Category Archives: Politics

Mr. Cory Goes To Washington

Dave Stalling is a native Westporter. He served in a Marine Corps Force Recon unit, earned degrees in forestry and journalism, and has worked for several wildlife conservation organizations.

Dave is also the proud father of a young man named Cory. This is Dave’s guest post, on “06880.”

Although he grew up in Westport around the same time I did, I never met Peter Weisman. He had Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, and died at the age of 15. It was 1980 — just a year after I graduated from Staples.

Mary-Lou Weisman bookI learned about Peter nearly 30 years later when another Westport friend, Bill Handley, gave me Intensive Care: A Family Love Story. Written by Peter’s mother Mary-Lou Weisman, it described her family and son’s struggle with Duchenne. (The book was made into a 1985 movie, “A Time to Live.” It earned Liza Minnelli a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Mary-Lou.)

When I read her book in 2009, I had lived in Montana for 23 years. My own son, Cory, had just been diagnosed with Duchenne. He was 9.

I was devastated. I felt a need to talk to Mary-Lou. So out of the blue, I called her.

At first she thought I was a solicitor and said she was busy. I quickly said, “My son was just diagnosed with Duchenne.” After a bit of silence she replied, “For you, I have all the time in the world.”

She has indeed given me a lot of time, and helped me through the tumultuous journey of coming to terms with my son having a fatal disease. Her advice and encouragement inspires hope. A lot has changed since Peter died: New treatments are available; scientists feel they are close to a potential cure, and clinical trials are underway with promising results.

But more awareness, support and money is urgently needed to turn hope into reality.

Cory and I recently traveled from our home in Missoula to Washington, DC. We participated in an advocacy conference organized by Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy, a national nonprofit leading the fight to end Duchenne. Cory met collectively and one-on-one with the entire Montana congressional delegation: Senators Jon Tester and John Walsh, and Congressman Steve Daines.

Cory hangs with Senator Jon Tester of Montana.

Cory hangs with Senator Jon Tester of Montana.

Congressman Daines took Cory onto the House floor, let him cast votes, and introduced him to other representatives. One was Tammy Duckworth of Illinois. She lost her legs while serving as a helicopter pilot in the Iraq War, and uses a wheelchair.

Cory befriended an assistant clerk to the Supreme Court. He took Cory into the courtroom (off limits to tourists). Cory met Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, who is leading Congressional efforts to increase awareness and support for fighting Duchenne. We also had plenty of time for to visit various monuments and museums.

Cory stands proudly at the US Capitol.

Cory stands proudly at the US Capitol.

More importantly, Cory persuaded both Montana senators and our congressman to co-sponsor re-authorization of the Muscular Dystrophy Care Act. It could provide funding and support for further research and development of treatments, therapies and a cure that could help save not only his own life, but those of nearly 350,000 boys around the world who have Duchenne.

The trip was paid for entirely by donations from generous, supportive friends and family members, including numerous people from Westport.

Thanks to all who made this trip possible.  Special thanks to Peter Weisman, whose strength, courage and memories are kept alive by his amazing family. Peter continues to inspire boys like my son Cory to fight Duchenne, while enjoying life to the fullest.

(Last year, Dave’s Staples Class of ’79 donated leftover reunion money to help Cory and other boys with Duchenne. To contribute, click here.)  

Cory at the memorial to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Both used wheelchairs; neither was  bound by them.

Cory Stalling at the memorial to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Both used wheelchairs; neither was bound by them.

If your browser does not take you to this video of Cory’s trip, click here.

 

 

 

Westport’s “Tall Mountain” Towers Over Chinese Music Scene

You may never have heard of Clay Garner. But hundreds of millions of Chinese have. They adore him.

Well, they adore 高山. That’s Clay’s stage name. Pronounced Gaoshan, it means “Tall Mountain” (though he’s hardly Yao Ming).

Clay Garner -- aka "Tall Mountain."

Clay Garner — aka “Tall Mountain.”

