MERIDEN — All Manny Santos wanted to do was help out the Republican Party by accepting the nomination as a placeholder candidate to run against Democratic incumbent Michael S. Rohde.
Santos and the Republicans expected to name a viable candidate later.
Not only was Santos a viable candidate he was what the voters wanted. The political newcomer pulled off a stunning upset Tuesday, defeating Rohde by close to 400 votes, according to the Record-Journal’s unofficial results.
“This has been quite a roller coaster ride,” the 45-year-old Santos said as he addressed a crowd of Republican and We the People party members at American Legion Post 45. “I’m humbled by this and so grateful. ...There’s a lot of work to be done.”
At Democratic headquarters on West Main Street, the room was quiet as vote totals were written on a chart on the wall. Precinct by precinct, Rohde was being edged out by Santos, thanks, in part, to Santos’ cross endorsement from We the People. While Rohde counted vote totals, Democrats whispered their surprise that the mayor might be defeated.
Rohde, 68, has served as an elected official since 1989, when he won a seat on the City Council. He was appointed mayor by the council in 2008, when former Mayor Mark D. Benigni resigned. Rohde was seeking his 10th election win. Among his victories were two primaries.
“Since the day I entered politics, I said the voters will decide,” Rohde said as he sat in a booth at Frontera Grill on East Main Street. “So be it.”
After tallying the results and meeting with Democratic leadership, Rohde went to the American Legion building to congratulate Santos. Though the meeting was brief, Santos said he appreciated it.
“He just told me that he hopes the progress continues in Meriden,” Santos said.
Rohde and Santos had sparred on multiple issues since Santos announced his run for mayor. Santos had been most critical about the lack of private development downtown. Rohde, who has supported flood control and other downtown infrastructure projects throughout his terms on the council and as mayor, has stated that improvements are needed in order to attract private development.
Santos also had been critical of the numerous ceremonial groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies held in the month leading up to the election. Santos said it was abuse of city resources and was mostly done for attention. Rohde countered by stating that the city likes to celebrate its accomplishments and he could not have planned for major projects like the Hub redevelopment and the Platt High School renovations to start in the past month.
Rohde has been proud of the recent developments in the city, including the Hub and high school renovations, in addition to flood control improvements, City Park’s redevelopment, and others.
“There are a lot of positives right now, and I hope they will continue,” Rohde said.
Rohde said it was difficult to speculate about what caused the loss, but he said it could have been connected to a general anger with government, people upset with incumbents and one-party rule.
Santos agreed, saying it was clear change was needed. He also noted that he received a great deal of support from Democrats.
“I never assumed I was going to win,” Santos said. “But I got the feeling a few weeks ago that I had a good chance at winning. ... Almost everyone I spoke to said we do need a change. What we’ve been trying for years has not worked, and putting new people in there is probably the only way of doing it. It’s time for a change. It was a clear indication that people were fed up with politics as usual and people were ready for something fresh.”
Rohde has been dominant in nearly all of his elections, especially mayoral elections. In previous mayoral elections, Rohde defeated Walter P. Micowski in 2011 by 1,100 votes, and Jim Belote in 2009 by more than 2,500 votes. Rohde also defeated former council Majority Leader Stephen T. Zerio in a 2009 primary 1,280-721. Zerio had been backed by the Democratic Town Committee, but could not trump Rohde, the former Area 2 councilor.
New to politics, Santos’ run for mayor marked his first bid for an elected seat. He has been on the Republican Town Committee for close to four years and is currently its secretary. Santos works in Wallingford as a mechanical engineer for Ultra Electronics, designing products used by the government and for military applications. Santos is a veteran of Desert Storm, having served in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Santos is married to Maryann Santos. They have a 12-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter. Both attend city schools.
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