Westporters June Eichbaum and Ken Wirfel just returned from a great National Geographic expedition to Cuba. June sends this report, and some wonderful photos:
Our “people to people” visa facilitated a unique cultural exchange. We met extraordinary teachers and students in the visual and performing arts, including an 18-year-old young man in Cienfuegos who choreographed and danced a pas de deux of passion and violence in gay love.
At Isla de Juventud, an all-girl string quartet played a Telemann violin concerto. We were energized by the percussion and dance of Habana de Compas, rooted in Santeria rhythms. We spoke with cigar factory workers, farmers and a Santeria priest.
Man with cigar. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)
We met a librarian who ran a Google-donated internet center with computers for children, and mechanics skilled in antique car restoration. We visited open-air markets where butchers sold unrefrigerated meat, alongside fruits and eggs. We walked through a crumbling, abandoned prison for political prisoners and hard-core criminals.
Cuba is both amazing and sad. It is amazing because of the openness, compassion and joy of the Cuban people — their resilience, love of family, and music and art that infuses their world.
The sadness was ours, as we observed Cubans lacking what we consider essential to our everyday lives, like appliances, food (without needing a ration card), cars, even functional plumbing.
Apartment building with clotheslines. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)
Yet the United States continues its embargo — not sanctions, but an embargo — an anachronism that has outlived its purpose. All it does now is deprive poor hard-working people.
For instance, Cubans can’t import US cars or car parts. As a result, Cuban mechanics in a time-warp fashion parts for cars from the 1950’s, or import parts from other countries.
One man showed us his ’58 Chevy. He was allowed to import a Mercedes engine from Germany, but not from the US. Then he pointed to a Chinese container ship in the harbor that was delivering a shipment of new buses.
’58 Chevy in old Havana. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)
Another embargo-imposed time warp is that Cuban-Americans who send money to their relatives in Cuba must use Western Union, not US banks.
So what does Cuba have to do with Westport?
Westporters and Cubanos have shared values: love of family; devotion to children; engaging in hard work; living in an inclusive society.
Cubanos do not discriminate based on ethnicity or race. They see themselves as one people — not black or mulatto or white.
Woman in colorful dress, old Havana. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)
Historically, Westport was the only town in Fairfield County that sold homes to Jews. “Gentleman’s Agreement” — the 1947 movie with Gregory Peck about anti-Semitism in Fairfield County — told this ugly story.
Cubanos are passionate about the arts and creativity — whether dance, music, theater, painting, sculpture, embroidery, weaving, sculpture or pottery. Life in Westport is energized by groups like Westport Country Playhouse, Westport Art Center, Westport Public Library, Staples Players and Westport Community Theater.
Girl practicing trumpet in high school courtyard. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)
On the flight home I thought about transforming the “people to people” Cuba expedition into a two-way street. Charleston, South Carolina has already provided a model in its annual Spoleto USA Festival.
This event has become one of America’s major performing arts festivals, showcasing both established and emerging artists with performances of opera, dance, theater, classical music and jazz.
Imagine the positive impact of Westport hosting these gifted Cuban artists of all ages with performances over a week at different venues throughout town. And imagine how it would bring people together at a time when our country is so divided.
Abandoned prisons. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)
Santeria religious doll. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)
In November, Westport voters will elect a new 1st selectman.
The Republicans have already chosen Jim Marpe. The Democrats meet tomorrow. The 3 names most frequently mentioned are Ken Wirfel, Jonathan Steinberg and Helen Garten.
To get a sense of who these would-be 1st selectman candidates are, I asked a few simple questions. Here are their responses. The Democratic candidates are listed in reverse alphabetical order because — well, I’m a Woog. The Republican candidate is listed last, because he is unopposed.
Ken Wirfel, former member, Board of Finance
Main reason I’m considering running: I’m passionate about Westport. Westport is just recovering from the fiscal crisis and needs someone who can secure its future. We need a first selectman who can share with us a vision how we can assure the continued excellence of our school, retain our talented workforce and allow our seniors to remain in place if they so choose.
Main reason I considered NOT running: I consider the other announced Democratic candidates my colleagues and friends. I want to run a campaign that is respectful of their abilities and desires to serve the town, while setting myself apart.
Major problems facing Westport: Labor contracts and union plans. Many will come up in the next 4 years. We’ve got to end most defined benefit plans and “bend the curve” on others by lengthening service years and extending retirement age before eligibility for benefits.
Biggest thing Westporters talk about that is NOT a problem: Deer population.
Ken Wirfel on the roof of Fenway Park, during a Yankees game.
