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Christopher Zajac Record-Journal
Mayor Michael Rohde welcomes guests to the small ceremony marking the near completion of the Factory H demolition and cleanup in Meriden, Thursday June 28, 2012. In the background an excavator scoops up some of the last remaining piles of rubble in waiting trucks and bins. (Christopher Zajac / Record-Journal)

Mayor Rohde: ‘He’s a community guy’

MERIDEN — Sitting at the breakfast table one morning in 2008, Nancy Rohde turned to her husband and asked if he had ever thought about being mayor. Michael S. Rohde, a city councilor since 1989, gave a laugh before explaining that he had not. Nancy Rohde responded, telling her husband that he would be great at it.

“I had honestly never thought about it,” Rohde said, explaining that many thought then-Mayor Mark D. Benigni might stay in office for the long run. “But that put the idea in my head.”

It was only a few months later that Benigni announced his resignation after taking a job as a school principal in Cromwell and Rohde sprang at the opportunity. He was appointed to fill the remainder of Benigni’s term, although that was not a given, with some Democrats supporting former council Majority Leader Stephen T. Zerio, who did not seek re-election to the council in 2007. Then in August 2009, the Democratic Town Committee’s mayoral nominating committee voted 8-5 to endorse Zerio for the upcoming election. Rohde, however, forced a primary and went on to beat Zerio 1,280-721. He defeated Republican challenger James F. Belote by more than 2,500 votes in the general election.

Rohde is now in his second full term and will face Republican Manny Santos in his 10th overall election.

Since his tenure as mayor began, Rohde has taken the role head on.

“This role is what you make it,” said Rohde, 68.

By City Charter, the mayor’s duties are to run council meetings, assign members to various boards and commissions, and to exercise veto and tie-breaking powers when necessary. Having always gravitated toward leadership positions, Rohde said he wanted to use his experience to do more than the bare minimum. He also had a desire to do more than just be a ceremonial mayor, which he said Benigni had suggested he mostly do.

“His advice was to let the city manager deal with the controversial stuff and for me to stay above it,” Rohde said, praising Benigni for his time as mayor and the positivity he brought to the role. “I didn’t get into leadership to do the easy things. Leadership is about doing the hard things.”

A Rochester, N.Y., native, Rohde is no stranger to leadership. He found his way to Connecticut after finishing college with a bachelor’s degree in economics and psychology from St. John Fisher College in Rochester. He later went on to earn a master’s degree in human services administration from Antioch University in Keene, N.H.

Rohde got a job at Mount St. John, a year-round school for at-risk boys. Enjoying working with children, Rohde found himself continuing at Mount St. John, working his way up through the ranks. At the age of 27, he was directing the program.

The psychiatrist for the school was a Meriden-based doctor who was also a member of the board of directors for the Curtis Home’s children’s program. At the time, the Curtis Home’s children’s branch was an orphanage, but was in disarray and in need of some help. The doctor asked Rohde to come in and analyze the direction it should head in and what the issues were. Afterward, Rohde was asked to direct the children’s program in Meriden ­— a role he held until 2001.

Since then, Rohde has directed the Cove Center for Grieving Children, directed the development and marketing for the Ronald McDonald House of Connecticut and now serves as director of community relations for the Community Health Center. A part-time job, his current position allows him to balance his time with his role as mayor and attend meetings and events for both whenever necessary.

A typical day, Rohde said, begins with a call before 8 a.m. to constituent caseworker Ed Siebert about the plans and projects for the day, before heading to the Community Health Center. Rohde reads about the current events in cities and towns around the state that have branches of the health center. Some days the job takes him to Middletown or other areas of the state for events or meetings.

As director of community relations for the Middletown-based group, Rohde helps make inroads in areas where new health centers could open. In addition, he has been helping with events related to the Affordable Care Act and getting people signed up for health care. He also takes inventory of nonprofit organizations in the area to connect new clients to the Community Health Center. It is a job Rohde was hired for by longtime friend and Community Health Center Director Mark Masselli.

“You don’t necessarily have to agree with him, but I think everybody agrees that he has an oar in the water for Meriden and its residents in the community and the other oar is in for the general population wherever they reside,” said Masselli, who met Rohde more than 30 years ago due to their nonprofit work. “Whatever community he’s in, he treats people with respect, he’s engaged in building social networks primarily to benefit those who are underserved.”

Rohde makes no secret about the way his two jobs intertwine. Both jobs, he said, have a community relations aspect and allow him to bring people together, whether it be for events, needs, services, or other reasons.