Like Justin Bieber here, Clay is a huge pop star in China. Unlike the Canadian heartthrob/thug though, Clay — a lifelong Westporter who graduated last spring from Greens Farms Academy — records and uploads all his own songs and videos.

Unlike Bieber, Clay’s career is totally at the whim of a government halfway around the world.

And of course, Clay does not get into regular alcohol-infused legal difficulties. After captaining GFA’s soccer team for 2 years, he is now a freshman at Stanford University.

Clay walks around Westport unnoticed, but in China his face, voice and guitar are easily recognized. Singing his own songs — a combination of traditional styles, R&B and pop – in both English and Mandarin, he’s all over the Chinese versions of YouTube and Facebook.

He has a gigantic following on Weibo — the Chinese Twitter — and appears regularly on Beijing TV, China Radio International, Youku.com and 56.com. He has been to China 5 times, though one trip was just 48 hours long. (He had to get back to school.)

Not bad for an 18-year-old American who, when he began, could not find the “upload” button on Chinese YouTube.

Clay Garner, on Beijing TV.

Clay Garner, on Beijing TV.

Clay’s unusual path to fame began nearly 5 years ago, when he took his 1st Mandarin class at GFA. (He already spoke Spanish.) He liked the sound of Chinese pop — “sad love songs and ballads,” he says, not unlike the Carpenters’ music — and soon was writing his own tunes.

The next step was recording them, in his grandmother’s attic. He did all the arrangements, production and editing himself. Then came — why not? – uploading them for the enormous Chinese audience.

Clay Garner, at work.

At work.

But the government blocks many sites, so China’s version of the internet is quite different from the rest of the world’s. Clay had to figure it all out on his own.

Three years ago, he had a small group of followers. They left comments saying his Chinese was good, and he should keep going.

One day in 2012, a video received “thousands and thousands of views.” He was — literally — an overnight sensation. He still does not know what caused that song, at that moment, to go viral.

His channel has now been viewed 50 million times. Hundreds of millions may have seen him on CCTV — the country’s major network. “I have no way of knowing,” Clay says.

“It’s the oddest fame I know of. I don’t feel famous, but millions and millions of people know me.”

Clay Garner, aka Gaoshan.

Gaoshan.

With strict government control of websites, and no Chinese iTunes — though piracy is rampant — Clay makes no money from his music. He does it strictly for fun. “It’s my contribution to international relations,” he says.

He thinks it’s important for Chinese people to see an American trying to learn their culture. For years, it’s been the other way around.

Seeing firsthand the power of social media, he’s become interested in using it to promote openness and political movements. While the Chinese government encourages Clay’s work — it’s a validation of their culture — he realizes he could been regarded as their puppet.

Once, in China, he was made to sing “Red Song” — a communist anthem. He vowed never to do that again.

“Chinese entertainers are not taken seriously,” he says. “Someone wrote somewhere that I sing ‘harmless love songs.’ I want to do more than that.”

Clay Garner, on a previous trip to China.

Clay Garner, on a previous trip to China.

At the same time, he knows, officials could “cut me off in a second. All my videos, all my views could be deleted in an instant. I’d have no access to my fans, to the internet, to anything. I’m walking a fine line.”

This summer, Clay hopes to make his 6th trip to China. There’s a new indie scene there, which he’d like to be part of.

Millions of Chinese would love to see 高山 return.

Millions of Americans could not care less.

(Click here for Clay’s English-language website. Click here for an interview with Clay on CCTV, the Chinese national television network.)

ADD AUDIO LINK FROM WEBSITE

Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree…

…at least, not the towering one at Town Hall.

Alert “06880″ reader JP Vellotti has long admired the apple tree at the foot of the old Bedford Elementary School, just above the Myrtle Avenue stone wall.

Town Hall 1

In fact, he picks apples from it every year, and makes a pie.

This year, he may have to go to Stew’s.

Yesterday, JP spotted a fresh new sign on the trunk of the old tree:

Town Hall 2

The notice — posted by the tree warden — says that “this shade tree, the property of the Town of Westport,” will be removed in 10 days, or thereafter.

