New Milford's mayoral campaign kicks off

NEW MILFORD — Leaders of both political parties made the usual pledges last week to conduct a “civil” campaign for town offices this fall.

But during the local Republican caucus last Wednesday night, Town Councilman Tom Esposito accused incumbent Democratic Mayor David Gronbach of “censoring” speech by town employees and forcing people out of government for disagreeing with him.

Less than 24 hours later, Gronbach and his party fired back; the town committee criticized GOP challenger Pete Bass on Facebook for lackluster meeting attendance on the town development board and Gronbach blasted him for hiring out-of-town political operatives.

The fall campaign for 27 elected town offices pits a newly resurgent local Democratic Party, in control of the mayor’s office and Town Council for the first time in years, against a historically dominant GOP.

Leaders of both parties privately admit the pledges of civility are unlikely to be kept, and the coming campaign will be bitterly contested.

In a way, however, the campaign has been underway since shortly after Gronbach was elected in 2015. From the beginning, Republicans fought him on many of his initiatives.

“I’ve endured such nastiness since the day I took office,” Gronbach said. “And I don’t want to be a shrinking violet. I’ve shown I can punch back.”

More Information

What's at stake

Republicans have majorities on four of the town's seven elected boards: the Board of Finance, the Board of Assessment Appeals and the Planning and Zoning commissions. Alternates are not included.

Democrats control the Town Council, the Board of Education and the Zoning Board of Appeals. They hold the office of mayor, but Republicans hold the offices of town clerk, tax collector and probate judge.

Republicans have more total seats at stake in November: 15, to the Democrats' 12.

Gronbach said it’s

easy for Republicans to say they’re being civil, when most of their less-civilized moves are done through “online trolls” and “whisper campaigns.”

“Don’t say you’re being positive when you’re hiding behind surrogates,” Gronbach said.

Not surprisingly, Republicans counter the Democrats were the first to sling mud.

“For sure, the nastiness originates on their side,” said Mike Barnes, chair of the Republican Town Committee.

“We’re just complaining that they’re doing things against state law or the town charter. Things are getting done autocratically by a small cabal of the mayor and his friends.”

Bass, who has served for 15 years on the Town Council, said his priorities include fixing town roads and restoring civility to political discourse. While not exactly saying the Gronbach administration has a “closed-door” style of governance, he promises an “open-door” approach.

“It’s all about community, all about everybody pulling together for that community,” Bass said. “Though we might have differences, we keep it civil.”

Peter Mullen, chair of the Democratic Town Committee, scoffs at such statements from Republicans.

“They become civil when the mayor is their party,” he said.

“This is exactly what happened the last time a Democrat was mayor. It’s different people, but the same playbook.”

Some members of both parties lamented the tone local politics has taken in recent years.

Republican Doug Skelly, who is running for Town Council, said “there’s been a bad taste in this town in the way of politics. I don’t know if it has always been nasty, but it has gotten nasty.”

Liba Furhman, a two-term Democratic mayor in the 1990s, agreed.

“I think the concept of loyal opposition comes into play here,” she said. “When I was mayor, I faced a lot of loyal opposition on almost every front. But with the advent of social media, it’s so much easier for people to vent and that can circulate more.”

First Fight? Financing

Although both parties have yet to set budgets for the campaign, financing has become a point of contention.

Democratic Jeff Winter, who is running for the Board of Finance, last month filed a complaint with the Freedom of Information Commission in Hartford after Bass failed to answer his questions about who paid for a mailer Bass sent to residents in May.

The mailer asked townspeople what they love most about New Milford and what they think needs improvement. Winter contends if the party paid for it, and not Bass himself, it would constitute an illegal gift.

“He should not be afraid to respond if he paid for this out of his own pocket,” Winter said.

Bass hasn’t answered Winter’s information request, and a hearing — Bass said he plans to attend — has been set for Aug. 7 in Hartford.

“Jeff is a former Democratic mayoral candidate, and this is all wrapped up in politics,” Bass said. “I don’t want to comment until after the hearing.”

Gronbach said he thinks Bass has significant cash backing, likely more than the $10,000 Gronbach raised in 2015.

A Facebook post by Gronbach last week included a photo of Bass shaking hands with a suited man outside Town Hall. Beneath it Gronbach wrote, “Wearing a suit in 95-degree weather. Mr. Bass must be bringing in the pros.”

Late last week, Gronbach wondered whether the Republicans had launched the drone he saw buzzing around Town Hall on Thursday.

“(T)hat’s gotta cost some money,” Gronbach said. “But it’s not about the money; it’s about the message.”

Bass said he thought the suited man was waiting for a bus and he spoke to him briefly to ask for his support.

Barnes said Gronbach’s Facebook post is evidence of the mayor’s weakness for invective.

“So not only is he picking on Pete Bass, but some poor guy out there in a suit,” Barnes said.

blytton@hearstmediact.com; 203-731-3411; @bglytton