Category Archives: Politics

Trump This Story!

As the Iowa caucuses near — and front-runner/self-described potential Fifth Avenue shooter Donald Trump commands outsized headlines — it’s time for a Westport-connections story.

Everything here is true. I couldn’t make this up — even if I wanted to.

JP Vellotti is a longtime Westporter. About 10 years ago — working as a photojournalist — he was a stage photographer for ABC Studios in New York.

He worked mostly on the Tony Danza morning show. It was filled with B-list guests, but the host was always polite and attentive to his staff and crew.

JP never knew who would be on the show until he arrived. One day, during the height of “The Apprentice,” it was a rare A-lister: Donald Trump.

He was there to promote his show, plus an officially licensed line of board games, towels, etc.

Donald Trump and Tony Danza. (Photo/JP Vellotti)

Donald Trump and Tony Danza. (Photo/JP Vellotti)

In typical The Donald fashion (literally), he brought suits with his own label to plug too. The staff found some mannequins, and rolled them onstage.

Trump was — well, Trump. But it’s what happened afterward that JP never forgot.

As the star was leaving, JP mentioned he’d read his book.

“Did you like it?” Trump asked.

“Yes,” JP replied. “I learned more about negotiating from it than anywhere else.”

Trump — carrying one of his suits from the segment — immediately asked JP what size he wore. “44 regular,” JP replied.

Trump handed it to him to try on. It was awful: baggy, badly cut, with very cheap fabric. But JP thought it was a nice gesture for Trump to give him a suit.

Hah! As JP was taking it off Trump said, “These are $1200 suits. But I’ll give it to you for $200.”

“This is a 46 long. It’s too…” JP protested.

Trump was undeterred. “Do you know anyone who can sew? Your mother? Grandmother? You can bring it to a tailor. I’ll take something off the price.”

Donald Trump bookJP actually started thinking, This is a good deal. But he looked at the pants: They were a 40. He’s a 36.

“The pants are too big,” he said. “Thanks anyway.”

It’s hard to imagine the insanity of haggling with Donald Trump, in the back of a TV studio. He clearly didn’t need the money — or to sell a suit — but JP could tell he was burned at not being able to make the deal.

“Look, I can tell you read my book,” Trump persisted. “Just give me $50 for the suit. You can sell it and make a profit. It’s got my name on it. That’s worth it alone.”

“No thanks,” JP said. “But have a good day.”

As he walked away, Trump moved on to someone else.

Since then, JP has always thought of Donald  Trump as a cheap suit salesman. But he really is a master negotiator. Perhaps, JP says, “if he can’t convince America of his latest deal, he can try somewhere else.

“Like Uruguay.”

 

TEAM Westport Asks Teens To Reflect On Race

It’s often said that Westport students live in a bubble. The outside world seldom intrudes — particularly when that outside world involves racial issues.

TEAM Westport — the town’s multicultural organization — works to engage teenagers in “the real world.” One way they do that is through an annual essay contest.

This year’s premise says:

In the past year a troubling number of highly charged and tragic incidents — from Ferguson to Charleston to Chicago — have prompted public discussions and protests on college campuses about the state of race relations in the US. People disagree on the nature of the problem and on the appropriate way to address divisions in our society.

In 1,000 words or less, entrants are asked to describe how you, personally, make sense of the events that have occurred.

It’s a wide-open topic. It invites thought — and thoughtful, nuanced responses. The contest is open to all students in grades 9 through 12 who attend Staples High School, another school in Westport, or who live in Westport but go to school elsewhere.

A multiracial group marched to protest the Ferguson shooting last year.

A multiracial group marched to protest the Ferguson shooting last year.

Winners will be announced at a ceremony at the Westport Library on April 4 (coincidentally, the 48th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination).

Up to 3 prizes will be awarded. First prize is $1,000; 2nd is $750, 3rd $500. “06880” will highlight the winners.

TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey says, “The focus of this year’s topic is to help extend the perspectives of Westport teens beyond those which would  normally be driven by demographics. This topic has touched our community and others in Fairfield County directly over the past year.”

TEAM-Westport-logo2This is the 3rd TEAM Westport essay contest. Last year’s prompt asked students to reflect on who sat where in their school cafeteria — and how to break down barriers that prevented them from knowing others who were different from themselves.

In the inaugural contest, students reflected on demographic changes in the US — describing the benefits and challenges of the changes for Westport generally, and themselves personally.

This year’s entry deadline is February 26. Applications are available on the TEAM Westport website (www.teamwestport.org). For more information, or to help sponsor the contest (as individuals or organization), email info@teamwestport.org.

