September 9, 2013 10:28AM
By Dan Brechlin
MERIDEN — The Republican Town Committee has nominated a placeholder for the last three mayoral elections, including this year’s, while party heads continued the search for a viable candidate.
In 2009, longtime Republican James F. Belote, a former councilor and alderman stepped up, running an unsuccessful campaign against Mayor Michael S. Rohde. In 2011, it was former We the People Chairman Walter Micowski who made his third party shift, joining the Republicans and being defeated by Rohde.
“It’s a big commitment to run for mayor, it’s a challenge,” said Liz Whitney, vice chair of the Republican Town Committee. “After you get elected, it’s a big commitment too. It could be a little intimidating for some people. (Rohde) has been in there for a while and he is well-known.”
Unsure of who to put up for the coming election, the Republicans opted for another placeholder – Manny Santos, the secretary of the town committee, who had only joined the party a few years earlier.
“I had no intentions of running when I was nominated as a placeholder,” Santos said. “But afterwards, so many people suggested how I could run and how I may have a great impact on the future of this city. So, after several days and just some prayerful consideration with my family and wife, it seemed to make sense to go ahead and do it now.”
In mid-August it became official, Santos, who has yet to run for any type of political office, would make a bid to be the city’s next mayor in the upcoming November election. Santos will oppose the incumbent, Rohde, who has served in the position since 2008. Rohde’s time in politics, however, dates back to 1989 when he was elected to the City Council.
Some argue that the city’s mayoral position is a mostly ceremonial one, along with the power to run City Council meetings, appoint members to boards and commissions and occasionally veto council action or break a tie vote. Rohde admits his duties do not entail much beyond that, though any notion that it’s a ceremonial position does not sit well with him.
“I’ve chosen to use this as a leadership position,” Rohde said. “I’m not afraid to take on issues that need to be taken on and even tough issues, I’ll get involved and fight for them...I don’t just show up. I show up with a purpose.”
After being endorsed by the Republicans, We the People chose to cross endorse Santos this week, giving him a second line on the ballot in November. Santos said he is excited to have the support of multiple parties and Whitney added that it should help. She added that there were no concerns about his lack of political experience.
“He brings new ideas and a whole new perspective,” she said. “He’s been watching what’s been going on and seen it over the years. Manny should really be able to look at the situation from the outside and maybe think outside the box.”
Santos had been invited to a Republic Town Committee meeting, which initially drew him into politics. Not liking the way the city or state was heading, Santos said it would be important to get involved.
“It made sense to get involved rather than just not doing anything,” he said.
Some of those running for office, including Santos, may have concerns, but Rohde is pleased that the two high school renovation projects, the Hub redevelopment project and the new train station are all coming to fruition. There are numerous other smaller projects that have either recently been completed or starting soon, Rohde noted.
“I’ve got a clear track record to run on,” Rohde said, referring to his support for the projects. “It’s easy to talk about what you are going to do...There are signs of progress virtually everywhere we point to in the city.”
Santos has no problem with the projects and hopes that they help, especially in the downtown. He added that he would accept any funding the city gets from the state and federal level, which is where most of the money is coming from. He would, however, prefer if the city would be more business friendly and attract more private development.
“Meriden cannot continue to rely solely on state and federal funding; I think the current administration focuses on that,” Santos said. “Why is it always tax dollars?”
Santos, a city resident of 17 years, said some of the projects, like flood control and the Hub redevelopment, have been ongoing for nearly his entire two decades as a Meriden resident. He said it has taken too long to accomplish some of the tasks. Because the city was reliant on the state and federal government, Rohde said, obtaining the funding took many years, adding that it helped to have strong relationships with state legislators and the governor in recent years. Rohde noted that the major projects were nearly, if not all, Democratic initiatives.
While Santos said he has some confidence because he connects better to the average Meriden resident, Rohde said he has been actively involved with the community dating back to before his political days.
“I’ve made a lot of friends and supporters along the way,” said Rohde. “I like to think people know me and what I stand for and what I do. I’ve tried to be a very active mayor.”