First thing I’d do after being sworn in: Kiss my wife and children. Meet with all department heads and engage in a thorough review of goals and responsibilities. Meet with chairs of all RTM committees, town boards and commissions to assess whether they are receiving timely and adequate information from town departments.
5 Westporters I admire: Alan Nevas, retired federal judge; fount of common sense and decency. Michael Szeto, retired from IBM; currently teaching at MIT’s Sloan School; passionate about education and American competitiveness in the global economy. Michael Kassen, president of AIPAC; a tremendously decent, thoughtful, moderate guy playing a major role at a time of Middle East threats. Keith Stein, involved in numerous community activities; quiet, unassuming guy; great dad, son, husband, brother, athlete and cook. Barbara Butler, director of human services; if Westport’s government has a soul, it runs through her department; she constantly affirms my belief that government can be a force for good in our community.
My favorite places in Westport: My wife’s backyard garden, a beautiful respite from the rest of the world. Compo at dawn, for years part of my early morning bike route before a commute into New York.
My favorite places NOT in Westport: Nantucket; British Columbia; open water anywhere.
If I was not running for 1st selectman, I’d be…: Planning road trips to college hockey games in Boston next year.
If I was tweeting about Westport, I’d say…: A Life Well Lived. You Deserve Westport. @KenWirfel
Jonathan Steinberg, State Representative
Main reason I’m running: I love this town and I’m excited by the prospect of making it an even better place to live and work. I’ve worked hard on Westport’s behalf on the RTM and in the State Legislature, and I know I have the experience and perspective to be an effective leader.
Main reason I considered NOT running: Campaigns require an all-out commitment. My family has always been very supportive, but running for office takes a toll on family life. I strive to maintain a balance, because family matters so much to me.
Major problems facing Westport: The good news is we are not facing major problems. But we’ve all noticed a change in the tone of public dialogue lately. There’s a tendency to form factions and fight, rather than work together. There’s so much good about Westport, and so many good people who want to move the town forward, but there’s an increasing lack of civility and willingness to see the other side’s point of view.
Biggest thing Westporters talk about that is NOT a problem: There’s a big myth about fiscal problems in Westport. Westporters should not be misled: The town is in fine shape financially — better off than most municipalities, with a Triple-A bond rating. We simply need to plan well for future employee pension and healthcare obligations, and be resolute in contract negotiations.
First thing I’d do after being sworn in: Get around town as often as possible as part of a continual effort to engage Westporters on what’s on their minds. Perhaps I’ll start with a big “brown bag lunch.”
5 Westporters I admire: Barbara Butler: no one has done as much for Westporters in need, always with grace, compassion and good humor. Dick Harris, an environmental hero. Ann Sheffer, whose commitment to the arts has kept Westport in the forefront of cultural excellence. Allen Raymond, who has been in the middle of many of the biggest Westport moments, from the Longshore acquisition to the new library and Y. My parents: my father took great care of the health of generations of Westporters — and made house calls, while my mother’s “best books” lecture at the library is always SRO.
My favorite places in Westport: A serene spot in Salmon Park with a beautiful view of the Saugatuck. The library, hub of activity and information where there is always something stimulating happening. Any of the ball fields on a Saturday morning. And of course an intimate, state-of-the-art movie theater on Main Street (okay, it doesn’t exist — yet!)
My favorite places NOT in Westport: Madison Square Garden for a playoff game; Portofino, Italy on the quay at sunset; wherever my daughters are living at the time.
If I was not running for 1st selectman, I’d be…: doing my best for Westport as its state representative.
If I was tweeting about Westport, I’d say…: Westport is a great place: amazing amenities, a strong sense of community, a tradition of giving and helping. I’m proud to call it home.
Helen Garten, Board of Finance vice chair
Main reason I’m considering running: I love Westport, and I think I have the skills, experience and energy to make a difference.
Main reason I considered NOT running: I am not a politician!
Major problem facing Westport: As is true for many communities, the long-term cost of Westport’s employee retirement benefits — pension and retiree medical — could eventually crowd out other funding needs. The solution is to craft a sustainable benefits package that protects our taxpayers and treats our valued employees fairly. Westport is already ahead of many towns in pension reform, but we still have a long way to go. Getting there will require skill, creativity and consensus building.
Helen Garten, awarding medals at a Special Olympics event.
What’s not a problem: Westport has not been, and is not, in financial trouble. To the contrary, we came through the recession with services funded, taxes reasonable and reserves strong. That’s why we can plan for the future now.
First thing I’d do after being sworn in: Hold the first of the revived First Selectwoman’s Brown Bag lunches. There is no better way to share ideas and learn what Westporters are thinking.