Donald Trump Comes To Westport

The Iowa caucus is February 1. The New Hampshire primary is 8 days later.

As 2016 approaches, the presidential campaign will soon begin for real.

I’ve seen a few bumper stickers around Westport already: “Feel the Bern,” Hillary with her right-leaning “H” arrow, Rand Paul and Rubio.

But the award for the 1st yard sign of the 2016 race goes to this one, spotted on Saugatuck Avenue:

Trump sign - Saugatuck Avenue

Michael Moore Invades Westport

Michael Moore is a powerful filmmaker.

How powerful?

After viewing a preview of his latest film — a scathing comparison of America to the rest of the world in areas like education, prisons, the workforce and women’s rights — followed by words from the filmmaker himself, a Westporter working on Wall Street said, “I feel like quitting my job tomorrow, and really doing something with my life.”

He probably won’t carry through with that pledge. But Moore certainly has made his mark.

An invitation-only audience last night at Bowtie Cinemas just over the Norwalk line was told before a screening of “Where To Invade Next“: “You may not agree with everything Michael Moore says. But left, right or center, you should listen to him.”

And listen they did. The film — which opens tomorrow in New York and Los Angeles for a limited, we’re-doing-this-to-qualify-for-the-Oscars run, then will be released nationally in February after the “Star Wars” hype dies down — is bound to stir controversy.

Michael Moore's bus was parked outside Bowtie Cinemas yesterday. The American flag in the background is completely coincidental. (Photo/Susan Iseman)

Michael Moore’s bus was parked outside Bowtie Cinemas yesterday. The American flag in the background is completely coincidental. (Photo/Susan Iseman)

Moore travels around Europe (and Tunisia), interviewing everyone from an Italian couple with insane amounts of government-mandated vacation time and a French chef in charge of serving elegant food to elementary school students, to Norwegian prisoners (who have keys to their private rooms, and access to knives) and Portuguese police officers (who do not arrest anyone for drug possession).

Moore’s point is that many other countries work far better than ours. ( Example: The US and Papua New Guinea are the only 2 in the world without guaranteed maternity leave for new mothers.)

But — and this is a point he made in both the movie, and a Q-and-A with audience members afterward — every idea he presented originated in the US. From the outstanding Finnish education system (built on the American model) and Norway’s penal system (honoring our prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment”) to Iceland’s pioneering role of women in government and business (jump-started by our 1970s-era women’s lib movement), the rest of the world has followed our lead.

We’ve just lagged behind ourselves.

Michael Moore at Vespa restaurant last night.

Michael Moore at Vespa restaurant last night.

A Westporter asked Moore — who has made hard-hitting documentaries like “Fahrenheit 9/11” (about George W. Bush’s war on terror), “Bowling for Columbine” (gun control) and “Roger and Me” (globalization) –“What drives you?”

“I believe we’re better than what we are now,” he said. “We can do better. I love this country. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I think we can figure this out.”

“Where To Invade Next” will undoubtedly create controversy — perhaps more than any other Moore film. His comments to last night’s audience may not be heard nationwide, as theatergoers argue over what he’s included — and left out. But the power of film is enormous.

Mark Shapiro — an executive producer of the film, IMG’s chief content officer and a Westporter — arranged for the screening, and a reception with Moore afterward at Vespa restaurant.

On Sunday night, Shapiro was in Las Vegas — specifically, in the control booth as Steve Harvey completely screwed up the Miss Universe pageant.

Moore’s event, he acknowledged, was a lot more meaningful.

Particularly if that Wall Street guy I talked to follows through on his promise.

 

Taylor McNair: An (Environmental) American In Paris

When 196 nations adopted a groundbreaking climate change accord in France on Saturday, Taylor McNair cheered.

Why not? The Emory University senior has decades of life left, in which to deal with the effects of carbon emissions, rising waters and changing weather.

But the 2012 Staples High School graduate had another reason for elation. He was right there in Paris, as an active participant in the historic conference.

Taylor McNair and a fellow Emory University student, at the Paris climate change conference.

Taylor McNair and a fellow Emory University student, at the Paris climate change conference.

Taylor comes from an environmentally conscious family. His older brother Sanders helped make Wakeman Town Farm a reality. But not until junior year — when Taylor took Mike Aitkenhead’s AP Environmental Studies class — did he get really involved in sustainability and agriculture issues.

