MERIDEN — A native of Portugal whose family left the country in search of a better life, Manny Santos never grew up dreaming of one day becoming a mayor. Even as an adult, he had barely considered running for public office, only dipping his toes into politics over the last few years.
All of that changed on a night in late July when Santos, the secretary of the Republican Town Committee, was nominated as a candidate for mayor in the upcoming election. Santos and members of the committee agreed he would only be a placeholder candidate until the party found a more viable option. But after some careful consideration and encouragement from friends, Santos began a campaign, which has been supported by the Republican Party. He will face two-term Democratic incumbent Michael S. Rohde in the upcoming election.
“Sometimes things happen and you can’t plan for them, but when the opportunity presents itself, you have to make a decision,” said Santos, 45. “It seemed like the good thing to do.”
Members of the Republican Town Committee were pleased that Santos was able to take on the role of a placeholder, but even more encouraged when he decided he could become the true candidate.
“I think we knew at some point he would try to run for some office,” said party Vice Chairwoman Liz Whitney. “It was a matter of timing with him because he and his wife are very involved with his two children ...So we were surprised and excited. It’s a big role for somebody to take on and it’s no easy feat.”
Santos brings little political experience to his campaign, but has quickly found some support in a community where he has spent his last 17 years as a resident. Before being a Meriden resident, though, Santos had bounced around during his childhood and spent his early adulthood in the U.S. Marine Corps.
“I was born into a home where there was no electricity and no plumbing, no running water. It was just basic,” Santos said, describing his home in Portugal. “My parents worked the land and grew vegetables. When they became self-sustaining, they decided to come to the U.S. and left everything behind.”
Portugal had been under a dictatorship since the 1930s and there were further concerns of the socialist party strengthening in the country, Santos said. Santos’ family opted to leave Portugal when he was only 5 years old, the youngest of four children.
The government “was one of the reasons we left,” Santos said, noting that the leader at the time was overthrown shortly after the family’s departure. “We left in good terms and I actually had an uncle here already, which made things a lot easier.”
Santos’ family, speaking no English, found a home in Hartford, he said, in a 16-unit apartment building. For a few years, he, his three siblings and parents lived in the apartment. Santos’ mother worked as a custodian during the day while his father worked as a custodian during the evening. As years went on, they would move into a three-family home until Santos said his parents were able to buy a home of their own.
“I know what it’s like to have parents who work long hours earning very little money to support a family of six,” Santos said, comparing himself to families in Meriden. “I can relate to that and not having much ... When I was going door to door (campaigning) in the Willow, Pleasant and Olive street area, I was walking up the big staircases and the creaky porches, it was just like being back home.”
Also, considering himself Latino, Santos said he can relate to the large Hispanic community in the city and that his personal background provides a natural connection to the population.
Despite growing up without much, Santos said he was generally a happy child, having gone through the Hartford public school system. After graduating from high school, Santos said he had no desire at the time to continue his education. Instead, Santos joined the Marine Corps, spending four years on active duty and stationed in Hawaii for most of that time. He is also a combat veteran of the Gulf War, having spent close to three months overseas in Kuwait. He was discharged as a sergeant, Santos said.
When Santos left the military, he sought out full-time employment, but wound up back in school attending the University of Connecticut. Being a veteran, Santos was able to get a free education, earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He married his wife, Maryann, and moved to her hometown of Meriden 17 years ago.
Maryann Santos had been born in Bronx, N.Y., moving to the state at a young age. The family later moved to Meriden where she went to school, eventually becoming an optician. Santos said they met through her work.
“She looked into my eyes and I looked into hers and that was all it took,” Santos said.
Because of the city’s location, the east side neighborhood Santos lives in and amenities like Hubbard Park, Santos said he has grown fond of Meriden. Santos said he is also a firm believer in the school district, which his 12-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter attend, and the leadership School Superintendent Mark D. Benigni has brought to it.
Santos works in Wallingford as a mechanical engineer for Ultra Electronics, designing products used by the government and for military applications. Before that, he did the same thing at Capewell Components in Cromwell for nearly six years.
Though he would continue to work in a full-time position if elected, Santos said he is confident he will be able to free up his schedule when necessary for city events. Santos describes his schedule with the company as “flexible,” so unless a shipment for products is upcoming, he can typically change the hours he works.
