Now, he says, business commitments prevent him from dedicating the time to the effort. Rea serves as vice president of corporate services and global real estate for Gen Re.
Mike Rea (left) after his first Board of Finance victory. On the right is current 2nd selectman Avi Kaner.
Rea notes that he was “overwhelmed with the support and encouragement from Westporters across the political spectrum.” He looks forward to serving out his finance board term.
The lifelong Westport resident, 1970 Staples High School graduate and 35-year volunteer in town government believes that the challenges Westport faces today “require new thinking. The state of Connecticut has thrust financial issues upon Westport. Residents should and are expecting more, requiring new creative thinking from our town leaders.”
He adds, “This is a good time for new and younger people to step forward and volunteer to serve our community. Contact the political party of your choice and sign up to run for office. Westport is counting on you.”
Jim Marpe grew up in Canton, Ohio. After earning a BA from Case Western and an MBA from Wharton, he embarked on a career with Accenture that took him to Chicago and Copenhagen.
Transferred to New York in 1989, Marpe and his wife Mary Ellen were attracted to Westport by the quality of education, amenities like Compo, and the beauty of Longshore. They also appreciated the town’s arts heritage. A performance at the Westport Country Playhouse sealed the deal.
They joined New Neighbors. The very first person they met was from the country they’d just left: Denmark.
That story illustrates everything Marpe loves about Westport. It’s also a reason why — as he completes his first term as first selectman — he looks forward to running for re-election.
First Selectman Jim Marpe
When he ran 4 years ago, Marpe — who had retired from Accenture as a senior partner — believed he could use his business skills, his experiences on the Board of Education (interim chair and vice chair) and Town Plan Implementation Committee, as well as his leadership roles with the Westport Weston Family YMCA, Homes With Hope, Westport Rotary Club and Greens Farms Congregational Church, to help his town.
“I love this place as much as anyone here,” he says.
He cites his accomplishments: improving town finances; keeping property taxes flat; upgrading Compo and Longshore; beautifying downtown; promoting Westport as an attractive place for business; updating tax policies for senior citizens, and improving the Senior Center; creating a Commission on People with Disabilities, ensuring the town remains inclusive for all residents (and their families).
He’s running again, he says, because there is still work to do. “Hartford has placed problems in our laps. We’ve made great strides in creating a budget to address the lack of any significant revenue coming from the state, and any new bills or taxes we can try to mitigate.”
First Selectman Jim Marpe and Westport Library director Bill Harmer, at work in the first selectman’s office.
Marpe adds, “Hartford’s problems are huge. They won’t get solved in one year. We’ll have to keep our own financial house in order for many years. We’ve been conservative in dealing with town finances. We have to work even harder at that, so Westport continues to be an attractive place to stay in, or move to — one of the most active and exciting communities in the country.”
For example, the first selectman says, a public hearing next month will examine rehabilitating the Compo bathhouses in a way that is “acceptable to all, at a cost we can afford.” Similarly, while the Longshore golf course rehabilitation has made it one of the top 8 public courses in Connecticut, the Inn and other parts of the property can also be improved.
Marpe says he is in “total agreement” with his potential challenger, fellow Republican Mike Rea, about the need for continuous improvement. “That’s what I’ve built my professional career on,” Marpe notes. “We can never rest on our laurels. We have to keep what Westporters hold dear, and make sure this is a town we’re all proud of.”
Personally, he is proud of his administration’s non-partisan approach to problem-solving. Marpe says he has “staffed committees and given assignments to the best qualified people, regardless of party. That’s how Westporters like to address issues.”
Jim and Mary Ellen Marpe, with their daughter Samantha.
Second selectman Avi Kaner will not run for re-election, due to increased demands of running his family business. But he’ll chair Marpe’s campaign, and will continue to work on special projects.
Marpe lauds Kaner’s work, and is “thrilled” that Board of Finance member Jennifer Tooker joins his ticket. “With her background, which also includes the Board of Education, she understands the financial challenges, and the important impact education has in Westport.”