Taylor worked at WTF: putting together chicken coops, planting and tending beds. His family signed on to the farm’s CSA (and raised chickens at their Bayberry Lane home). Taylor also volunteered at Earthplace.

He applied to Emory because of its dedication to sustainability — and its business school. Taylor has pursued both interests, as an environmental sciences and business double major.

Paris Climate conference logoLast year, Emory applied for “observer status” at the Paris talks. When they were granted spots for 10 students, the school created a cross-discipline course focused on the upcoming event. Dozens of students applied. Taylor was one of only 20 accepted.

The class spent the fall learning about climate change, preparing for the conference, building websites, writing papers, and figuring out how to bring what they learned back to Emory.

Taylor learned he was one of the 10 school representatives chosen for Paris. Each student prepared an itinerary for the 2-week long event.

As soon as they got there, Taylor tossed his out.

Emory was given 4 special passes to the “Blue Zone” — the area where the nitty-gritty work went on. The group decided to divide the passes up. Two students would use them the 1st week; another 2 the next.

Taylor McNair and fellow Emory students outside Le Bourget hall.

Taylor McNair and fellow Emory students outside Le Bourget hall.

Taylor was chosen for week 1. He spent every day — arriving at 7 a.m., leaving at 9 p.m. — focusing on climate change financing and energy funding.

In Le Bourget — a gigantic converted airport — he observed negotiations. He visited exhibition hall booths. He attended panels and workshops. He networked.

Each day had a different theme: farmers, business, youth.

Taylor took advantage of it all. He went to a discussion for young activists led by Christiana Figueres, the Costa Rican woman who led the conference.

Al Gore gave a “down-to-earth” presentation, from which the media was barred. After his opening statement, the former vice president said he just wanted to hear from the attendees. For nearly two hours, they chatted.

Taylor also sat in sessions with French president François Hollande and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. They provided important insights — and urged the students to action.

Taylor describes being inside the Blue Zone as “lots of random, exciting, cool experiences, surrounded by super-committed, passionate people.”

The Westporter spent his 2nd week with the 30,000 or so people doing things outside of the formal events. There was a hub for bloggers and activists; art events, and exhibits where corporations showed what they’re doing to solve climate issues.

A conference sponsored by the International New York Times featured Secretary of State John Kerry, and Google and Facebook executives, in an intimate setting.

Secretary of State John Kerry (right) and the New York Times' Thomas Friedman address conference attendees.

Secretary of State John Kerry (right) and the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman address conference attendees.

Taylor was impressed and motivated. He’s also realistic.

“No international agreement is perfect,” he says of the final document. “But this is powerful, and as strong as it could be. It’s the 1st-ever universal climate agreement. It won’t save the world from 2-degree change. But it signals a world market shift, and a new way of how we address climate change.”

There were plenty of opinions in Paris. These protesters gathered otuside Notre Dame.

There were plenty of opinions in Paris. These protesters gathered otuside Notre Dame.

Taylor returned to campus on Sunday. The next step is figuring out how to bring specific change to the university.

That’s a tall order. And Taylor still has finals to study for.

With all his classwork — and preparing for Paris — he’s had little time to think about a different kind of future: his own.

“I recognize the role of business. I’d like to be involved in the renewable energy sector,” he says. “It’s the most promising transformation, and it will continue to boom in the US.” He’d also like to work on policy.

When he’s home for winter break, he’ll start interviewing — and narrowing down his options.

With the wind at his back from Paris, he should have many to choose from.

Muslim Immigrant Thanks Westport

Kenan Trebincevic is 34 years old. He lives in Queens, and works as a physical therapist.

In 1993, he was a 12-year-old Muslim refugee. He, his brother and father were exiled from Bosnia, during a war against his people.

In between, he was a Westporter.

This week, Kenan told his story — one that resonates strongly, now that Donald Trump has called for banning all Muslim immigrants to the United States — on Esquire.com.

Kenan Trebincevic (Courtesy/Esquire.com)

Kenan Trebincevic (Courtesy/Esquire.com)

He writes about his parents’ decision to apply for permanent asylum in the US:

“Dad and I will be nobodies, so you boys can become somebodies,” my mother said. We were blessed to be sponsored by the generous churches and synagogues of the Connecticut Interfaith Council.

A Westport Methodist minister shared his home with us for 4 months and helped my parents find jobs. A nearby orthodontist fixed my teeth for free. When my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, a Jewish surgeon operated on her without sending a bill for the operation, chemotherapy, and radiation.

At [Bedford Middle] school, I was unable to speak English. The principal introduced me to the 7th grade class. Miguel, a Spanish Catholic boy, offered me the seat next to him and became my best friend, eventually teaching me about baseball, football, and hockey.