“Any person or organizations” objecting to the removal must appeal in writing within 10 days. The address — 110 Myrtle Avenue — is the very same building at the top of that handsome lawn.

How do you like them apples?

 

 

 

Video Promises Explosive Postal Service Expose — With A Westport Link

“06880″‘s tagline is “Where Westport meets the world.”

This story takes both the zip code and blog motto literally.

Nicolette Weinbaum is a former Inklings school newspaper editor, and 2012 Staples graduate. Now a Villanova University sophomore and activist, her Nicolette Post website offers insights into culture, politics, trends and entertainment.

In a few days, she’ll post an explosive video she hopes will gain national attention. Today, she offered “06880″ a world premiere. (The link to view it is at the end of this story.)

Nicolette Weinbaum stands near the post office, for her video.

Nicolette Weinbaum stands near the post office, for her video.

The video starts with an overview of the US Postal Service‘s financial woes. But she quickly zeroes in on her local post office — well, the building that served that purpose for over 70 years.

Nicolette’s “eye-opening” finding that “should concern all Americans” includes a look back at the limestone and brick building at 154 Post Road East. Designed as a New Deal project by a former World War I flying ace, the post office cost $35,000 for the land, $108,000 to build.

Nicolette offers 2 very intriguing facts.

One is that although the building was appraised for $3.6 million, it was sold a couple of years ago for just $2.4 million. The purchaser — an Atlanta developer — turned it into the Post 154 restaurant.

The Westport Post Office, near the end of its 70-year run.

The Westport Post Office, near the end of its 70-year run.

Westport is not the only place where a historic post office was sold. (Full disclosure: I’m a talking head in Nicolette’s video. I say the new Playhouse Square location “looks like a military recruiting center, not an 06880 post office.”)

Just a few miles away, Stamford’s  1916 post office on Atlantic Street will soon turn into a twin-building, 21-story residential-retail complex. Greenwich, Hartford, Fairfield, Bridgeport and Norwich have also lost post offices to private investors.

Nicolette says that across the country, historic, taxpayer-funded post offices are being sold to private interests at prices below their appraised values.

USPS logoThe other stunning fact: According to the video, in 2006 Congress mandated that the Postal Service pre-pay retiree health care benefits, at a cost of $55 billion over 10 years. That created a $5.5 billion annual deficit, for an organization that had been in the black.

Nicolette calls the USPS a victim of “toxic Congressional politics.” It is not, she says, truly broken.

Nicolette ends the video with a word about “shocking conflicts of interest that go all the way to the top of the US Senate.” Part of the information comes from investigative reporter Peter Byrne, author of the book Going Postal.

What are those conflicts of interest? You’ll have to wait for part 2 of the video to find out.

Now that may really PO you.

(Click above to see the world premiere of Nicolette’s video.)

CL&P: Trim We Must

Down here in our little corner of Connecticut, we don’t always pay attention to Hartford. But decisions in the state capital can have big effects on us — for better or worse.

CL&P, at work.

CL&P, at work.

Earlier this month, Connecticut Light & Power participated in a public hearing in New Britain. The subject was tree trimming. It’s an important subject, following weather events like hurricanes and snowstorms that caused widespread power outages.

Under the utility company’s “Enhanced Tree Trimming” plan, it would trim or remove trees — including healthy ones — that could fall on their poles or wires. Trees on private property were included, within 8 feet of power lines.

Not many Fairfield County residents trekked up to New Britain. But plenty of citizens throughout the state spoke up. They were not pleased with CL&P’s plan.

Citing environmental and property rights concerns, the speakers vehemently opposed the CL&P plan (and a similar one proposed by United Illuminating).

Speakers (and those sending written comments) noted there was no commitment to plant lower-growing trees to replace healthy ones that had been cut down. Nor was there any plan to grind tree stumps, or remove potential tripping hazards.

Connecticut’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority took note. On Tuesday, the agency asked CL&P to voluntarily curtail its “Enhanced” program, pending a final ruling.

PURA

“We need a timeout to balance competing needs,” said PURA chairman Arthur H. House.