Third selectman Helen Garten was Marpe’s Democratic opponent in 2013. “We’ve worked together as a team,” he says. “All three selectmen play to our strengths. That’s helped make our administration a success.”
He looks back on the past 4 years with satisfaction. Little moments stand out: thank-you notes sent after he attended local events; Memorial Day parades and ceremonies that honor individual citizens, the town and our country as a whole.
Nearly 30 years after moving here, Marpe, his wife and his daughter Samantha — a product of the Westport school system — appreciate more than ever all that Westport is, and does.
Right now for instance, he’s preparing for a panel on April 1 about Syrian refugees.
“Not many communities this size would have that discussion,” he notes. “But in Westport, we have debates like this. Some of them are heated. But when they’re over, we all go to the Black Duck together.”
Jim and Mary Ellen Marpe outside the Black Duck, during last year’s Slice of Saugatuck.
(Democratic State Representative Jonathan Steinberg has set up an exploratory committee to examine a run for first selectman. He declined an interview, citing his state legislature commitments on the budget.)
Growing up on Evergreen Avenue, Mike Rea attended almost-in-his-back yard Bedford Elementary School.
His alma mater now serves as Town Hall. And Rea is trying to figure out whether he wants to work there full time.
He’s done many things since graduating from Staples High School in 1970. Rea helped found Festival Italiano, was a Parks and Recreation Commission chair, headed the Bedford Middle School building project, spent 12 years on the RTM, and now serves as vice chair of the Board of Finance.
He’s formed a committee to explore a run for first selectman. If he enters the race, he’ll challenge incumbent and fellow Republican Jim Marpe.
“For years, people have asked me to run,” Rea says. “I owe it to myself to see if the interest is out there now.”
Mike Rea (left) after his first Board of Finance victory. On the right is current 2nd selectman Avi Kaner.
A Bronx native who came to Westport at age 4, Rea has long been active in town. Soon after his Staples graduation, he opened Mr. Sandwich — a popular lunchtime restaurant — on Bay Street.
He attended Norwalk Community College at night. He married Carla, spent a brief time in real estate, and for the past 34 years has worked for Gen Re. He’s currently vice president of corporate services and global real estate.
His first political activism came before he was a teenager — for the Democrats. “Thelma Ezzes and Ruth Soloway got me to sell tickets for a JFK memorial concert,” he recalls. “Thelma always said I slipped through Democratic fingers.”
He later joined the Young Republicans, and became state national committeeman. He chaired the Republican Town Committee, and was a 2-time John McCain delegate at national conventions.
Mike Rea at the 1978 Republican state convention. In the background is longtime political leader Ed Capasse.
When Rea’s sons Michael and Alex were young, an earthquake devastated Italy. Rea was part of a Westport group that raised $250,000 to help, then brought 21 youngsters and their mayor from a small town to Westport.
The Sons of Italy rose from that group. They sponsored the Italian Festival, a summertime Saugatuck staple for over 25 years.
Mike Rea (left) with the Sons of Italy group, at an early Festival Italiano.
When his boys played sports, Rea got involved in a project to build more athletic fields. First Selectman Doug Wood appointed him to the Parks and Recreation Commission. Wood’s successor Joe Arcudi named Rea chair.
Under his direction, Parks and Rec helped develop Wakeman Park, renovated Ned Dimes Marina and brought a skating rink to Longshore.
Gene Cederbaum — a Democratic Board of Education member — recruited Rea to head up the Bedford Middle School building project. Rea and his group — including “fantastic volunteers” like Russ Blair, Howard Lathrop and Joe Renzulli — “brought new construction techniques and accounting principles, and combined them with state and local educational specs and budgets,” to produce a handsome school on a former Nike missile base.
Rea is proud that another Democrat — Wally Meyer — called him “Mr. On Time and Under Budget.”
In his 6 terms on the RTM, Rea chaired the Finance and Environmental Committees, and served on the Ethics Committee. “I really enjoyed the give-and-take from ‘the citizens’ podium,'” he says.
Mike and Carla Rea (2nd and 3rd from right), with their children and granddaughter.
He left the RTM to run for Board of Finance. Rea was elected twice, in 2011 and 2015, when he was the top Republican vote-getter in town.
