U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy came to Derby March 1, going on a walking tour downtown with several local Democrats — including a new mayoral hopeful.
The starting point was Sunflower Dental, an Elizabeth Street practice owned by Dr. Anita Dugatto, who a day prior to Murphy’s visit filed paperwork in City Hall to pursue the Democratic party’s nomination for mayor.
Murphy wished Dugatto luck on her campaign, but his visit wasn’t just a glorified photo op: he quizzed several business owners about how they’re surviving in a sluggish economy, pledging to give them any support he could.
Good luck reaching him, though.
“I’m so new in this job I don’t have any business cards yet,” Murphy, elected to the Senate in last November’s elections, joked repeatedly.
“If you Google me, you’ll find my phone number,” he added. “And lots of awful things people say about me.”
Murphy and Dugatto left Sunflower Dental after a quick tour and were joined by Democratic Derby Aldermen Carmen DiCenso and Ron Sill, along with Linda Fusco, the head of the local Democratic Town Committee, crossing the street to the law office of Barbara DeGennaro, the Democratic President of the Board of Aldermen.
DeGennaro pointed to a chair-full of documents she referred to as “my filing system for the Board of Aldermen.”
“That looks familiar,” said Murphy, no stranger to local politics — before serving in the Connecticut legislature and U.S. Congress, he sat on the Planning and Zoning Commission of Southington.
“How was the meeting last night?” he asked the Aldermen. “Eventful?”
“Oh, it sure was,” Sill replied, recounting the back-and-forth between Democrats and Republican Mayor Anthony Staffieri over the city’s stalled downtown redevelopment.
DiCenso pointed out the area’s proximity to Routes 8 and 34, along with a nearby train station, as a reason more development should be happening.
“You’ve got tremendous assets here,” Murphy said. “It’s a little slice of America that doesn’t exist enough.”
The group then strolled to the Sterling Opera House before crossing the street to check out the Gourmet Cafe, which opened last summer.
Murphy chatted with owner Tanya Skeeter, asking her what hurdles she faced from government in setting up the business.
Taxes, she replied.
“Small businesses I think are the ones that get hit the most,” Skeeter told the senator, saying businesses like hers could help drive economic revival.
Murphy agreed, marveling at the eatery’s decor and saying that small business owners ask him to do more to bring more jobs — and, thus, patrons, to the state.
“Most everybody says ‘Just get me more customers,’” Murphy said. “The biggest problem for businesses today is that they don’t have enough people coming through the door.”
To that point, the tour ended at Elizabeth Street’s intersection with Route 34, where the group looked out at the vacant parcels in Derby’s redevelopment zone.
“All down here used to be businesses,” DiCenso said.
“These are some of the properties that we don’t own yet,” Sill said, echoing the concerns Democrats raised at the Board of Aldermen meeting the night before.
By contrast, DiCenso pointed across the Housatonic River to Shelton, where hundreds of new apartments are in the process of being developed downtown, and more are in the pipeline.
Murphy said he met recently with a regional administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency and was told the state isn’t redeveloping its old industrial properties at the pace of its neighbors.
“Massachusetts and Rhode Island are redeveloping their old mills much quicker than Connecticut is,” Murphy said, vowing to work on the problem. “Clearly there’s something that we’re not doing right here.”
Afterward, Murphy told the Valley Indy that government needs to have a “laser-like” focus on helping post-industrial communities like Derby — and the businesses that call those communities home.
“There are success stories here,” he said. “There are businesses that are doing well . . . but they need some help from the government.
“The tax burden when it comes to businesses tends to fall on the backs of small businesses, while big, multi-national corporations often pay nothing in taxes to the federal government,” Murphy went on. “I think we need just a radical shift of business taxes away from small businesses onto larger businesses.”