“One — as established by law — is Connecticut’s demonstrated need for more aggressive tree trimming to secure the reliability of vital utility services. The 2nd need … is to avoid unnecessary eradication of trees and instead proceed with selective trimming.”

CL&P said it would “of course comply” with the request to cut back the tree cutting.

On Thursday, though, the utility told PURA it has 65 local tree crews, with 170 employees, currently trimming trees. CL&P is concerned that a suspension of the program may cause  contractors to leave the state, “adversely impacting the Company’s ability to respond to a major weather event.”

Late Friday, PURA allowed CL&P to continue its tree work.

In related news, this weekend marks the 4th anniversary of a windstorm that knocked out power to thousands of Westporters — some for over a week.

One of the many power lines brought down by trees during the March 2010 windstorm.

One of the many power lines brought down by trees during the March 2010 windstorm.

Saturday Vigil

Every Saturday, 87-year-old Estelle Margolis stands vigil on the Post Road bridge. Here she was on February 1:

(Photo/Robert Baldrich)

(Photo/Robert Baldrich)

The other day, she wrote “06880″:

The sign breaks my heart. These “kids” are coming home with no way to deal with normal life. Their “family” is the troops they served with, and many want to go right back. We are not paying attention in this society to what I consider drastic social problems.

The Veterans Administration is overwhelmed by the needs of the returning vets. Not only the physically harmed, but the psychologically damaged. I saw a stat that the Department of Defense is dealing with over 400,000 vets in need, and they cannot handle it. There are many more now.

Where are we putting our money?  “Petty cash” on Karzai’s desk every week?  Making new weapons to kill people?  Over 8,000 vets a year killing themselves, and those are only the ones we know about. Add that to the troops still getting killed in Afghanistan. Tragic!

I don’t feel like I can do enough to make a difference. The message does get out to some motorists passing me on the bridge every Saturday morning. But only between 11 and 11:30 a.m. I can do better, but only in good weather.

Where are the college kids protesting?  Where are the Mothers for Peace? Where are the news stories about these hideous statistics?  Where are the debates in Congress?

I am the mother of every one of those incredibly courageous troops. They never could believe they would die in their 20s. Better believe it!

John Hartwell Has Been Working On The Railroad

John Hartwell knows trains.

A longtime — and satisfied — commuter from Dobbs Ferry on Metro-North‘s Hudson Line, he was chagrined to find, after moving to suburban Boston, dirty trains without platforms, stations or parking.

The New Haven Line does have platforms, stations and (limited) parking. There are some new (lower capacity) (sometimes unheated) rail cars. Metro-North has slipped a notch or three from its better days.

And though Hartwell — who long ago moved from Massachusetts to Westport — is no longer a rail commuter, he plans to do something about the railroad mess.

In 2008 he ran for the State Senate. Transportation was a huge issue. He lost to Toni Boucher, but the next year earned an appointment to the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council. Created by the state legislature, it’s an independent advocacy board for the Metro-North and Shore Line East railroads. When the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line is operational, that will be represented too.

During his 2008 campaign, John Hartwell (left) often met with commuters.

During his 2008 campaign, John Hartwell (left) often met with commuters.

Hartwell — now the council’s vice chair — admits that his major concern at first was the railroad’s economic impact on Fairfield County. But he quickly realized that in addition to maximizing Metro-North’s assets, the railway needed plenty of work — at many levels.

The basic infrastructure — tracks, bridges, catenaries — is 100 years old. An upgrade will cost between $3 billion to $7 billion. But no one — not politicians or taxpayers — wants to pay for it.

Senators Blumenthal and Murphy want to help, Hartwell says. Yet both lack clout. Their very senior predecessors — Chris Dodd and Joe Lieberman — “did virtually nothing.”

The railroad “is vital to the economy of Fairfield County, which is vital to the economy of the state,” Hartwell says. “But we always go begging, hat in hand. Hartford sees Fairfield County as an ATM. They want to get money from us, not give it to us.”

The Westport train station -- one of many important stops on Metro-North.