So why might he challenge a fellow party member for the top spot?
“Why not?” he replies. “I wouldn’t run against Jim. I’d be running for Westport, and myself.”
His exploratory committee will examine whether issues like the condition of the beach, and finance and planning, are areas he could address.
“I’m a business guy, a facilitator, a project manager,” Rea says. “That’s my wheelhouse. It’s not a question of bad management now. It’s a question of, could I do better? When you commit large sums of expenditures to education, parks facilities and public works, you have to make sure you’re doing it right.”
Rea calls Marpe “a very capable, nice, down-to-earth guy. I really like him. He’s not doing the job wrong. I just think with my years in public service, and my skill set that augments the first selectman’s job, I might do better.”
Rea also says he’s friendly with Jonathan Steinberg, the Democratic state representative who is exploring his own run for first selectman.
Rea concludes, “I like people. I love Westport. I think I’d be good for the town. This is just the first step on a journey.”
That journey started decades ago at Bedford Elementary School on Myrtle Avenue. It may wind its way back there, in November.
(Tomorrow: Jim Marpe talks about his campaign for re-election.)
Since September, Luca Caputo has been an Italian exchange student at Staples. He’s enjoyed his year, adapting to Westport and discovering America.
Last week, he was invited for coffee at the home of an Italian family here. As he was leaving, they asked him to stay a few minutes longer. A friend named Carla was coming.
Carla Rea is a longtime Westporter. But she spent the first 20 years of her life in Italy, so naturally she asked Luca where he was from.
“Near Naples” was not good enough for her. Neither was “Near Salerno.”
Carla is an inquisitive sort. What town? she asked again.
“Potenza,” Luca answered.
Well, Carla wondered, had he ever heard of Balvano?
Though a very small village, it’s only 10 minutes from Potenza. Luca said, “sure!” In fact, his mother was born there. And his grandparents spent 50 years in Balvano.
Carla knew Balvano well. Over 30 years ago, an earthquake devastated the region. More than 3,000 people were killed. Carla and her husband Mike were moved by the stories of destruction — particularly the 39 children who died when a church collapsed on them.
The Reas and other Westporters quickly collected blankets and clothing. Wanting to do more, they enlisted the help of fellow Westporter Francesca Lodge, the Italian-born wife of former Connecticut governor and Ambassador to Spain John Davis Lodge.
That group formed the Sons of Italy to continue the relief effort. The organization raised over $250,000 for the reconstruction of Balvano.
Inspired even further, Carla invited all the children of the village to come to America. Soon, Westport and Norwalk embraced 19 youngsters, and the mayor. They were feted here, then enjoyed New York, Washington and Disney World.
But that was not the end of the Sons of Italy. In 1984, the group sponsored a “Festival Italiano” in Saugatuck. It was an instant success. For 27 years — until 2010 — the Italian Fest was a beloved summertime institution. Tens of thousands of men, women and children traveled from as far as Brooklyn for food, rides and music.
The Balvano church, right after the earthquake...
Luca knew much of the earthquake story. He recalls the date — November 23, 1980 — instantly, though it was a decade and a half before he was born. His mother was 15 years old at the time. She survived, but a cousin died. Luca also knew that Americans had helped rebuild Balvano.
But until last week — chatting with Carla Rea — Luca had no idea that much of the aid came from the town that, for the last 8 months, he’s called home.
Carla called Luca’s mother in Italy. The women spoke in Italian. It was an astonishing conversation.
...and Balvano today.
The 19 children who came to Westport were all Luca’s mother’s friends. She had not made the trip, though; she was busy moving with her parents into a new home.
It took 30 years, but finally a member of her family was in Westport too.
A few days later, Luca visited the Reas’ home. Carla showed him scrapbooks she’s kept.
Then she pointed to a cross on her wall. A gift from the grateful citizens of Balvano, it had been saved from the church that collapsed in the quake — the same church that inspired Carla to action in 1980, and where Luca’s cousin died.
“America is huge,” Luca says. “But somehow, in all of America I came to Westport. And I met Carla.
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