The family moved a few times — to Norwalk, Stratford, then back to Westport at Sasco Creek Village.

Kenan Trebincevic, from his website.

Kenan Trebincevic, from his website.

Kenan earned his masters degree in physical therapy from the University of Hartford in 2004. Today he’s got a thriving practice, specializing in adult and adolescent sports rehabilitation.

He’s also an American citizen.

Kenan’s Esquire essay is titled “I’m Muslim. I Was a Refugee. I’m Proud to Be an American.” Click here to read his full story.

It’s a great one.

(To learn more about Kenan’s immigration and stay in Westport, click here for the book he wrote with Susan Shapiro. Hat tip: Roger Sherman)

Ken Bernhard: Syrian Crisis Is Of “Biblical Proportions”

In the wake of the Paris terror attacks, more than 30 governors have said their states will not accept Syrian refugees.

Connecticut’s Democratic governor, on the other hand, personally welcomed a family diverted from Indianapolis to New Haven.

A former Republican legislator from Westport thinks that’s great.

Ken Bernhard

Ken Bernhard

Ken Bernhard is not just reacting to the news of the day. He’s been concerned with refugees’ plights  since the crisis began several years ago. A noted attorney, he helped found The Syria Fund. That 501(c)(3) provides education, medical supplies, household goods and food to families living in dire, desperate areas underserved by large, mainstream organizations.

Bernhard’s humanitarian efforts began at a typical suburban setting: a cocktail party. A woman who’d studied in Syria told him about the refugee crisis brewing in the Mideast.

Bernhard had taught under a UNESCO program in Jordan. He recalled the “lovely, hospitable, generous people” he’d met, and vowed to help.

The refugees who began fleeing Syria nearly a year ago are primarily middle class, he says. Rich and poor Syrians left a long time ago; store owners and professionals thought they’d be able to “hunker down.” Now they’re leaving their embattled land with only what they can carry. Up to 80,000 are jammed into temporary camps.

Syria Fund logoWestporters have reacted “very generously” to his pleas for help through the Syria Fund, Bernhard says.

The former elected official — he’s been Westport’s 3rd selectman and served 4 terms in the Connecticut General Assembly, including a stint as assistant minority leader — is wary of politicians who “advocate simple solutions to complex situations.”

The US has been actively involved in the Middle East for 70 years, he notes. Our actions — like supporting the Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein (“until we turned against him”) — have helped sow the seeds of the current dangerous problems.

“I don’t think we can turn a blind eye to the humanitarian crisis that’s partly the result of our own actions,” Bernhard says. “We’ve had the advantage of an ocean between here and there. Now we’ve got a choice with these refugees: step up or not.”

He is not naive about the need for security. But, he insists, “the process to get here is so arduous. These are people who have been seeking sanctuary for years. In 2 trips over there, I’ve never seen people hostile to the US.”

He adds, “what are these millions of people fleeing Syria supposed to do? If we don’t help, the problem will migrate. We’ll have to deal with it somewhere else.”

Many current Syrian refugees are middle class, Ken Bernhard says.

Many current Syrian refugees are middle class, Ken Bernhard says.

Bernhard calls the conditions in the migrants’ camps appalling. Families sit idle in the hot (and cold) desert. Children grow up there knowing no other life. “If we don’t educate them, and give them employment and prospects for hope, these are the young men who will turn to ISIS,” he says.

He is proud of what The Syria Fund has accomplished — with help from his fellow Westporters. As long as refugees need aid, he’ll continue raising funds.

“This is America. This is Westport,” Bernhard says. “It’s a mass migration — a crisis of biblical proportions. We’re witnesses to it. We all have an obligation to step up and do something about it.”

(To learn more about The Syria Fund, including how to contribute, click here.)

 

Tommy Greenwald Hangs At The White House

Tommy Greenwald spent Monday practicing his command to the taxi driver: “The White House, please.”

When he actually got in the cab, he added: “And not for the tour.”

He and his wife, Cathy Utz, were headed for the Alexander Hamilton gate on 15th Street. After 3 airport-like security screenings — and an “unglamorous” entrance through a tent area, rather than “strolling through the front door,” as he’d imagined — the Westport couple entered the White House.

Tommy — a longtime Westporter and Staples Class of 1979 grad — is a co-founder of Spotco. The New York agency specializes in Broadway and entertainment advertising. A client is fellow Westport resident Harvey Weinstein.

