MERIDEN — It was likely to be the last go-round for Michael S. Rohde, but the ending to his 23-year political career was a bit different than what he had expected. Upset by a relatively unknown Republican candidate, Rohde is confident that one night will not be the defining moment in his political legacy, but rather the impact he left on the community.
Elected to the City Council in 1989, Rohde represented Area 2 until 2008 when he was appointed by the council to serve out the remainder of former Mayor Mark D. Benigni’s term. Rohde did so, and after challenging and defeating Stephen T. Zerio in a primary, Rohde went on to serve a total of five years as the city’s mayor.
“I did what I set out to do,” Rohde said. “No regrets on any of it. I just enriched my life immeasurably with the people I have met and worked with, and the things that have happened...I think Meriden has a much, much better future and would not have had we not done these things.”
That includes the effort to get flooding in the city and downtown under control, the high school improvement projects, park redevelopments, and others. Rohde introduced a council resolution in the early 1990s to address the flooding issues following a flood that caused millions of dollars in damage in 1992. Rohde worked for years on the Flood Control Implementation Agency and helped obtain the permits last year that will allow work to begin at the site of the former Hub, a commercial complex downtown that was razed to make way for a park with space to contain floodwater.
While he received criticism from now-mayor Manny Santos for holding a series of groundbreaking ceremonies for projects, like the Hub redevelopment, leading up to the election, Rohde said they were simply necessary celebrations.
Rohde’s loss was a shock to many, with Santos having been a placeholder candidate at first. In light of Rohde’s 23 years of experience in politics and decades of involvement in the city, many assumed the incumbent had the upper hand.
“I think the first reaction is surprise to what happened, then, frankly, the work I had done wasn’t appreciated,” he said. “History will be the judge. No mayor that I know of has been involved, not that it was all me, it was my administration, was as involved. We got flood control going for the first time, two high schools being renovated for the first time in 50 years, we have a park coming to help salvage downtown, the Mills project underway, a train station with a new deck going on, City Park will be done for the first time in years that no one wanted to touch. That’s $300 million in projects going on. I worked hard on that. On top of that, I did the work of the mayor. I went to everything, did presentations. Was it enough? I don’t know what people expect of their mayor, but I guess it wasn’t enough this time.”
Rohde said there are likely multiple reasons for the electoral defeat. He had time to think about the election while Rohde and his wife took a nine-day vacation to Anguila in November.
Though he said the election was on his mind the first few days, eventually the burden was lifted.
“For my part, I did more campaigning than maybe ever before,” Rohde said. “I thought that would carry the day. ... A lot of people came up to me and said they were surprised and thought I would win, so I think a lot of people just stayed at home.”
Rohde said the debate over whether or not to use a project labor agreement for the high school renovations was contentious. Rohde cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of the agreement with local trade unions for work on the project and later accepted campaign contributions from the unions.
When the issue came back before the council unexpectedly, Rohde returned the contributions to avoid the appearance of a conflict. The split within the Democratic party caucus over the labor agreement caused some negative attention both in his and the party’s direction, Rohde said.
Rohde also points to the distaste for government on a national level and the possible trickle-down effect hurting incumbents. He gave credit to the Republicans for their energy throughout the election and commitment to getting Santos elected.
In discussing the election and high-cost projects with Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, Rohde said he came to a realization. Finch, Rohde said, told him that most people “don’t care about the big projects.” Despite the possibility of improving the city in the long run, people focus mostly on the short-term and the tax liability that will come with them.
“It’s a political liability to do big things,” Rohde said. “They’re going to be phenomenal in the long run, but they might be a burden in the short term.”
City Manager Lawrence J. Kendzior, however, said that Rohde is known for his work on the major infrastructure improvements.
“He was right there in the beginning in forming the Flood Control Implementation Agency right through his council career,” Kendzior said.
Away from the projects, Rohde has also been a firm supporter of festivals and events like the Puerto Rican festival, which has increased in attendance dramatically since he and Hector Cardona Sr. began promoting it, and the Black Expo, as well as Project Graduation.
“There were always big and little things that, because I’m mayor, I knew I could step in and help,” Rohde said. “I love doing that stuff and I’m a worker bee. I don’t just go to these things, I spend my day every year at the Puerto Rican Festival (serving) sodas all day long just to help out.”
Rohde began his political career in similar fashion — by simply helping out where he could. Rohde was a supporter of then-state Rep. Thomas Luby who Rohde had met through his employment at the Curtis Home as director of children’s services. Rohde volunteered for Luby’s campaign in 1988, painting political signs. When Luby asked Rohde if he was interested in running for City Council the following year, he was hesitant because the council was downsizing from 20 to 12 members after charter revision. But when Luby insisted, the political newcomer, then 44, ran and defeated Republican John P. Turley and petitioning candidate Francis S. Rotella.
“When I told my friends they thought I was either crazy or smoking something funny,” Rohde told an audience at Washington Middle School at the swearing-in ceremony last week.