The Westport train station — one of many important stops on Metro-North.

Metro-North’s management is aging too. Formed 30 years ago from the ashes of Conrail, many of its top managers are retiring. Strong replacements don’t seem ready to take over, Hartwell claims.

“Clearly, Metro-North is failing,” he says. The woes of the past month — a 2-hour stoppage just east of the Westport station, in 2-degree weather; a long delay caused by human error that shut down the entire system — have just put a spotlight on a railroad that has been sliding downhill for a long time.

Trains run slower than in the past. There are fewer seats. “There’s a lot of frustration,” Hartwell notes.

Connecticut Commuter Rail CouncilHe wants the Rail Commuter Council to establish “a much stronger relationship” with the state legislature than now exists. Local representatives Boucher and Gail Lavielle have been “very supportive,” Hartwell says. Many other legislators are far less receptive.

The Council has heard plenty of complaints. But they are always looking for constructive ideas. To voice your opinion directly, email johnhartwell@gmail.com.

State Will Not Reimburse For Home-Raising; Sandy Victims Stunned

The calls went out late Friday afternoon, traditionally the best time to dump bad news: The state of Connecticut will not use federal funds to help homeowners raise their homes in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Those “hazard mitigation grant” funds will apparently go only to municipal projects, like a proposal in Westport to replace the Saugatuck Island bridge.

The calls — made by Westport Fire Chief and emergency management director Andrew Kingsbury and his assistant — caused anger, despair and confusion. Approximately 30 Westport homeowners had been led to expect (by FEMA, at information sessions) that they would receive up to 70% reimbursement for the cost of raising their waterfront structures. Flood insurance does not cover that expense.

Individual homeowners have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to raise homes at Compo Beach...

Individual homeowners have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to raise homes at Compo Beach…

It is not clear who made the decision: FEMA or Connecticut officials. Approximately $55 million in funds are available for the state’s portion of the “hazard mitigation grant” program.

Rick Benson — a residential developer who recently built a 100%-compliant house on Saugatuck Shores, completely renovated another, and helped 8 homeowners prepare the time-consuming, complicated grant applications — estimates the “cheapest” price for raising a home in a flood-prone area is $175,000. Benson’s 8 projects range from $200,000 to $325,000. Another local proposal he heard of would cost $450,000.

“The government told homeowners they had to raise their houses, or they’d face much higher flood insurance rates,” Benson says. “But now they won’t help them out with these very expensive projects of raising them.”

One Saugatuck Shores resident calls FEMA’s projected flood insurance increases “astronomical.” He heard that a $2,500 annual policy could skyrocket to $25,000.

Tony Sousa — a 14-year resident of Saugatuck Island — has already spent $15,000 preparing his application. He’s paid for surveyors, architectural drawings and soil samples. His neighbors have paid similar amounts.

...Old Mill Beach...

…Old Mill Beach…

The 25 to 30 projects here are now in limbo. For his potential customers, Benson has already submitted comprehensive architectural plans and budgets. He advised them to spend this past weekend absorbing the news. Their next step is to decide whether to get the decision reversed, or proceed using all their own funds.

Sousa and his wife Penny are among those facing a very tough decision.

“Do we move? Take all our savings and put it into raising our house? Or do we live with the risk?” he asks. “There are not a lot of great options.”

Benson estimates that 10 to 12 homes on Compo Cove, plus another 20 or so at Compo Beach and on Saugatuck Shores, have already been lifted at homeowners’ full expense. He calls the real estate market on Saugatuck Island “soft,” noting that the only homes that seem to be selling are those already raised.

Homeowners affected by Sandy are not the only ones in FEMA limbo. According to Benson, every Westport house-lifting project proposed in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene — 14 months before Sandy — still remains unfunded.

...and on Compo Cove. (Photos by Betsy P. Kahn)

…and on Compo Cove. (Photos by Betsy P. Kahn)

It’s Heeere! Obamacare Takes Over Westport!

