Richard Messina / Hartford Courant
Richard Messina / Hartford Courant

Erin Stewart Ousts New Britain Mayor Tim O’Brien


NEW BRITAIN — Republican Erin Stewart swept to victory in the mayoral race Tuesday, signaling big changes ahead for city government after two years under the direction of Democrat Tim O’Brien.

Stewart’s victory likely means a return to split government. Stewart, a fiscal conservative, will be working with what appears likely to be a Democratic council, which her party has criticized as too liberal and free-spending.

“This was about people putting politics aside,” Stewart, 26, told about 200 cheering supporters at the Whinstone Tavern.

“We’re going to open city hall’s doors and let people know they’re welcome in city hall,” said Stewart, who during the campaign frequently criticized O’Brien’s administration as arrogant, secretive and rampant with cronyism.

“This is a new beginning for New Britain,” proclaimed Nicholas Mercier, a Republican who won a seat on the school board.

Democrats had counted on a big turnout in traditionally Democratic voting districts, but by 8:30 p.m. the mood at their gathering at the Pulaski Club had turned grim.

“The voters wanted a change — they were in an anti-incumbent mood,” said Democratic Town Chairman John McNamara, who nevertheless maintained that most New Britain people support O’Brien’s policies.

Standing alongside her father, former Mayor Timothy Stewart, Erin Stewart got applause from the crowd at the GOP celebration when she announced she’d have at least four Republican council members. By the end of the night, that number was up to a solid five, with the possibility of more.

The GOP started the evening with just two seats on the council, and at 2 a.m. elections officials still didn’t have the outcome in Ward 5. Theoretically, GOP official Peter Steele said, Republicans could take as many as seven of the 15 council seats.

The campaign was a bruising one, and had been building since O’Brien took office two years ago.

Right-wing bloggers in the 2011 campaign painted O’Brien as irresponsible and free-spending, and warned that he was sure to raise taxes. Instead, he held the tax rate stable in 2012 — and the bloggers’ rhetoric against him escalated. O’Brien imposed a series of new fees, however, including a landlord-licensing charge that infuriated dozens of rental property owners. Hundreds of people protested at city hall.

This year, O’Brien campaigned on a theme that the city is on the rise after years of poor leadership under Stewart’s father.

But Erin Stewart argued that O’Brien has damaged the city with reckless spending and excessive borrowing. She accused his administration of secrecy and arrogance, and said residents should pay attention to their car taxes — which rose during the revaluation. Stewart pledged that if elected, she would run a more transparent administration and resume the monthly office hours for the public that O’Brien had discontinued.

Official results show that in the race for citywide council seats, Democratic incumbents Suzanne Bielinski, Eva Magnuszewski, David DeFronzo and Michael Trueworthy were all on track for re-election. But Democratic incumbent Rha-Sheen Brown lost to Republican challenger Danny Salerno. Also, there is expected to be a recount in the race between Trueworthy, who got 3,926 votes, and Republican Celeste Roche, who trailed very closely with 3,911.

More significantly, the outcome of the Ward 5 race was still unclear when elections officials went home at 2 a.m.

At stake is control of the council: If Democrats can retain 10 seats, they’d be able to block most of Stewart’s initiatives. If Republicans win at least six seats, they could keep Democrats from overriding her veto.

“I’m hoping we can finally come together as 15 people and a mayor working to better this city,” said Republican Alderman Jamie Giantonio.

Ward 1 Republican incumbents Willie Pabon and Giantonio won easily, as did Ward 2 Democratic incumbents Adam Platosz and Tonilynn Collins along with Ward 3 Democratic incumbents Shirley Black and Emmanuel Sanchez.

In Ward 4, Republicans Don Naples and Robert Smedley beat Democratic incumbent Tobias Freeman and Democratic Adrian Baron.

As of midnight, both parties said a new election for Ward 5 is possible. The registrars said a decision will be up to the secretary of the state.

According to registrars, 17 ballots that were handed out in Ward 5 were for the wrong ward. Those 17 voters missed the opportunity to vote for Ward 5 candidates, which may be enough to trigger a special election this winter because the results were so close, political leaders said.

Republican challenger Lou Salvio was trailing Democratic incumbent Roy Centeno by just four votes, 954 to 958. Democratic incumbent Carlo Carlozzi was ahead of both with 1,036, and Republican Iwona Rutkowski was trailing with 940.

The margin between Salvio and Centeno is close enough to trigger a recount. It’s unclear, though, whether the secretary of the state will require a new election – or perhaps a runoff between Centeno and Salvio – because those 17 discarded votes would have been sufficient to change the outcome. Elections officials plan to contact the state today for guidance.

In the school board race, President Sharon Beloin-Saavedra and her Democratic running mates Judy Greco and Daisy Sanchez won along with Republicans Nicholas Mercier and GOP Town Chairman Dan Davis.

In a closely watched race for city clerk, former GOP council member Mark Bernacki won widely over Democrat Larry Hermanowski, who is leaving his council post in Ward 4. Republican Cheryl Blogoslawski beat Democrat Greg Gerratana for tax collector, and Democratic Treasurer Teresa Sapieha-Yanchak held off a challenge by Republican Mark De Grandis.

This article originally appeared in the Hartford Courant.