Category Archives: Local politics

1st Selectman’s Thanksgiving Video

180 Cross Highway: Saved!

Our country is more polarized than at any time since the Civil War.

But in one corner of Westport, at least, folks negotiate in good faith.

They compromise. And everyone wins.

The Planning & Zoning Commission was all set last night for a contentious hearing on Mark Yurkiw and Wendy Van Wie’s plea to preserve their 1700s property on Cross Highway. The couple — who spent years restoring a home and barn — wanted a waiver to live in the barn, but sell the other structure. That way, they said, it could be loved, cared for and maintained in perpetuity.

One view of 188 Cross Highway.

One view of 188 Cross Highway.

A neighbor opposed the proposal.

Mark and Wendy had a number of supporters in the Town Hall crowd. An “06880” story — with 100 or so comments — was read into the record.

But before anything else happened, both sides huddled. Suddenly, the neighbor’s attorney announced he’d drop the objection — provided Mark and Wendy adhere to a few simple conditions.

Bingo!

The P&Z approved what they needed to. Because it contains historic homes, the property can now be subdivided. The homes will remain.

Everybody wins.

Perhaps we can send that crew down to Washington?

Marpe’s Message: “Treat Each Other With Respect And Civility”

A few moments ago, First Selectman Jim Marpe issued his annual Thanksgiving message. It includes a response to an open letter sent last night by Westport’s Democratic Town Committee, asking him to stand up to the rhetoric unleashed by the 2016 presidential campaign.

Marpe says:

Westport has always been and will continue to be a place where we live by and teach our children the values that we cherish — values that embrace equality, inclusiveness, open-mindedness, respect for each other as well as the law, and of course, education. We hold fast to these ideals regardless of political party, religious affiliation, social strata, gender, or age.  This Thanksgiving, we thoughtfully and respectfully reflect upon these qualities in light of recent events that have transported our nation into divisiveness and turmoil.

A recent “open letter” to me as the first selectman of this great community called for a response to the events in our nation related to the 2016 presidential election.  I believed that it was appropriate to do so in the context of my annual Thanksgiving message to all 27,000 Westport residents.

Westport First Selectman Jim Marpe.

Westport First Selectman Jim Marpe.

I want to start with my reflections expressed to those gathered in the Town Hall auditorium on Veterans Day this past November 11; that ceremony occurring merely days after the tumultuous election.  I confidently assured those present that the rights and freedoms for which veterans fought so valiantly are alive and well in this great nation, and in the town of Westport.

The political events of the past year have tested our collective understanding of democracy, creating conflict nationwide and anxiety at many a dinner table and social gathering throughout Westport and the rest of the country. While the outrage and despair over the problems that our nation and our community need to address remains, it is our democracy which makes this such an extraordinary country.

The 2016 election has stirred us all to reconsider our core values and our rights as Americans; rights which many in Westport may have taken for granted because we thought we had the luxury of doing so.  However, with recent events fresh in our minds, we must be cognizant that with the freedoms we cherish come certain personal obligations.

Despite differences, Westporters must treat each other with mutual respect and civility. We are no strangers to making our world, country, and our community a better place.  The town’s municipal, civic, religious and volunteer institutions operate under the mantle of these values. Our laws and our values don’t change because of the most recent political winds.

We encourage thoughtful and constructive means to embrace each other’s differences. We denounce hatred, divisiveness and manipulation by words and deeds. We remember that in Westport, we are grateful and thankful for and continue to be committed to, the values we hold so dear in our cherished town. I can assure you that this town will continue to embrace and protect all its citizens and will stand firmly against hate and intolerance, now and always.

Hundreds of Westporters volunteer each year at the Interfaith Thanksgiving Feast.

Hundreds of Westporters volunteer each year at the Interfaith Thanksgiving Feast.

Thanksgiving reminds us to be grateful for our freedoms and our good fortune.  We remain steadfast in our resolve to help those less fortunate, all the while remaining aware of the world events around us that may inhibit that resolve. We express our heartfelt thanks to those in our community that stand for the downtrodden or disenfranchised.

I am personally thankful for our extraordinary volunteers, teachers, civic leaders, clergy, and residents, young and old, of all races, creeds and ideals, who work tirelessly and diligently each and every day, at times with little or no recognition.  They share their time and talents without fanfare, so I want to acknowledge their contributions and let them know that they are valued and appreciated.

I wish all the citizens of Westport a happy and safe Thanksgiving holiday. I encourage you to take the opportunity to pause and reflect on how you may contribute to making our community a place where all are welcome and respected.

Thank you.

Westport Dems To Marpe: Stand Up Against Hate

Last night, the Democratic Town Committee says, a “record number” of Westporters attended the organization’s monthly meeting.

