April 24, 2014 12:02PM
By Andrew Ragali
WALLINGFORD — In his mid-20s, Jason Zandri was a meter reader in New Britain. At the time, he couldn’t contemplate running for office. He couldn’t fathom the position he finds himself in today, serving Wallingford as a town councilor and opposing longtime Republican incumbent William W. Dickinson Jr. for the title of the town’s chief executive.
It takes a certain amount of humility to say “I can do this,” and put your name in the running for political office, said Zandri, a Democrat. As a high school dropout, Zandri spent his 20s and 30s with a chip on his shoulder, eager to prove that he was better than the next guy. It’s a sentiment the mayoral candidate still carries with him today, eager to prove to his detractors that he will be successful in his run for office.
“I’ve always had something to prove, because I’ve always felt I was being tested and challenged,” said Zandri, who grew up in Wallingford and attended Sheehan High School through his junior year. He later completed his GED.
Coming from a blue-collar background, Zandri said, he felt looked down upon as a young man. He felt he had to work harder and longer than those who stood beside him.
“I pushed myself more than probably the average person,” he said. “That’s probably a plus and a minus. It will probably burn me out 10 years earlier.”
Zandri said he dropped out of high school because he was bored. It’s not that he knew everything, he said, he just felt like there was nothing more to learn in school. He was eager to venture into the work world and earn his piece of the pie.
“I can’t recommend that route to anyone,” Zandri said.
Zandri admitted that part of the success he has found in life can be attributed to being in the “right place at the right time.”
Hard work and determination have also paid off, said Zandri’s father, Geno, a former town councilor and mayoral candidate.
“A lot of the stuff that Jason has accomplished, it was accomplished because he was self-taught,” Geno Zandri said. “Jason is pretty much his own man.”
When Zandri noticed his job as a meter reader might not be around much longer due to consolidation, he left and earned a electrician’s assistant certificate. He was subsequently hired as an equipment operator at Norwalk’s power plant. After four years in Norwalk, Zandri said he tried to get a job at Northeast Utilities. But he couldn’t get around the fact that the utility company required a college degree. So one day, Zandri said, he went into the office and asked the clerk, “How do I get in front of the hiring manager? Because I want him to tell me in person that I’m not qualified.”
But the clerk told Zandri that she was in charge of screening out unqualified candidates, and that without a college degree, he didn’t have a chance. Undeterred, Zandri was able to land a position at Sikorsky as a subcontractor. At Sikorsky, known for helicopter manufacturing, Zandri dealt with computer issues. He said that his proficiency with computers was mostly self-taught. As the contract at Sikorsky expired, Zandri asked if there were any full-time positions available, he said. There were not, but Zandri found a multi-year contractor position at UBS in Stamford. At the Swiss-owned bank, Zandri worked as a computer technician on the trade floor. It was in this high-pressure environment where Zandri said he gained experience handling “some very explosive situations.”
When the contract with UBS expired, Zandri found work at the Computer Sciences Corp.’s Newington data center. While dealing with major viruses that attacked the IT firm’s infrastructure in the early 2000s, “someone in Microsoft found out about me,” Zandri said. The Newington data center performed better than others in dealing with the virus outbreak, Zandri said. At the time, the company was working with Microsoft. Someone from Microsoft got in touch with him and asked how he was able to handle the virus outbreak so well. Zandri said after he explained his thought process, Microsoft offered him a job. Zandri took the job, and worked at the Fortune 500 company for nearly nine years. One of the companies that Zandri worked with while at Microsoft was Northeast Utilities, the company that wouldn’t hire him because he lacked a college degree. In 2010, Zandri was offered a computer systems engineer position at Bloomberg L.P, the financial software, data and media company headquartered in New York City. Zandri still works at Bloomberg, but if elected as the town’s mayor he would leave the company, and take a 45 percent pay cut in doing so, he said.
Nothing has been handed to him, Zandri said. He’s worked for everything he has achieved. His work experience has helped him build up the humility to run for political office.
“The question I always ask myself is ‘can I do this?’” Zandri said of how he approaches new endeavors. “If I can, I do it.”
In 2007, Zandri made his first bid for political office when he ran as an independent for a seat on the Town Council. His efforts were unsuccessful. But in 2011, Zandri was elected to the council on the Democratic ticket.
Zandri said he enjoys working in politics because nothing is achieved when someone just says “I don’t agree with this.”
“I like to provide a solution,” he said. “That’s been my whole work mantra. If there’s some shortcoming, address it. You have that when you’re voting on the council. You have issues you see going on and you want change.”
Throughout the 2000s, Zandri said he played minor roles assisting in political campaigns for others. But, Zandri said, he found his true political voice while working in 2009 to set up a fundraiser for the Independence Day fireworks in Wallingford.
At the time, Zandri said the fireworks were the single largest effort he took part in. To this day, Zandri continues to fundraise for the annual fireworks show, which has been cut out of the town’s budget.
“Jason is young and has a lot of energy, and he cares so much for this town,” said Lois Olesen, who along with her husband, Robert, have aided in Zandri’s run for mayor by organizing campaign literature. “The first thing that brought him to my attention was his raising money for the fireworks.”
Zandri has “such a dedication to the people of Wallingford,” Olesen said.
When she saw how passionate Zandri was in fundraising for the fireworks show, “I found that striking,” she said.
But for Zandri, running for mayor has topped the work put into fireworks fundraising. Zandri said he became interested in running for mayor because the town has grown stagnant with Dickinson in power since 1984. Specifically, Zandri mentioned the town’s lack of progress updating its technology infrastructure.
“I told myself, ‘I can’t change this from the outside,’” he said.
Zandri’s run for mayor hasn’t been without challenges.
“It’s been very stressful,” said the husband and father of four children under the age of 10. “A lot of my time has been consumed.”
Of great concern to Zandri is the pay cut his family would have to cope with if he is elected mayor. Starting next term, the mayor’s salary will be just over $85,000.
“We’ve really had to shear down,” said Zandri, whose wife, Renata, does not work full time.
But, Zandri said, “There are families who are in worse shape for no good reason.”
Just like any couple, Zandri said, he and his wife have had their ups and downs. In February 2012, both were charged with disorderly conduct following an incident that took place at their home at 35 Lincoln Drive.
“That was an unfortunate situation that got press play,” Zandri said.
The two were stuck in an argument they could not disengage from, he said. With their children getting upset, “it had to stop,” Zandri said. “So I called the cops. I made that decision, knowing what it might do. But the end result got me what needed to happen. It defused the situation. I feel I made the right decision. Unfortunately, it gets put into the spotlight.”
Charges were eventually dropped, and the two attended counseling together, Zandri said.
“At the end,” he said, “we made a decision between the two of us to improve our behavior.”
Zandri said he and his wife had to do what’s best for their children.
“I’m a dad and I enjoy being a father to my kids,” he said. “It gives me the opportunity to watch cartoons.”
If Zandri isn’t elected mayor, he said he will remain at his job. Bloomberg is aware of his situation, Zandri said. If elected, he will give them notice, at which time they will fill his position. But there are other endeavors Zandri said he could fill his time with if Dickinson is elected to another term. The fireworks fund will still be a top priority.
Everyone trips and falls, Zandri said. “Either way, I’m resilient. I never fall down too far.”