turn into a situation such as the U.S. Congress."

The new mayor hopes to privatize such public services as maintenance of the city golf course and cemetery. In addition, Stewart said, she would like to see competitive bidding for city custodial services.

"And we're starting to revitalize our downtown by capitalizing on the arts," she added. "The New Britain Museum of Art, the Hole in the Wall Theatre, among others, are starting to attract supporters. And the work of the Polish Business Association in our Little Poland community has gained national recognition."

Although she attended the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington throughout college, Stewart returned to her self-characterization as "fiscally conservative and socially liberal."

Recalling her canvassing of homes with single women, Stewart said, "They asked so often where I stood on abortion and same-sex marriage, you would think I was running for president. I said I supported both, but also said a mayor has nothing to do with either issue."

There is particular attention on Stewart from state and national Republicans because GOP women in the Nutmeg State were winning major offices years before their counterparts in other states.

Republican Claire Booth Luce, for example, became Connecticut's first female U.S. representative in 1942, and Republican Ann Uccello was elected mayor of the state capital, Hartford, in 1967.

As for how far she can go with an agenda of privatization or revitalization, Stewart fully realizes that will depend on whether she can get New Britain out of debt and into the black. As for how long that will take, she told Newsmax without hesitation: "At least four more years. So, that means electing me a few more times."

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.


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