They discussed the 2016 presidential election — and voiced their concerns in an open letter to Republican First Selectman Jim Marpe. The DTC wrote:

Last Tuesday, over 10,000 Westporters went to the polls to vote for the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, as President of the United States. The town’s preference was clear, with nearly 70% of votes cast for the Democratic nominee. Those voters, along with countless young people not yet old enough to cast a vote, woke up Wednesday morning (if they even slept at all) in shock and disbelief at the election of Donald J. Trump.

westport-democratic-town-committee-logoSince Election Day, the Westport Democratic Town Committee has heard from many people in our community who are struggling to reconcile themselves to this result and what it means for our nation. Tuesday night, a week after Election Day, we had a record turnout at our monthly meeting. People who had never attended a DTC meeting before came to express their fear, their anger, and their worry about the future. They spoke of sleepless nights, of difficult conversations with their children, and of feeling like foreigners in their own country.

In the past week, incidents of racial intimidation and hate speech have sharply risen all around the nation. Sadly, our town has not been immune. Staples High School principal James D’Amico informed parents last Thursday of racially offensive memes circulating online among Staples students. Mr. D’Amico also noted that some students were so upset by the election result they requested counseling. Other post-election incidents of political or racial intimidation have been reported as well.

Regardless of whom you supported for President, now is a time when our town needs healing and leadership. We need our First Selectman to make a strong statement that Westport is a town that opens its arms to people of all backgrounds and identities, and where intimidation and bullying will never be tolerated. Now is the time to reassert our basic, shared values of civility, decency and compassion.

westport-republicansLet us be clear: the Westport Democratic Town Committee will not stand for any acts of hate or intimidation in our town, regardless of who is in the White House. Donald Trump will be our next President; as Americans we all must accept that. But we must never accept the xenophobia, misogyny, and intolerance that characterized so much of his campaign. We expect you, as our town leader, and the Republican Town Committee to take the same strong stand.

Westport has always stood as a bastion of openness and tolerance. We hope you will join us in reaffirming that essential character of our great town.

Sincerely yours,
Westport Democratic Town Committee
Executive Committee and Ex Officio Executive Committee Members

The Waiting Is The Hardest Part

The scene tonight at Democratic headquarters …

(Photo/Eli Debenham)

(Photo/Eli Debenham)

… and Rizzuto’s, where Republican Town Committee treasurer Joe Sledge, First Selectman Jim Marpe, Second Selectman Avi Kaner and State Representative candidate Cathy Walsh peered at results:

republican-headquarters

(Photo/Chip Stephens)

I Voted!

The signs are ready…

election-day-2016-1

The surrogates (like Mike Calise) are in place…

election-day-2016-6

The coffee is hot…

election-day-2016-2

The doors are open…

election-day-2016-3

The instructions are clear…

election-day-2016-4

Election 2016 is on…

election-day-2016-5

May the best man — or woman — win!

Eli, George And Hillary

Tomorrow is zero hour for 2 candidates. For over a year, they’ve campaigned to be president. They rely on national staffs, pollsters, and family members offering free advice.

But presidential campaigns are won or lost at the local level. Phone calls drive enthusiasm and turnout. Something as simple as a ride to polls — replicated thousands and thousands of times — can spell the difference between the White House and history’s dustbin.

Since mid-August, Hillary Clinton’s most successful phone bank in Connecticut has operated from a cramped Westport storefront, across from Stop & Shop.

Remarkably, it’s organized entirely by 2 Staples High School students.

George Kane (left) and Eli Debenham run Westport's Democratic headquarters phone bank and volunteer operations.

George Kane (left) and Eli Debenham run Westport’s Democratic headquarters phone bank and volunteer operations.

George Kane rowed with the Saugatuck Rowing Club. He skis for Staples, and teaches skiing to people with disabilities.

His mother Melissa chairs the Westport Democratic Town Committee — but for years he did not share her interest in politics. “I always felt dragged to events,” he says.

In the spring of junior year though, his Advanced Placement Government class inspired him. “It just hit me,” he recalls. “I thought, if there’s anything I can do for this election, I’ll do it.”

He called Clinton’s statewide director of field operations. Soon, he was running Westport’s Democratic phone bank.

Eli Debenham — like George, a Staples senior — serves organizations like Builders Beyond Borders, and works at Gilbertie’s. He’s been fascinated by politics for a long time. Now Eli is the volunteer coordinator for Westport’s DTC.

The storefront opposite Super Stop & Shop.

The storefront opposite Super Stop & Shop.

The 12th graders work like a well-oiled machine. Together, they’ve gathered up to 40 people a night to the Westfair Center office. One evening, they logged 3,500 calls.

Not just for Clinton. Volunteers phone in support of local races. They also call voters in New Hampshire, the nearest battleground state.

A couple of days ago, I watched the phone bank in action. Our conversation was punctuated by questions — most of the technical kind. The volunteers — coming from as far as Stamford and Ridgefield, some of whom could be George and Eli’s grandparents — asked for help with the calling software on their laptops and cellphones.

The duo solved every problem. In between, they told stories of their months of work.

It’s been eye-opening. A man with military ID asked for Hillary posters and lawn signs. They apologized; there were only a few on hand.

“That’s okay,” he said. ” I just want it for target practice.”

Most other encounters have been far more positive. Though few people like being interrupted for a political call, there have been enough willing to listen that George and Eli feel like they’ve done some good.

westport-democratic-town-committee-logo“When we get a Republican who thinks Trump’s a maniac, but doesn’t want to vote for Clinton, we may be able to have a conversation,” George says. “Some people really are undecided. We’ve had 20-minute phone calls where we really think we make an impact.”