Tommy Greenwald invitationThe film executive helped arrange “Broadway Day” at the White House. Students from across the country came together to enjoy performances, and learn about acting, singing and dancing. Andrew Lloyd Webber was there. Kristin Chenoweth served as host.

Michelle Obama welcomed everyone to her home. (Her husband was on a business trip, to Turkey.) Among the guests — thanks to Weinstein — were Tommy and Cathy. He got them tickets, because Tommy had created a pro bono video for the event. It airs Thanksgiving night on TLC (Optimum channel 28, 8 p.m.).

Cathy Utz and George Washington.

Cathy Utz and George Washington.

Neither Tommy nor Cathy had been in the White House before. He borrowed a tie from his son Joe. “I hadn’t worn one in 7 years,” Tommy notes. “That was the most stressful part — figuring out what to wear so I wouldn’t get tossed out.”

After being herded into a holding area — filled with things like “Benjamin Harrison’s dinner setting,” Tommy says — the group filed into the East Room. Tommy says it’s “just like any other small performance space, except for all the military people there.”

Three days after the Paris attacks, he and Cathy felt grateful to meet the men and women who protect America.

Michelle Obama - photo Tommy Greenwald

First Lady Michelle Obama enters the East Room. (Photo/Tommy Greenwald)

The First Lady strode in. “She looked fine!” Tommy says.

She gave an introductory speech; then the hour-long concert began. That was followed by a “big nosh cocktail reception.”

It was like any other social event, Tommy says, “except every room was ridiculously gorgeous, with portraits of presidents and first ladies.”

There was nothing saying “White House” that he could steal, he says — “just napkins in the bathroom.” He took a few, for his office staff in New York.

“I was hoping for better tchotchkes,” Tommy admits. “Still, it was great.”

Being around Broadway and film stars, Tommy says, “I’m usually pretty jaded. But sitting 5 feet from Michelle Obama was pretty cool. My wife said she’s never seen me so wide-eyed.”

Tommy Greenwald at the White House piano. I asked if it was the same one Richard Nixon played. Tommy did not know -- but it was definitely the one Andrew Lloyd Webber sat at just a few minutes earlier.

Tommy Greenwald at the White House piano. I asked if it was the same one Richard Nixon played. Tommy did not know — but it was definitely the one Andrew Lloyd Webber used just a few minutes earlier.

Once the concert was over though, all the “incredible organization” ended. Tommy calls it “an interestingly informal free-for-all.”

Soon enough, it was back in a taxi. I did not ask Tommy what he told his driver on the return trip.

Public Session Set For Bridge Street Bridge

“06880” readers have weighed in — often, and from many perspectives — on what should and should  not be done with the Bridge Street bridge.

Soon, officials will have to listen.

A public meeting on Monday, November 23 (7:30 p.m., Town Hall auditorium) is the first chance for citizen input on the future of the historic structure (also called the William F. Cribari Bridge)

State Representative Jonathan Steinberg and Connecticut Department of Transportation officials will offer a progress report on the bridge rehabilitation study report. Citizen participation is encouraged.

The controversial Bridge Street Bridge. (Photo/Michael Champagne)

The controversial Bridge Street Bridge. (Photo/Michael Champagne)

First Selectman Jim Marpe says:

While the study report is in its early stages, I believe it will be helpful for the DOT to present its preliminary findings with regard to the bridge’s physical condition. This will provide a forum that is earlier than would normally be scheduled by the DOT. Westporters will have an opportunity to express their views on the bridge’s history, significance to the Saugatuck area, and potential rehabilitation options.  All interested parties deserve the chance to engage with the DOT early on in the process, before the DOT begins the critical portion where rehabilitation options and other recommendations are developed.

I want to insure that DOT staff with direct knowledge of the project, as well as the staff expert on the treatment of historical assets, will be available. Recognizing that historical considerations are a concern of many Westporters, I am grateful that the DOT has confirmed that key personnel with direct knowledge of the RSR will attend the session to address questions and concerns.

The project manager, lead project engineers, the consulting firm leading the report, and DOT architectural historian Mark McMillan are scheduled to appear.

Aunt: I Sued To Get My Medical Bills Paid

Now that the dust has cleared — and we learn that the Worst Aunt in America was really just suing a young boy who broke her wrist because it was the only way to collect $127,000 on his father’s homeowner insurance — how come no one is asking the 2 most obvious questions:

  • Isn’t there something grossly wrong with our healthcare system when it costs $127,000 to fix a broken wrist?
  • And why didn’t she have medical insurance to cover that injury?

Broken wrist