April 24, 2014 11:51AM
By Dan Brechlin
MERIDEN — After a stunning defeat of Democratic mayoral incumbent Michael S. Rohde, Republican challenger Manny Santos had expected to take a few days to lay low and relax. He was wrong.
Santos, a 45-year-old mechanical engineer and native of Portugal, has been busy after being declared the winner of the mayoral race, Tuesday night. He defeated Rohde, who had been an elected official since 1989 and was first appointed mayor in 2008, subsequently winning full two-year terms in 2009 and 2011.
“I wasn’t expecting it to be like this...I thought I was going to have a couple days to just do nothing,” Santos said. “There has been planning and talking and figuring out what needs to be done.”
Santos is expected to be sworn into office Dec. 2. Before that time, he will likely choose a deputy mayor and constituent caseworker and leadership and committee assignments for the council will be decided. Santos said he will also be meeting with city department officials, some local organizations and businesses in that time.
“Some have already been reaching out to me,” he said. “It’s essentially been an introduction and wishing me the best.”
Though Santos said he had yet to review the voter totals, he said the win is likely the result of a different message being proposed in his campaign, which “resonated with a lot of residents.”
Democratic Town Chairwoman Mildred Torres-Ferguson said she has looked over the numbers and was pleased with the turnout of 26.8 percent, which was about three percentage points higher than the previous two municipal elections. Torres-Ferguson said she wasn’t sure if voters necessarily favored Santos or if the election reflected dissatisfaction with the current state of the city.
“Obviously they must have been frustrated with the administration,” she said, calling the mayor the “point person” for the city. “Some were probably frustrated with politics in general...It may not have had anything to do with either one of them and voters were just looking for someone new.”
Santos won by a margin of 370 votes or 4.77 percent. He carried nine of 13 precincts including the polling places with the highest turnout – New Life Church, St. John’s Lutheran Church and Lincoln Middle School. The four precincts Rohde carried each had turnout of less than 20 percent and are in the inner city – Immanuel Lutheran Church, Community Towers, John Barry School and the Sherman Avenue firehouse.
Former Democratic City Council Majority Leader Stephen T. Zerio was present at his party’s headquarters Tuesday night. In reviewing the election, Zerio said the numbers were interesting when compared to the last campaign he ran, in 2003. Then, former mayor Mark D. Benigni garnered about 8,200 votes by himself, compared with the combined 7,748 Santos and Rohde received. Zerio noted that Rohde received fewer votes than three at-large City Council candidates this year.
“Low turnout has a tremendous impact,” Zerio said. “Either people are fed up with the political system or voting by not voting.”
The numbers and turnout may have been a factor, but Zerio added that issues within the city were likely not ignored, including the tie-breaking vote Rohde cast in 2011 in favor of using project labor agreements for the renovations of Platt and Maloney high schools. The agreements direct work toward labor unions and some have argued, including City Manager Lawrence J. Kendzior, that they could drive up the price of the project. Bids for both projects came in higher than estimates forcing officials to make changes to the plans to bring costs down through a process known as value engineering.
Rohde later vetoed a resolution to rescind the PLA at Platt High School this year.
“The PLA vote is still high in everybody’s mind,” he said.
Torres-Ferguson noted that the Falcon Field project a few years ago was a non-union project that came in over budget, also resulting in value engineering.
Among those who agreed with Zerio was the Rev. Will Marotti, pastor of New Life Church, stating that Rohde “caused his own demise” in opting for the PLA.
After meeting with Santos, Marotti decided to support him, saying it’s the first time he has actively backed a mayoral candidate.
“He worked really hard and his message was really clear and that’s something that the average person could relate to,” Marotti said. “He’s smart, articulate and not a career politician...It was time for a change and I just thought, knowing Manny personally and listening to him, that I really believed in him.”
Though New Life had the highest voter turnout, Marotti did not attribute Santos’ success to his backing. Marotti said New Life always has a high voter turnout and he knew Santos was active door-knocking and campaigning in the Bee Street area.
Earlier this week, Republican Town Chairman Dan Brunet reasoned that Rohde may have lost after the Democrats took his seat for granted and put more effort behind Luke Ford, who opposed Brunet in the Area 3 council race. Torres-Ferguson disagreed, stating that most of the efforts were shifted to Area 2 where Democrat Larue Graham won his first full term, but she admitted many Democrats assumed Rohde would win.
“He’s right in the sense that I didn’t think the mayor was in that much trouble to lose his seat,” she said. “They always say the longer you are in politics, the more enemies you make and the more people dislike you over the years. We need to regroup and figure out what happened.”
Torres-Ferguson said she hoped that the members of the council and mayor are able to work well together. She added that many of the major projects in place right now including the Hub project and high school renovations were developments brought forth by Democrats and that should be remembered.
Zerio said he will be interested to see how the sides work together, noting that the Democrats also lost a seat on the City Council, which means the party does not have the eight votes needed to overrride a mayoral veto.
“Collaboration and consensus is even more critical for the city to move forward,” Zerio said. “I’m hoping that’s what happens. I don’t think people want to see the gridlock that you see down in Washington in Meriden’s Council Chambers.”
Republican challenger Manny Santos carried nine of 13 precincts including the polling places with the highest turnout. The four precincts Democratic incumbent Michael S. Rohde carried each had turnout of less than 20 percent.
Precinct 1: Immanuel Lutheran Church, 164 Hanover St.
Turnout: 23.1 percent
Margin: Santos by 1 vote
Precinct 2: Community Towers, 55 Willow St.
Turnout: 18.75 percent
Margin: Rohde by 59 votes
Precinct 3: John Barry School, 124 Columbia St.
Turnout: 19.69 percent
Margin: Rohde by 4 votes
Precinct 4: St. Rose Community Center, 34 Center St.
Turnout: 13.78 percent
Margin: Rohde by 70 votes
Precinct 5: Firehouse, 260 Sherman Ave.
Turnout: 13.58 percent
Margin: Rohde by 10 votes
Precinct 6: Washington Middle School, 1225 N. Broad St.
Turnout: 24 percent
Margin: Santos by 5 votes
Precinct 7: Firehouse, 168 Chamberlain Hwy.
Turnout: 22.07 percent
Margin: Santos by 21 votes
Precinct 8: New Life Church, 262 Bee St.
Turnout: 38.7 percent
Margin: Santos by 61 votes
Precinct 9: Maloney High School
Turnout: 29.59 percent
Margin: Santos by 30 votes
Precinct 10: St. John’s Lutheran Church, 520 Paddock Ave.
Turnout: 36.97 percent
Margin: Santos by 17 votes
Precinct 11: Israel Putnam School, 133 Parker Ave.