Tag Archives: Sons of Italy

Mike Rea Explores A First Selectman Run

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.)

When The Festival Tents Fold

The news — there will be no Italian Festival in 2011 — was dramatic, but not unsurprising.  Rumors of its demise had swirled for years.

What was surprising was this:  Few people seemed to care.

My “06880” breaking-news post elicited 10 comments.  A story several days later about a guy selling socks at Mitchells drew more than twice that number.

For more than a quarter century, Festival Italiano was a Westport tradition.  It drew folks from as far as Brooklyn.  Johnny Maestro was a regular performer.  Thousands of Westporters went there, ate there, rode rides there, played games there, made out there, grew up there.

Hundreds more volunteered.

Until recently.

The Italian Festival folded its tents, finally, not because no one liked it — everyone did — but because too few people liked to work there.

Volunteers did everything.  They planned entertainment, haggled with carney companies, negotiated for use of the parking lots, organized police and medical services, arranged for port-a-potties, created parades, put out press releases, sold raffle tickets, picked up trash, and did a thousand other tasks fair-goers never thought about as they drank beer and munched fried dough.

The best part for the volunteers — besides watching the smiling faces of everyone from little kids enjoying their first Festival to oldsters remembering the original St. Anthony’s Feast — was handing checks to charities.  Hundreds of local organizations received millions of dollars, thanks to the hard work — for so long — of a relatively few people.

Perhaps the Sons of Italy — the core group of volunteers — did not toot their own horn loudly enough.  I’m sure very few Festival attendees knew this was a non-profit event — or where the money went.

If they had known, would things have changed?  Would the Festival have drawn more volunteers — enough to bring it back for a 28th summer?

Probably not.

Westport is a volunteer-driven town.  From the library and PAL, from the Green Village Initiative to the PTA, we don’t lack for men and women willing to roll up their sleeves, go to work, and do good.

But Festival Italiano demanded a singular commitment.  Entertaining up to 100,000 people for 4 days every summer — trying to keep costs manageable, making money for organizations that need it, while constantly worrying about the weather — is a daunting task.

We owe the Sons of Italy, and all their volunteers, enormous thanks for all they did, for all those years.

But maybe that’s why there was such silence following the announcement that the last pizza frite has been scarfed, the last Brooklyn Bridge notes sung.

Maybe all of us feel guilty we didn’t do our part for this great Westport institution we always took for granted.

Italians Take Over Saugatuck

The Italian Festival opens tonight.

The annual celebration of Saugatuck’s heritage, 1950s music and fried dough kicks off with a 7:30 p.m. parade.  All weekend long there are rides, carnival games, performances, and a Coney Island-meets-Westport atmosphere unavailable any other time, at any other place.

Festival Italiano is sponsored by the Sons of Italy.  The non-profit organization — so unassuming it doesn’t even have a website — donates all profits to local charities.  That’s no patate piccole — since the first fest in 1984 they’ve given away nearly $2 million, to over 40 charities.

But the organization uses a public facility — part of the railroad parking lot — to hold its philanthropic show.

So, to avoid a dust-up similar to the one that emerged on “06880” regarding the PAL 4th of July fireworks, I won’t mention any of that.