For a rough-and-tumble political town, the New Britain mayoral election this year seems much less raucous than usual. That may bode well for incumbent Democrat Tim O'Brien.
Mr. O'Brien, 45, is seeking a second term. He is opposed by Republican Erin Stewart, 26, a member of the board of education. Ms. Stewart is a serious and energetic candidate who has brought young people into the process, always a good thing. Mr. O'Brien, however, has initiated or encouraged a remarkable array of sound policy measures, more than enough to merit re-election. We endorse Mr. O'Brien.
Mr. O'Brien served as a city alderman for five years and a state legislator for nine, and that experience shows. His priorities start, as they should, with economic development. New Britain, long known around the world for its hardware products, lost thousands of manufacturing jobs over the years as factories closed or moved. But Mr. O'Brien understood that manufacturing never completely left; there are still scores of mostly small shops and factories in town. By funding job training and school-to-work programs, and seeking new manufacturers, he hopes to rebuild this sector so that it can provide more high-wage jobs and attendant economic activity.
So far, so good. There's an aerospace parts factory under construction that is expected to provide more than 100 jobs, and more expansion in the pipeline. He is also focused on using the new CTfastrak Hartford-to-New Britain busway as a tool for downtown development.
Why Mr. O'Brien?
In education, Mr. O'Brien took the bold and controversial step of bonding a little more than $9 million for school textbooks and classroom equipment. Though he was criticized for this, some schools were using 25-year-old books and it would have taken years to catch up if he had to rely on annual increases in the school budget.
Mr. O'Brien's most controversial measure involved a major upgrade to the city's anti-blight program that would be financed with licensure fees paid by landlords. This brought angry protests from many landlords, some of whom have filed suit against the city. But again, there were a lot of subpar housing units in the city. This program is still being set up, as is another quality-of-life initiative to charge for excessive non-emergency 911 calls — for such things as repeat complaints about loud noise.
In addition, Mr. O'Brien is reorganizing city government, improving neighborhood parks, paving roads and rebuilding sidewalks. Indeed, a few have complained that he is spread too thin.
Other complaints about the mayor include such things as not communicating enough, not being transparent enough, having a strained relationship with the press at times.
He is learning to make the transition from legislator to executive, and has earned the right to keep at it.
Why Not Ms. Stewart?
Erin Stewart is the daughter of former Mayor Tim Stewart, so she knows her way around New Britain politics. She's served on boards and commissions since being appointed to the youth and families services board a decade ago, at age 16.
She has a degree in public administration from Central Connecticut State University and works as a legislative aide at the Capitol.
She attacks some of Mr. O'Brien's agenda, saying, for example, that his reorganization of city government is flawed. Her own agenda tends toward generalities — bringing people together, bringing trust back to city hall, highlighting the good about New Britain. Asked about economic development, her first response was to publicize job openings. That's a good step, to be sure, but it doesn't have the depth or vision of Mr. O'Brien's campaign to increase manufacturing.
Some have portrayed Ms. Stewart as the "kinder, gentler Stewart," a stalking horse for her father, the four-term mayor. That is unfair. She is her own person; she has the ability to run the city if elected, and may well be a star of the future if she stays with it.
But this year, we think Mr. O'Brien is the better choice.