“My political involvement and civic involvement has just put me in a place where I can reach out to a lot of people and make things happen,” Rohde said. “That’s probably one of the greatest joys I have as mayor. I can pick up the telephone and make things happen that most people can’t. So I love to get things done.”

At a mayoral debate last week, Santos was critical of Rohde’s nonprofit career, stating that he did not have enough of a business background.

“Unfortunately, the mayor has spent a lot of time in nonprofits, which is why he has a hard time attracting businesses,” Santos said. “He doesn’t understand them.”

When asked later in the week, Rohde said he was dumbfounded by Santos’ claim, stating that the nation’s nonprofit sector is a huge business. He added that he has met with numerous business executives in the city in meetings he initiated since becoming mayor, making sure the city is doing what it can to retain the businesses and helping them expand when appropriate.

“I think I have a very good feel for businesses,” Rohde said, noting he was asked to meet with executives from Meriden-based Thompson Candy earlier in the week. “They spoke about the plans they had and were thanking the city for all it’s done to keep them here in Connecticut.”

It was Rohde’s involvement with nonprofits, specifically the Curtis Home, that got him into politics. Rohde had met then-state Rep. Thomas Luby through the organization. Rohde had volunteered to help Luby with a campaign, mostly painting political signs. The following year, Luby asked Rohde if he was interested in running for City Council.

“Mike was always someone who got things done,” Luby said, crediting Rohde for founding events like Relay for Life, an annual fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. “He’s a community guy, not a politician.”

Rohde said he was hesitant at first because the council was downsizing from 20 to 12 members following charter revision and incumbents would be left without seats, but Luby insisted and even made a call to ensure Rohde would be the Area 2 Democratic candidate. Rohde went on to win and has since won all nine elections and two primaries he was involved with.

Luby praised Rohde for always taking on a leadership role, whether it be with non-profit groups, events or with challenges facing the city. He noted Rohde has been a proponent of fixing flooding issues and redeveloping the former Meriden Hub property downtown, among other large-scale projects.

“What he touches tends to happen,” Luby said. “He’s good at making people move in one direction...And he remains idealistic after two decades in local government. He’s still energetic, still optimistic.”

Rohde said he is unsure what causes him to gravitate toward leadership roles, saying it could be that he was the first born of his three other siblings, but he knows it takes a strong leader to get things done. Rohde does not hide his excitement or enthusiasm when talking about the Hub redevelopment project, flood control or the high school renovations. Those critical of the projects, Rohde said, have voiced their opinions, but never have a plan to counter with.

“I don’t have a lot of patience ... especially for the naysayers,” Rohde said, admitting his lack of patience is not always good mix with politics. “Anybody can tear things down, but to build things up and make things happen, that takes a lot.”

Though Rohde has not mellowed in the political spectrum, he admits he is getting older. The cancer survivor has had a hip replaced and feels the signs of a second that might be giving out, he said, though he is in good overall health. Rohde enjoys walking, dining with his wife and friends, spending time at various events and he regularly plays golf. With two children who have families in California, Rohde said he enjoys traveling to see them and he and Nancy Rohde want to travel more in the future. They have a trip planned to Anguilla in the Caribbean following the election,

A regular golf partner of Rohde is city resident Ray Gawlak, who has known Rohde since he first moved to Meriden in the 1970s, having linked up through the Meriden Rotary Club. The two have been on golf trips together and Gawlak still jokes about the time he threw a golf club into a tree out of frustration and Rohde climbed the tree to retrieve it for Gawlak.

“We’ve had a lot of laughs through the years,” Gawlak said. “We’ve been pretty loyal friends to each other ... We’ve had our disagreements, but he’s always coming from a really good place.”

Gawlak said he was proud to have Rohde as a friend and as the mayor of the city, praising him for his leadership. Though Gawlak joked that Rohde’s role as mayor affects the amount of time they can play golf together, he knows Rohde enjoys it. Despite Rohde getting older, Gawlak said the mayor’s enthusiasm for the position has not waned.

How much longer Rohde has in politics is something only time and the election will tell, but Rohde will be 70 when the next term ends and said he would have to carefully consider what’s next. He will definitely give it the next two years if elected, he said, wanting to see the Hub project through, much of the high school renovations and the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield rail line come to fruition.

“Nancy wants to travel more and maybe simplify our lives a little bit so I don’t know,” Rohde said. “She wants me to be happy and she knows I like doing this and I’m in the middle of stuff that’s really great that’s happening. So we’ll have to see.” 203-317-2266 Twitter: @DanBrechlinRJ

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