This is not a story about Obamacare. I am resisting the impulse to make jokes like: The Republicans hate it so much, they’re furious the website doesn’t work well enough for people to sign up for it.

No. This is a simple public service message.

This Tuesday (January 28, 5 to 9 p.m., Westport Library McManus Room), personal help is available for enrolling with Access Health CT, Connecticut’s official health insurance marketplace.

Individuals, families and small businesses can ask questions about coverage they need, or want. There’s no obligation — just help navigating a complex subject in our own back yard.

The assistance is one-on-one. And it’s free.

They don’t call it the Affordable Care Act for nothing.

Sorry. I said I wasn’t going to go there…

(For more information on Tuesday’s event, click here.)

Obamacare

Former Virginia Governor Indicted; Yes, There’s A Westport Angle

“06880″ prides itself on our ability to tie nearly any story — anywhere — back to Westport.

Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Including the indictment earlier this week of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen. They’re charged with accepting $165,000 worth of Os­car de la Renta dress­es, a Rolex watch, Louis Vuit­ton shoes, Cape Cod week­ends, golf greens fees and cash from the head of a di­etary sup­ple­ment com­pa­ny that hoped for state aid.

The current issue of The Washingtonian has an exhaustive, 4,000-word story on Todd Schneider. He’s the governor’s former chef who blew the whistle on the fishy doings down in Richmond.

He was once so close to the first family, Maureen asked if he’d go to Washington if McDonnell became vice president.

But he chafed when Maureen sent him text messages as late as 2 a.m., ordering him to fetch “everything from liquor to tampons.” If he didn’t bring back the exact items demanded, she’d “browbeat” him, Schneider said.

“Have you ever gone and bought tampons?” he added. “There’s a million different kinds.”

Schneider also says the McDonnells’ college-age kids removed “cases and cases” of Gatorade, soda and water from the kitchen, plus “half” his pots and pans, drinking glasses with the state seal, and “boxes of unused trash bags.”

Eventually, Schneider got fired. He himself is no prize. The Washingtonian says he was charged with felony embezzlement in 2000; AP says he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge. He had more than $400,000 in state and federal tax liens.

Todd Schneider, when he was executive chef for Governor McDonnell.

Todd Schneider, when he was executive chef for Governor McDonnell.

But he catered for the stars: former governor Tim Kaine, Republican House majority leader Eric Cantor, George W. Bush’s Thanksgiving address, and the Obama presidential campaign.

So how did he end up hired for the governor’s mansion? Whether or not the staff ran a background check on him is in dispute.

The magazine story goes on and on. Bottom line: Schneider was concerned that too much “weird stuff” was going on in his kitchen, with the McDonnells and their political patron Jonnie Williams. He then took cell phone photos of anything that smelled funny.

Former Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell.

Former Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell.

But someone called in an anonymous tip that it was Schneider who was stealing food from the governor’s mansion. The FBI and state police woke him up one morning last year, for questioning.

The chef was fired. Soon, he handed the Virginia attorney general a stack of documents — like a check showing that Williams had paid for the governor’s daughter’s wedding, and photos of “Costco-size hauls of snacks the McDonnell kids had lifted from the mansion.”

More stuff happened to Schneider, most of it bad. The Washingtonian story goes on and on, longer almost than all the documents Edward Snowden leaked to the media.

So what does all this have to do with “06880″?

According to The Washingtonian, Schneider grew up in Westport. And he “got the ‘food bug’ while working for the catering company of his hometown celebrity, Martha Stewart.”

Former Westporter Martha Stewart. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Former Westporter Martha Stewart. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

But — in keeping with this convoluted, contradictory tale — “a Stewart spokeswoman couldn’t confirm that Martha ever employed Schneider.” And his name rings no bells with many longtime Westporters.

Schneider has not been charged with a crime (this time). But his business has gone kaput, and his house went into foreclosure.

Sometime in the future, ex-Governor McDonnell and his wife may follow Martha Stewart to prison.

You can’t make this stuff up.

But it’s all part of “06880 — where Westport meets the world.”

(To read the entire VERY long piece in The Washingtonian, click here.)