Santos’ opponent, Rohde, is known for attending many city events, in addition to being available routinely for day-time meetings and a hands-on approach to his role. Santos said “within reason” he can adjust his schedule during the day and is committed to night events and meetings that the mayor would typically be involved with. He adds that he understands the time commitment, but wants to have a heavy involvement in the governmental process, as well.
Two years ago, the Republicans handpicked Walt Micowski to make a run for mayor. Micowski, who eventually lost by a wide margin to Rohde. was an outspoken critic of the Democratic regime. Micowski’s fundraising efforts, which largely included contributions from employees of the Carabetta Cos., paid for multiple TV ads criticizing the state of the city.
“Manny is very positive,” Whitney said. “He would never run an attack campaign.”
Santos is cross-endorsed by the We the People Party, which Chairwoman Lois DeMayo said she was unsure of at first. Not wanting to be an auxiliary of the Republican Party, DeMayo said, the town committee was hesitant. Opting not to split the ballot and impressed by Santos, DeMayo said the party ultimately favored endorsing Santos.
“When I first met him, you could tell he was eager,” DeMayo said. “Getting to know him, he’s a people’s man ... He’s very impressive. He has hopped right on the topics and has worked hard and done his homework.”
Though Santos has been critical of the lack of private investors in the redevelopment of downtown so far and the slow pace at which projects are happening, he has been complimentary of some of the ongoing efforts to revive the city. Santos notes the renovation of the city’s two high schools and flood control as having the potential to help turn Meriden around.
“That’s a huge undertaking,” he said of flood control. “Once flooding is under control it will bring in more economic development ... I don’t think flood control was a good reason to delay any economic development or private investors. It could have been done parallel.”
At last week’s mayoral debate, Rohde was critical of Santos’ lack of experience, stating that now was not the time for “on-the-job training.” In a meeting with the Record-Journal’s editorial board earlier this month, Santos admitted that he is still learning and does not have all of the answers when questioned about how he would increase funding for infrastructure while maintaining a balanced budget. Santos would only say that some areas of the city budget would need to be decreased, noting that education and public safety would not be among those lowered.
“I don’t think experience has much to do with it,” Santos said. “The mayor has the most experience of anyone and yet that doesn’t seem to help Meriden. And at one point (Rohde) wasn’t in politics. Everyone has to get in at some point.”
Santos may lack the experience in politics, but he says he’s a problem solver. He also points to his strong listening skills, which have been put to good use on the campaign trail. Since the first day the Republican Town Committee gave him the “thumbs up” to go forward with his campaign, Santos has been talking to people around the city, he said.
Republican Town Chairman Dan Brunet said he has been impressed by Santos’ dedication to running and was glad Santos stepped up to the challenge.
“We saw him as a fair, reasonable, pragmatic approach,” Brunet said. “We didn’t fear his lack of experience...I think he has great support throughout the city.”
Brunet pointed to Santos’ laid-back approach as something that likely appeals to voters and added that Santos has a great willingness to learn.
“He’s done very well to differentiate himself,” Brunet said.
Among those singing Santos’ praises was city resident Gregg Atterbery, who was also among Santos’ confidants when he considered a mayoral run. Santos and Atterbery met about three years ago in church and their daughters are friends, Atterbery said. Having grown close, Atterbery said he was surprised by Santos’ decision, but is throwing his support behind the mayoral candidate despite differing views.
“I’m a card-carrying Democrat,” Atterbery admitted. “But I also believe in people and vote people ahead of a party line. He is one of the most solid guys I know.”
Atterbery described Santos as a “laid-back guy,” but he has been impressed by his vision for the city.
“When he speaks, he has that passion,” Atterbery said. “Once he brought up that initial thought about running, I thought ‘this could work.’”
Atterbery noted that all he wants, like Santos, is to improve the city and help give it a brighter future. Santos said he has heard the same sentiment on the campaign trail, in addition to gripes about taxes. If the tax base can be grown privately, Santos said, then a burden could be lifted off residents.
“Where a downtown goes, so does the city. If you cannot rejuvenate downtown or turn it around,” he said, “there isn’t much of a chance to turn the rest of the city around.”
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