Now 68, and turning 69 next month, Rohde looks back with a smile on his accomplishments. He does the same when talking about the city of Meriden.
“I take pride in the fact that we have a very diverse community, but I fully embrace it and more than that, I champion it. ... I feel that I’ve been a mayor for everybody,” Rohde said, explaining that he has reached out to every demographic imaginable.
“I really tried to reach out and show that Meriden is a welcoming, respectful community for everyone. ... And I always liked the fact that I can pick up the phone and make something happen. I probably can still do that.”
The dedication and love for the city from Rohde is real, Kendzior said, explaining that the former mayor deeply cared about the city, its image and the people.
“Mike has done more in terms of talking about and celebrating the city diversity and bringing groups of people together,” Kendzior said. “And not just in a talking-about-it kind of way and with various committees. He’s done more work in that area than anybody can think of.”
Kendzior added that the balance he and Rohde had worked well with Kendzior managing and Rohde being in the spotlight. He added that they had a “good partnership.”
Rohde talks about the big tasks he has taken on and the hours he has spent trying to improve festivals and events in the city. Other activities he’s less vocal about, but those are the ones that can have a greater impact on individuals.
Following a double homicide in 2012 at the intersection of Crown and Olive streets that remains unsolved, Rohde learned that one of the men killed was the father of three children. The family had no money to bury the man and would be unable to bury him properly.
“So, I worked with a local funeral home, a local church and local paster and got him buried in the white suit his mother wanted him to get buried in,” Rohde said, pausing to reflect and fight back emotion.
“So, I just hope that the new leaders can do things like that because you can really change lives and not for the fanfare or for the stuff that goes under the radar, but you’re just in a position to help.”
Rohde has been in the business of helping people for a long time. After graduating from St. John Fisher College in his hometown of Rochester, N.Y., Rohde took a summer job at Mount St. John school for at-risk boys. He worked his way up the ranks while earning a master’s degree in human services administration from Antioch University in Keene, N.H., and eventually became director of the program by the age of 27.
After meeting a member of the board of directors for the Curtis Home, Rohde took a job directing the home’s children’s services in Meriden in 1972. He relocated to the city in 1975 with his wife, Nancy, and then-young son, Matthew. Rohde and his wife would later have a daughter, Amanda.
Until 2001, Rohde held that position before directing the Cove Center for Grieving Children. He followed that by directing the marketing for the Ronald McDonald House of Connecticut before his current job as director of community relations for the Community Health Center. A part-time job, the position allowed Rohde to balance his time with his role as mayor and attend meetings and events for both whenever necessary.
After serving five years as Rohde’s deputy mayor, Matthew C. Dominello said, he was impressed with Rohde’s tenure. Dominello, a longtime councilor and former mayor, said the two always worked closely together.
“Sometimes I’d think one way and he would think the other,” Dominello admitted. “But we had a good working relationship. I’d give him a high rating. He’s a person that worked very hard in trying to get things done. ... Everything he did was for the community and to make Meriden a better community.”
Rohde knew Monday, Dec. 2, would be his last day, but even that came to an odd ending. Santos was sworn in at 9 a.m., effectively ending Rohde’s tenure a few hours early. Rohde said it set a negative tone for the day, as did the City Council meeting in which both parties sparred over City Charter interpretation. Rohde is openly critical about the new mayor’s start, but is hopeful that the city’s progress will continue.
Out of politics for the first time since 1989, Rohde said he will continue his role with the Community Health Center, but will begin planning for his future — something Rohde admits his wife had urged him to do years ago.
The two will be taking salsa dance classes together and Rohde said he will “probably learn to cook better than what I do now.”
As for his duties in Meriden, Rohde said he has begun resigning from some commitments. Rohde explained he became involved in some organizations and events because of his mayoral duties, though some were for personal enjoyment. Others, like Project Graduation and the Puerto Rican festival, were a combination.
There are no immediate long-term plans, Rohde said, but with his son, Matt, and his wife and children in Southern California, and daughter, Mandy, in San Francisco, it is possible he and Nancy will move to the West Coast.
“It’s hard; we only get to see them once or twice a year,” Rohde said. “So we will probably spend a month or so out there, check out the area and see what we like and spend some time with them. ... We have started asking, ‘Are we going to be bi-coastal? Are we going to have a place just in California, will we own or rent?’ ”
The politics, Rohde said, have come to an end for him. While he loved his role as mayor, it was time-consuming and took time away from his wife, friends and other aspects of his personal life.
“You don’t realize how much it weighs down on you because I’ve been doing it for 23 years. I’m always on the phone or have (job-related) things to do,” Rohde said. “I promised (Nancy) this was my last run. I’ve done my time. ...
“It’s time to think about doing some things I like to do. That’s kind of what’s next. I’ll be keeping my hand in things here still. I have plenty of contacts and relationships I’ve had and built for years.”
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