Bristol Mayoral Campaign: Plenty of Issues Beyond The Fireworks

Supporters of both sides in the mayoral battle have been in a blistering social media battle for months, often eclipsing the issues in the race between Mayor Ken Cockayne and challenger Ellen Zoppo-Sassu.

An investigator determined that Cockayne circulated private and embarrassing photos of a GOP city council member — who is his cousin — because her husband allowed Zoppo-Sassu on his radio station. Republican and Democratic council members censured Cockayne for sexual harassment and dishonesty in answering their investigator.

Zoppo-Sassu has said little publicly about the city council’s recent censure of Cockayne.

Last week, Cockayne declined to discuss that, referring to his attorney’s statement that denied any wrongdoing. Cockayne wouldn’t directly address the question of how he would work with a council that has twice voted to censure him, but said voters “should make their decision based on what I’ve done in the last four years instead of what they’ve read in the last three weeks.”

The two offer different policies for business development, education funding and other matters. But even though they’re veterans of city government’s inner doings, both candidates have largely campaigned on making Bristol “business-friendly” and similarly popular goals with little specific detail.

At several forums in the past month, Cockayne has hammered away at a theme that the city is thriving under his administration. Zoppo-Sassu countered that municipal government is missing too many opportunities because its leadership doesn’t coordinate services, initiatives and community resources well.

Cockayne, 50, was a self-employed insurance agent when he was elected to the council in 2007. Since then, he has been a surprisingly successful Republican in this heavily Democratic — though conservative — city. His races haven’t been blowouts, however.

He won his first mayoral term in 2013, beating Democrat Chris Wilson 5,675-5,264, a difference of just 421 votes out of nearly 10,900 cost. Two years ago, he barely turned back Zoppo-Sassu with just a 128-vote margin, 6,084-5,956.

Zoppo-Sassu, 49, is the communications director for the Connecticut Pharmacists Association. She has been a popular council candidate, winning four terms in two different stretches and drawing wide praise for her anti-blight work. But she hasn’t gotten further; before the 2015 defeat to Cockayne, she lost a mayoral primary against Art Ward in 2007.

This year, Zoppo-Sassu is campaigning on a theme that Bristol should do more to retain local businesses; Democrats have hammered Cockayne over Ultimate Wireforms’ recent decision to leave the city for Plymouth. Zoppo-Sassu said the public be more involved in making decisions, and promised greater transparency about grants and tax incentives given to new businesses.

She favors a more aggressive look at ways to regionalize services, and promised a coordinated campaign of city agencies, non-profits and regional health organizations to curb the deadly opioid epidemic in Bristol. During a local radio interview, she dismissed Republican warnings that she would raise homeowners’ taxes.

“I won’t. I will, however, raise their property values,” she said. “If you go back and look at your assessment that was done over the last year, you are paying more taxes on less value.”

She rejected Cockayne’s claim that he holds the line on taxes, saying he raises them in non-election years — and ignores the decline in home values.

Zoppo-Sassu said she would establish a council of young people to get involved in government and the parks, social services, energy and public safety fields.

“Traditionally, young people do not have an active voice in government and decisions that affect them,” she said. “Because of this, they have limited exposure or opportunity to affect change in the city that they will someday inherit.”

Cockayne said his economic development policies led to a $66 million increase in the tax base last year and helped the city achieve a AAA bond rating. Local crime is down, new businesses are moving to the once-stagnant Southeast Industrial Park, and the schools have gotten millions of new dollars in their budget while establishing an all-day kindergarten program, he said.

The city’s anti-blight drive has torn down dozens of unsafe homes, garages and sheds, he said, and in the past two years more banks and property owners are complying with orders to clean up rundown buildings.

“They know we’re serious. We’ve literally changed neighborhoods from one end of the city to the other,” Cockayne said.

The city has sold two closed schools for redevelopment as senior housing, and is finishing the conversion of its streetlights to energy-efficient LED lights. When the federal government was going to close the local Army Strong center, Bristol organized a regional effort to fund it locally as a Veteran Strong operation, he said.

The city brought the Bristol Blues baseball team to Muzzy Field during Cockayne’s administration, and he credited that with drawing more than 120,000 spectators in the first three years. The baseball team, combined with more community policing and the anti-blight program, has helped revive the West End, he said.

Taxes didn’t increase this year even though the city gave the schools a significant increase and then had to come up with another $2.4 million to close a surprise gap in last year’s education budget, an error Cockayne blamed on Democratic school board leaders.

Cockayne cited downtown redevelopment as his biggest achievement. Stalled for more than a decade, it is underway with the construction of a new road and the anticipated groundbreaking for a Bristol Hospital lab and medical office center. Cockayne said he is already negotiating with other developers who want to build nearby.

The election is Nov. 7

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