For the first time in at least six years, there’s an actual mayor’s race in Ansonia.
It’s impossible to miss.
Just walk out of Ansonia’s City Hall, look across Main Street and you’ll likely be struck by a banner hanging in front of the headquarters of the city’s Republicans.
“NEXT STOP CITY HALL,” it proclaims.
The message tweaked Mayor James Della Volpe, who recently called the sign “a little distasteful.”
“I’m not into that kind of political gamesmanship,” the mayor said.
The exchange is indicative of the Ansonia mayoral race so far. Republican challenger David Cassetti, an ex-boxer who owns a construction company, is running an in-your-face campaign against Della Volpe, the popular Democratic incumbent who has been in office since 1999.
In addition to a steady stream of letters to the editor, Cassetti has been appearing at monthly Aldermen meetings to snipe at Della Volpe.
Cassetti’s clearly not afraid to step on toes, political gamesmanship or not.
Though the mayor hasn’t taken any shots at Cassetti personally, there has been push-back from city Democrats.
Last week, for instance, a Democratic Alderman raised questions about Cassetti’s businesses owing back taxes, which were paid the next day.
Cassetti’s aggression stands in stark contrast to recent GOP efforts to defeat Della Volpe. The GOP floated a mostly symbolic mayoral campaign in 2009 — and didn’t even field a candidate for mayor in 2011.
In a city where Democrats have dominated the local political scene, does Cassetti actually have a chance at defeating Della Volpe?
A look at the voter registration in the city, as well as past election results, shows the challenge Republicans face in unseating Della Volpe and other Democrats, who hold a 10-4 advantage on the Board of Aldermen.
The last time Della Volpe faced an opponent, in 2009, he defeated Judy Larkin-Nicolari by nearly 1,000 votes.
Larkin-Nicolari made a modest improvement over 2007 GOP Republican candidate Patrick Henri’s vote total. Henri was the head of the local GOP party until this summer. He’s now running for an Alderman’s seat.
A look at all of Della Volpe’s results since he became mayor in 1999 won’t buoy Republican hopes too much.
In the four subsequent elections in which the mayor faced a Republican opponent, Della Volpe has averaged 2,557 votes. His Republican opponents have averaged 1,122 votes:
- 1999: Della Volpe, a challenger to Republican Mayor Nancy Valentine, defeated Valentine 3,419 to 1,846.
- 2001: Della Volpe ran unopposed, won re-election with 1,866 votes.
- 2003: Della Volpe beat Edward McCormack 2,662 to 1,277.
- 2005: Della Volpe beat Edward McCormack 2,956 to 1,016.
- 2007: Della Volpe beat Patrick Henri 2,453 to 1,000.
- 2009: Della Volpe beat Judy Larkin-Nicolari 2,157 to 1,196.
- 2011: Della Volpe ran unopposed, won re-election with 1,940 votes.
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Ansonia Democrats also have a big edge over Republicans in voter registration.
As of Thursday, Sept. 20, there were 3,595 registered Democrats in Ansonia.
Republican party membership amounted to less than half of that number — 1,326.
Unaffiliated voters outnumber either party, totaling 4,775.
Newly minted Republican Party chairman John Marini conceded the Republicans are at a disadvantage numbers-wise, but said he believes they can still win if they get the message out.
“The real obstacle is just spreading the word,” he said. “If the word is spread and people really know what’s been going on at City Hall over the last few years, there’s not a doubt in my mind which way they’ll go.
Marini’s Democratic counterpart, Democratic Town Committee Chairwoman Eileen Krugel, said she thinks both parties will be able to rally their bases — and that the election could be won by whoever succeeds in convincing the remaining voters.
“The unaffiliated beat us all out, that’s obviously everybody’s target,” she said.
But, outside of the numbers or political strategy — people simply like Della Volpe as mayor, at least if his winning streak means anything.
“He tries to address people with fairness, honesty, and integrity, and he doesn’t BS people,” she said. “He will always take time for them.”
Krugel said she doesn’t think Republicans are necessarily more aggressive, but they’re more active thanks to Marini’s leadership.
“I just think John Marini has a lot of time to write these columns for everyone,” she said, referencing op-eds submitted to the Valley Indy and other news organizations under the bylines of various GOP candidates.
But Marini can only pull the strings of the Republican campaign so much, she said.
“It’s basically up to the candidates to get out there and see people, that’s what’s really important,” she said.
