MERIDEN — Republican City Councilor Kevin Scarpati came under fire from his own party and members of We the People Party after dissenting from the parties in the first vote of the new council earlier this month. With or without his vote regarding the reappointment of Corporation Counsel Michael Quinn, there was enough support to keep Quinn in place, but his willingness to cross the party divide could have an impact on future council votes.
“I hate to say my vote is like the ultimate vote here,” Scarpati said. “I’m going to vote how I feel and based on what is the right thing to do. I vote what I think is best for city.”
What Scarpati thinks is best could be what swings future votes. With 12 members of the council, seven are Democrats, three are Republicans and two are members of We the People. Republicans and We the People tend to share similar views, separate from Democrats, though that is not always the case.
Should party line votes come up, however, a 7-5 vote would push any resolution in favor of the Democratic stance. Should Mayor Manny Santos veto the resolution, he would have enough votes, five, to uphold the veto. But if Scarpati votes opposite of the like-minded parties, as he did with the Quinn appointment, it would be enough to overturn a veto. Santos cited Scarpati’s vote as the reason he did not veto Quinn’s appointment.
“Councilor Scarpati voted with the majority so unless he changed his vote, they have the votes to override the veto...” Santos said.
Scarpati, 24, admits he is more of a moderate than most who serve on either town committee. He bore the brunt of booing and jeering during the vote regarding Quinn’s fate and faced some criticism for not backing the new mayor. Many also assumed he voted for Quinn in a quid pro quo deal in exchange for a chairmanship on the council Public Safety Committee. Minority Leader Dan Brunet has denied that and said he wanted to negotiate a leadership role for Scarpati in talks with the Democratic majority.
Councilor Walter A. Shamock Jr., a We the People member, had been critical of Scarpati for not backing the Republican mayor in his first action on the day following the vote. During the debate about council committees, Scarpati addressed the crowd, explaining that he was “doing what is best for the city” and not voting with a particular party.
“I’ve never been pressured the vote a certain way,” Scarpati said in an interview last week. “I really want to do what I think is right. You start to question yourself and ask if I should be voting with my party. But internally, I have to ask how I feel about this and wonder if I could sleep at night. I didn’t think I would be able to do that. Somebody who has done a great job (Quinn), would unnecessarily be losing their job over that and that could be with any vote. You need to question what’s best for the city and how you need to go about any issue you face.”
Brunet was not critical, but said he and the others chose to side with the mayor despite not having any significant issues with Quinn.
“If you are in the middle on an issue, you should side with the party,” Brunet said.
Still, Brunet said he considered it an “isolated incident” with very few votes that divide parties. When it comes to fiscal situations that may arise, rather than split from the minority caucus, Brunet said he expected Scarpati will side with the Republicans and We the People.
City Council Deputy Minority Leader Brian Daniels said it was likely very few split party votes were coming up, let alone any with much controversy.
“I don’t see any issue on the horizon,” Daniels said.
Daniels noted that most council votes are unanimous, including some recent city budgets. He added that Democrats do not always see eye to eye on issues either, pointing to the issue of using project labor agreements for hiring workers on the high school renovations over the past two years.
The political division two weeks ago came on the same night that outgoing councilor of 31 years Anthony Tomassetti encouraged the politicians to remember that they are not above the city residents, that they should listen to them and help them.
“Try to forget politics,” said Tomassetti, who has been endorsed by all three parties. “Base your decision on what you think is right.”
Wanting to be able to help city residents and improve Meriden, Scarpati got involved in politics at a younger age than most, registering to vote at 18 and almost immediately joining the Republican Town Committee. He credits his father, Sal Scarpati, for his interest in politics. Kevin Scarpati also served as a student representative on the Board of Education his senior year at Platt High School, which was his first involvement, he said.
Members of the town committee knew Scarpati had interest in running for office and asked him to run for state representative in the 83rd Assembly District against Democratic incumbent Catherine Abercrombie. Even Scarpati knew he was unlikely to win, but said it helped him gain some name recognition. Scarpati has also held a high profile with his employment at the YMCA, his position as a gym teacher at the local parochial schools and other community involvement.
“People always joke that if they lowered the voting age, I’d always win,” Scarpati said. “They might have to write my name on the ballot as Coach Kevin though.”
Abercrombie defeated Scarpati convincingly, but Scarpati said he was encouraged by the results after admittedly not running much of a campaign. He went on to win a seat on the Board of Education the following year at age 20 and was frequently seen at school events or just roaming the hallways in order to understand how the schools were operating or to improve communication.
“I really wanted to just better the school system,” Scarpati said. “Seeing the city side of things and how things operated there, it was clear things were totally separate as far as communication was concerned.”
Scarpati ran for an at-large seat on the City Council in 2011 in a stacked field that included longtime councilor Shamock, former Meriden police officer and previous top vote-getter John Thorp and David Lowell, an executive at Hunter’s Ambulance. Though many had suggested Scarpati run for an open seat in Area 4, Scarpati said he preferred the bigger challenge.
“I did that against a lot of people’s better judgment,” Scarpati said, recalling the win. “It turned out the way it did. I ran a very hard campaign. I’m very grateful for that and I don’t forget that ... So many people came up to me, especially Democrats, saying that ‘you made us proud’ or ‘you’re the only Republican I ever voted for.’”
Scarpati’s rise through youth activities and Y involvement, in addition to the school connection has drawn comparisons to School Superintendent Mark D. Benigni, the former mayor and city councilor. Their outgoing personalities have been compared, but also their independent style. Benigni ran for mayor as an independent with the support of the Republicans.
Scarpati often finds himself coaching Benigni’s two children in youth sports and the two keep in close communication.
“We’re friends, we talk frequently,” Scarpati said. “To compare Mark and myself, that’s an honor and a good connection to have. He’s obviously well-liked ... People actually visually mistake me with Mark every once in a while and I’ll send him a text (message) joking about it.”
In his four years as an elected official, Benigni said Scarpati has done an admirable job. While it may have been difficult to oppose his own party, Benigni said there will be differences between the voter and elected official and they will respect Scarpati’s “honest vote” and “passion.”
“I think people vote for the person and they want to know the person they voted for they can trust,” Benigni said. “I think Kevin did a terrific job on the Board of Education and on the City Council. He needs to stay true to his principles and people will respond favorably to him ... I never thought age was a factor, it’s about having the ability to do the job. Kevin has demonstrated he has the ability to serve the community well.”
At the age of 24, Scarpati says he is still weighing his future. Scarpati said he loves his role as a city councilor. He was asked to run for mayor this past year by the party and for state representative in the past, Brunet said.
“Every year we revisit where we are politically and our aspirations and we see what Kevin’s are,” Brunet said. “The party is very supportive of him ... He’s done a very good job out in the community. He has had a lot of good input. He does his research and his homework as any new councilor should.”
For now, Scarpati said he is comfortable as a councilor and likes what he is doing. He has his sights set on expanding the presence of Middlesex Community College in his next two years on the council, embracing his new role as Public Safety Committee chair and continuing to help residents wherever needed.
“Wherever I can make the most impact is where I want to go, but I love where I’m at on the City Council,” he said. “I’ll see where I can go from there. I have no set plans. No set goals.”
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