5 Westporters I admire: Allen Raymond, who has done more for Westport than I can mention. Katy Goldschmidt, who inspired me to get into and stay in Westport politics. PTA parents, whose tireless efforts keep our schools great. My husband Michael, who has no idea what he’s in for if I do run for first selectman but will never complain. Dan Woog, who runs the most lively and interesting blog I know of. 🙂
Favorite places in Westport: Compo Beach, particularly in the off season. The Westport Public Library, our downtown anchor. The Saugatuck River behind my house, which is beautiful in every season.
Favorite places not in Westport: Fort Sewall in Marblehead, Massachusetts where I grew up; Cuttyhunk Island; the Princeton University campus.
If I was not running for first selectman, I’d be…: sailing to Bermuda (seriously!).
If I was tweeting about Westport, I’d say..: although we seem to disagree on almost every issue, we all care passionately about our community.
Jim Marpe, former chair, Board of Education
Main reason I’m running for 1st selectman: I love Westport. I’m excited at the prospect of using my unique background in both the private and public sectors to make our town even greater. I saw the impact I could make as a public servant on the Board of Education, keeping Westport schools world-class while improving efficiency in a non-partisan matter. My consensus-driven approach will help enhance our services, protect our “crown jewels” and make it easier for our seniors to stay in Westport.
Main reason I considered not running: The time I spend with my wife and daughter, and the time I dedicate to various community service activities, are very important to me. The 1st selectman’s job is more than full time, so I face giving up significant portions of family and community service. Fortunately, my family is excited about the positive differences they believe I can make.
Jim Marpe at the Rotary Club, of which he is a long-time member.
Major problems facing Westport: Westporters are concerned that many “crown jewel” services and amenities are showing wear and need attention. Seniors want to “age in place” but worry about property tax increases and housing options. Employee pension and benefit costs must be restructured to still make our community an attractive place to work, but at a cost taxpayers can afford. We must seek cost efficiencies through technology, restructuring operations and greater cooperation between the town and schools. We must revitalize our ability to attract and retain businesses that are appropriate to our town’s character.
Biggest thing Westporters talk about that is NOT a major problem: The amazing number of community service organizations and their dedicated, tireless and creative staff and volunteers who do an extraordinary job of filling the gaps that government cannot or should not fill. Westporters are an engaged, well-intentioned, civic-minded group who care about their neighbors and the direction of the town.
First thing I would do after being sworn in: Meet with every town department head to identify their key challenges and opportunities, and agree on the top objectives for the coming year and their impact on the budget process. This will lay the groundwork for quickly developing a 4-year strategic operating plan. Simultaneously we will aggressively develop strategies for upcoming labor and pension contract negotiations.
5 Westporters I admire and why: Allen Raymond, who has dedicated most of his 90 years to Westport through public office and leadership of many community organizations. Joanne Woodward, through whose leadership we still have our iconic Westport Country Playhouse housed in a modern yet familiar facility, with an expanded mission. Al DiGuido, whose Al’s Angels and its dozens of volunteers demonstrate the impact an individual can have on a community and the lives of children. Paul Green, who through his “Nevah Surrendah” organization and his commitment to exercise has educated and motivated Parkinson’s disease sufferers to fight back, and inspires us all. Mary Ellen Marpe, my wife, who besides putting up with my late evening meetings and erratic schedule has made her own impact on Westport through 11 years of operating the Academy of Dance, and now having a leadership role in ITNCastalCT.
My favorite places in Westport: Ned Dimes Marina at sunset on a summer evening. Getting a haircut at Compo Barber Shop. Any restaurant, diner, deli or bar that is locally owned (outdoor dining appreciated). Westport Country Playhouse; the “Staff Recommends” table at the library. Longshore golf course; coffee and conversation at Mitchells. Walking my dog in Winslow Park, at Compo and Burying HIll in winter. Shopping at the Farmers Market and Double L Farm Stand. Wakeman Town Farm.
My favorite places NOT in Westport: Anywhere with vineyards, wineries and tasting rooms; a sailboat or motorboat on Long Island Sound; Manhattan; Boston; Chicago; Tuscany.
If I was not running for 1st selectman, I’d be…: continuing to work with the Family Y, Rotary, Green’s Farms Church, Y’s Men, Stamford Symphony and the Riedel & Cody Foundation. I would spend more time with my wife and daughter, and walk my dog more often. I might even lower my golf handicap.
If I was tweeting about Westport, I’d say…: Love Westport. A creative, sophisticated, caring community in a unique setting; world-class schools; activities to match every interest.
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