Taxes, Economic Development
However, Cassetti and his fellow Republicans point out the GOP has been on the upswing in recent years. They’ve gone from a party that stumbled its way through a nominating convention at Stop & Shop in 2009 to gaining four seats on the Board of Aldermen.
And this year they have a hot button issue to bring to voters — a tax rate increase that kicked in July 1.
The city’s mill rate went from roughly 27.6 to 39.3 — a point hammered home by Cassetti and his supporters.
When Cassetti declared he was running in May, he said the issue of the election would be “taxes, taxes, taxes, taxes, taxes.”
Marini called the city’s tax rate a “symptom” the root cause of which is “a complete lack of focus” on economic development in the city.
“The big issue really is what’s been going on in this city the past 14 years,” Marini said. “Or what hasn’t been going on the past 14 years.”
In a speech at the official opening of his campaign headquarters on East Main Street Sept. 12, Della Volpe acknowledged the tax problem as an obstacle to overcome.
Eugene Sharkey, president of the Ansonia Board of Aldermen, also highlighted the problem.
“It is going to be a very tough campaign because we are going to be blamed for raising taxes,” he said.
The mayor said the Democrats have to explain the underlying complexities of the budget — a state-mandated revaluation of property, a shrinking grand list, the loss of grants to city schools. Comparing this year’s mill rate to last year’s isn’t fair because of the revaluation.
“We took a big hit (to the grand list),” he said. “Who’s got to pick it up? The property owners. And that’s why we’re in this little jam we’re in now. But we’re going to come out of it, as long as we explain our way out of it, as long as we work at it, as long as we don’t take it for granted.”
The mayor was also unapologetic about the funding the city’s tax board gave to the school system during the budget process, which was criticized by many Republicans afterward.
Della Volpe said he wasn’t happy about the tax increase, but that it was necessary.
“Every time we hear ‘Ansonia’s always at the bottom, we don’t give our kids a chance.’ The Democrats gave the chance,” Della Volpe said. “We’re the ones that funded education. They can talk about it all they want. When it hits the fan, we were the ones that came up with the money for our children.”
Marini said that in their own door-to-door efforts, the GOP will have to “connect the dots” for voters between this year’s tax increase and what he called a “complete lack of focus on economic development” by Democrats.
He pointed to a report issued this summer by a consultant hired by the city which said that in recent years, “economic development to the extent that it has occurred has happened by accident.”
Della Volpe defended his record on economic development.
“Target didn’t just pop up out of nowhere,” he told supporters Sept. 12. “Neither did Marshall’s, or Bob’s, or Aaron’s. Or Farrell’s didn’t get sold because we’re in a down economy. We got that sold.
“You don’t see businesses knocking down the door to get into Connecticut,” the mayor went on. “You don’t see that. It’s not just Ansonia, it’s everywhere.”
During an interview the mayor also pointed out that the city’s Economic Development Commission is chaired by Vinnie Scarlata, a Republican he appointed, and that he also appointed Cassetti to the board, which Marini sits on as well as an Aldermanic liaison.
Marini countered that while the businesses that have come to town during Della Volpe’s tenure are welcome, the city needs businesses that provide residents with the possibility of long-term growth.
“When (Target and Big Y) are at the top of your grand list, you’ve got a problem,” he said. “Of course they bring in tax revenue, but they’re not providing the type of jobs that people need, the ladder people need to full-time employment to support a family.”
Marini also pointed to initiatives from the Economic Development Commission like a storefront loan program and a tax incentive plan to attract new business, which he said were brought to the table by Republicans before being embraced by both parties.
If Cassetti wins, Marini said he and other Republicans would look to do the same sorts of things to “aggressively market” the city to business leaders statewide and beyond.
Della Volpe said he’s sure Republicans will make this year’s tax increase a focal point of their campaign, but said that beyond that, the election will be “a referendum on my 14 years (as mayor).”
As an incumbent, the mayor’s strategy so far in this year’s campaign has been to simply continue to lead the city and do his job.
“I’m not afraid of my record,” he said.
During the official opening of his campaign headquarters Sept. 12, Cassetti spoke to about 50 fellow Republicans on Main Street, promising to “take the city back by storm.”
“Ansonia, for way too long, has been controlled by one party,” Cassetti said. “It’s very unhealthy for a city to be controlled by one party, and it’s proven it with our tax increase, our (lack of) economic development.”
At the same time, Cassetti acknowledged — and embraced — his role as underdog.
“I’ve been an underdog most of my life in anything I did, and I prevailed most of the time,” he said.