By Don Stacom
January 4, 2016
NEW BRITAIN — After Mayor Erin Stewart racked up a devastatingly powerful victory in the November election, prominent members of both political parties have been privately speculating on the same question: What’s her next move?
Republicans in the state are talking about Stewart as a possible candidate for governor in 2018, while Democrats at the Capitol wonder if she might take a run at U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty’s seat this fall.
“So many people want to talk about what I’m going to do. I tell them I don’t have a crystal ball, but I love the work I do here. The job’s not done here,” Stewart says.
Rumors about her seeking higher office are hardly surprising given Stewart’s uncommon political resume: She’s a popular young Republican in a heavily Democratic city, and in a short career has compiled plenty of success.
In her first term, she alienated some hard-right Republicans by appearing alongside President Obama and publicly praising Gov. Dannel P. Malloy for helping her city. She consistently presents herself as a fiscal conservative with a moderate-to-liberal stance on social issues, staying free of the tea party label that sells poorly with most Connecticut voters.
Even her detractors concede her choice to publicly shun partisan vitriol has paid off.
In November, she not only won re-election by a 2-to-1 landslide, but brought along the first GOP super-majority on the council in 40 years. Astonishingly, she did it with the endorsement of the city’s three biggest unions despite being up against a Democratic challenger with deeply established credentials as a pro-labor activist.
“As a candidate for statewide office or for Congress, her political success in a city like New Britain would have value to the Republican Party,” says Donald DeFronzo, a former mayor and state senator who is among the most respected party elders among New Britain Democrats.
“She’s done an awfully good job where she is, and she’s very popular in New Britain. She’s very comfortable in the executive role,” says Republican state Rep. Gail Lavielle of Wilton, who says Stewart’s name periodically comes up when GOP lawmakers informally talk of potential gubernatorial candidates for 2018.
For now, Stewart, 28, flatly dismisses one rumor: She won’t be challenging Esty, a Democrat, in the 5th Congressional District in November.
“No, there won’t be any ‘Ms. Stewart goes to Washington’ this year,” says Stewart, who acknowledges she got pressure from a few Republican town chairmen to run.
“When I ran for re-election, I felt 110 percent passionate – I was all in,” she says. “I don’t have the fire in my belly for something else. Unless I do, I’ll stay put. I’m not even 30 yet.”
When asked about the governor’s race of 2018, she said “I wouldn’t rule it out. But I like this job. We’ve made a lot of progress in New Britain, but there’s still a lot to do here.”
Stewart set off some of the rumors herself with a comment during her inaugural in November, when she cheered the election results that gave the GOP a dominating 12-3 edge on the council.
“There hasn’t been a Republican super-majority on the common council since the days of Mayor Thomas Meskill – or should I say, Governor Meskill,” she told the audience with a theatrical wink.
She is the first woman in New Britain to be elected twice as its top official. Her 2013 victory was even more historic; at 26 she became the youngest mayor in city history by ousting incumbent Democrat Tim O’Brien.
Some Democrats privately acknowledge they underestimated her in both races.
Stewart had held just one elective office — on the school board — before voters first chose her to run the city. She’d been a legislative aide at the Capitol when she got on the school board in 2011, and was just two years out of college — and six years out of New Britain High School — at the time.
Nevertheless, she was already immensely familiar with local politics. Her father, Timothy, served four terms as mayor, and she was active in the Republican Town Committee for years. She credits her father for many of her political instincts and for developing her sense of public service. Yet she has governed in a very different style, pointedly avoiding the caustic attacks on political opponents and the combativeness with local labor leaders that marked his administration.
Instead, she spent her first term going out of her way to publicly share credit with council Democrats on any project that had bipartisan support. She invited Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman to share center stage at groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies for Costco, and stood alongside Malloy when he showed up in New Britain to tout the success of CTfastrak.
Stewart knows poverty-ridden New Britain needs the goodwill of state government to maintain the massive flow of economic aid. During her administration, the city received state grants for Costco and a downtown revitalization project, and this month she is looking to land funding for an artistic redesign of the visually unappealing Route 72 overpass.
“I know where my bread is buttered,” Stewart says, adding that New Britain has a unique opportunity to rebuild itself — with state help.
“The city is ripe for development right now. The old police station will be down by March, we’ll have developers for that property at the table by early spring. That project is a catalyst, it will make the future of downtown. The Beehive Bridge needs to be done now, too.”
Stewart reaped a benefit of bipartisan good will soon after the Rock Cats stunned her with their surprise announcement that they’d leave New Britain for Hartford.
Stewart and her staff were scrambling to line up another professional baseball team for New Britain Stadium when then-Mayor Bill Finch of Bridgeport, a Democrat, suggested the Atlantic League. His city hosts the Atlantic’s Bluefish franchise, and Finch was instrumental in connecting Stewart with league founder Frank Boulton. This fall, signing the Atlantic’s new Bees team to a contract in New Britain was one of Stewart’s best moments in office, she says.
“Bill Finch is a standup guy,” she says. “There are hard-right people who don’t like me because I’m too liberal, but I don’t care for that. It’s not if someone is too liberal or too conservative, it’s if their heart is in the right place.”
Still, Stewart isn’t afraid to challenge the other party when she sees fit. Her op-ed in The Courant last month warning about the risk of state budget cuts hurting cities drew Sen. Terry Gerratana, D-New Britain, to write a rebuttal accusing Stewart of “political posturing.”
Stewart hasn’t backed down, saying the state government hasn’t made the structural spending changes necessary to get finances in order.
“When I came in in my first term, we were $30 million in the hole. We admitted we had a problem, we did what we had to do, now we have a surplus. Are we out of the woods? No – our bonded debt is outrageous. But are we in a good place? Yes,” she says.
“What I’m saying is the state has a problem – fix it,” she says.
DeFronzo is taking a wait-and-see approach to her work on the city budget, saying much of the debt restructuring she did merely pushed costs off into the future. He said that’s part of why he thinks it would be premature for her to seek higher office now.
“It’s a little early — this is a mayor who has had one term so far. She needs time to build a resume. There is this term and another before the governor’s race or the congressional race in 2018,” he said.
Veteran politician Rep. Whit Betts, R-Bristol, sees Stewart’s future as strong.
“She has enormous interpersonal and communications skills, she has some very special leadership abilities, she works well with both parties and I think she has better fiscal instincts than many people realize,” Betts says. “She has a lot of people very excited about her potential later in her career.
“But this is a process. If people push her too fast, that does a disservice to everyone. Success can be a difficult thing to manage,” Betts says. “My question to her would be, ‘What do you like to do?” not what would I like her to do. The more you go up the ladder, the more complicated it gets. You want to be seasoned and well-prepared.”
This story originally appeared in the Hartford Courant.