“If we have 5 to 10 calls a night light that, it makes a measurable difference,” Eli adds.

He called a 24-year-old Greenwich man, who planned to vote for neither candidate. After 25 minutes, Eli says, “he was actually crying on the phone. He said that a protest vote would help give the election to Trump.”

He and George know they won’t reach everyone. But they’re encouraged by little examples, like the volunteer who took her phone into the headquarters bathroom to speak quietly with a retired man who originally did not want to talk at all. At the end of the conversation, he said he would “think about” Clinton.

Eli Debenham, in charge last week.

Eli Debenham, answering questions last week.

With Election Day almost — and finally — here, Eli and George describe their mood as a mix of anxiety and optimism. They know the race has tightened, and it’s been vitriolic. But, George says, “I’ve seen far more positivity than negativity” at the phone bank he runs.

“I’ve made real connections with people I’m excited to share Westport with,” Eli notes. “I’ve seen a whole new layer to this town that I love.”

There’s no school on Election Day. George and Eli will be up at 3 a.m. They’ll deliver signs to polling places. They’ll oversee one final round of canvassing. Then they’ll watch the returns — maybe at the headquarters that’s been their home since August, perhaps at a bigger venue.

The 1st presidential campaign for either of them has changed them both.

George says, “I never enjoyed conflict. But this election opened me up to seeing that differences are important. I’ve seen how I can make an impact. Politics is now a love of mine. Plus, my mother is happy.”

Eli always wanted to go into politics. This experience has only enhanced his interest.

“It’s exhausting, discouraging, challenging and satisfying,” he says. “It’s what I want to do.”

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

As one of the nastiest presidential campaigns in history roars to a close, here’s a scene from tonight’s Anti-Defamation League event in Fairfield:

Jim Marpe, Keith Stein and Mary Ellen Marpe.

Jim Marpe, Keith Stein and Mary Ellen Marpe.

Sure, it seems like a regular grip-and-grin photo (the kind I avoid on “06880.”)

But look closely. Keith Stein (center) and his wife Brett Aronow were honored for their community contributions. Among his many volunteer activities: chair of Westport’s Democratic Town Committee.

On hand to help celebrate was Republican First Selectman Jim Marpe and his wife Mary Ellen.

In Westport, Democrats and Republicans work together. They’ve got their differences, and they campaign hard to win. But our town functions nicely, because men and women of both parties respect each other. They collaborate. They govern.

I have no idea what Tuesday will bring.

Or Wednesday.

But whatever happens, you and I might heed the offer from Saugatuck Congregational Church:

saugatuck-congregational-church-election-day-prayer-service

It’s open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, for anyone wishing to pray.

You can pray for your candidate. Pray for your country. Pray for your sanity.

All Republicans and Democrats are welcome.

Remembering Nick Thiemann

Nick Thiemann died last week, at 76.

Except for an obituary on WestportNow, there was no public notice of his death.

That’s surprising. Nick served Westport for many years, in many capacities. He even ran for 1st selectman in 1993. For 4 years, he was on the Board of Selectmen.

Nick Thiemann

Nick Thiemann

He was also an outspoken member of the Board of Finance, was elected to the RTM, and appointed to the Flood and Erosion Control Board. An avid Democrat, he was a polling place monitor for many years.

Nick was also a member of the state Commission on Human Rights and Disabilities, and a court magistrate.

Nick lived in Westport for almost 50 years, after time in Nigeria with the Peace Corps. A lawyer, he practiced here until his death.

He enjoyed golf and singing. He performed for 25 years with Fairfield County Chorale and the Mendelssohn Choir of Connecticut.

He is survived by his wife Helen, son Clark, daughter-in-law Jennifer and granddaughter Molly.

Calling hours are this Thursday (November 10, 5 to 7 p.m., Harding Funeral Home, Westport). A celebration of his life is set for Saturday, November 12, 11 a.m. at Assumption Church.

Donations in Nick’s name may be made to the Fairfield County Chorale,  Mendelssohn Choir or a charity of your choice.

UPDATE: 180 Cross Highway: Important Meeting Moved To November 17

Last month, “06880” highlighted the efforts of Mark Yurkiw and Wendy Van Wie to preserve their 1700s property on Cross Highway. The couple — who spent years restoring a home and barn — are asking the Planning & Zoning Commission for a waiver. It would allow them to live in the barn but sell the other structure, so it can be loved, cared for and maintained in perpetuity.

Nearly 100 people supported Mark and Wendy in the “Comments” section, or via personal emails and letters.

Part of the Cross Highway property.

Part of the Cross Highway property.

Now it’s time to put our money where our mouths are. Tonight (Thursday, November 3, On Thursday, November 17 (7 p.m., Town Hall auditorium), the P&Z hears the waiver request. An attorney for one set of neighbors — who oppose the request — will argue against it.

Mark and Wendy have — very quietly, and with an eye toward history — enhanced their historic neighborhood. They don’t like speaking in public.

But they hope that their presence later this month — and that of other concerned Westporters — will speak volumes about the value of preservation.