Four candidates challenge incumbent Leng for Hamden mayoral seat in 2021 elections

All agree financial stability is the biggest problem the town is facing

Chatwan Mongkol, News Editor

Budget crisis, financial stability, long-term debts, environmental sustainability, tax structure, public safety and gun violence. These are some of the problems four Hamden mayoral candidates said the town is facing.

Democrats Lauren Garrett, Brad Macdowall and Peter Cyr and Republican Ron Gambardella are running for Hamden Mayor Office. They are also up against three-term incumbent Democratic Mayor Curt Leng, who announced his candidacy with the New Haven Register on July 26.

Hamden mayoral hopefuls Lauren Garrett, Brad Macdowall, Peter Cyr and Ron Gambardella sat down with The Chronicle to discuss their race for Hamden Mayor Office their positions on the Hamden-Quinnipiac University relationship. (Chatwan Mongkol)

Earlier this week, the Hamden Democratic Town Committee officially endorsed Garrett. Cyr and Macdowall said they will submit petitions with required signatures to have their names on the ballot in the party’s primaries in September. According to the New Haven Register, Leng bypassed the party’s convention, but he will also submit paperwork to be on the ballot as a Democrat.

The Hamden Republican Town Committee announced its candidates for the 2021 elections in June in front of the Memorial Town Hall. Gambardella later received endorsement from the committee for the mayoral seat.

Lauren Garrett

In 2019, Garrett ran for the town’s highest office but lost to Leng in the party’s primaries. During her campaign, she attempted to educate people about the town’s financial problems. This year, she said the state of Hamden’s finances has grown worse throughout the years.

“The predictions (about the financial crisis) that I’ve made have come true,” Garrett said.

Photo contributed by Lauren Garrett

With experience being an at-large representative of the Hamden Legislative Council from 2017-19 and a history of managing her small business, she hopes to improve Hamden’s finances.

“We can’t pay for things if we don’t get our books in order,” Garrett said. “When it comes to funding our libraries and our schools and taking care of our roads and infrastructure, all of that is dependent on us being able to get our finances in order.”

From firsthand meeting residents, Garrett said people really enjoy living in Hamden but are feeling priced out of their homes due to the extremities of taxes.

Garrett seeks to develop the local economy by investing in infrastructure and attracting businesses to Hamden, hoping residents will have more opportunities for high-paying jobs. 

She emphasized that it will also resolve public safety issues, noting that crime decreases in an upward-moving economy.

“I think that it’s important for a mayor to give facetime to developers and business owners who are looking to come to Hamden,” Garrett said. “I don’t see that happening.”

Brad Macdowall

After graduating from Quinnipiac University with a political science degree in 2016, Macdowall has been serving as a member of the Hamden Legislative Council for two terms since 2017. Besides the public service experience, he worked for the town, the state’s General Assembly and the 2016 state senatorial campaign for former Democratic Sen. Gayle Slossberg of the 14th district.

He decided to go into politics because of his frustration toward elected officials not listening to constituents during alleged problems. That is also the reason he is running for mayor.

Photo contributed by Brad Macdowall

“I feel that that representation is at the core of what we need. We have not been adequately represented for quite some time,” Macdowall said. “We have elected officials who don’t show up to work. Then when they do show up to work, the work that they’re doing is not in line with what residents are asking for.”

Macdowall said the biggest problem Hamden is facing is financial instability. If he becomes mayor, he plans to push for long-term budgeting that will pay down the town’s liabilities, stabilize the finances and eventually offer tax relief.

Another major piece of Macdowall’s policies includes food and housing insecurity. He said he is the only candidate who focuses on these problems.

“These are major issues and they were crisis issues before the pandemic. Something like 13% of Hamden residents were severely food insecure (and) that has skyrocketed through the pandemic,” Macdowall said. “We need to make sure that our residents have access to food and access to housing. We have made a commitment to say that we are going to end food insecurity and end homelessness in Hamden.”

Macdowall also mentioned that he wants to push forward environmental sustainability. He said the town cannot continue to rely on fossil fuels for the function of the government, and it needs to transition to completely renewable energy.

Because Hamden has close to 70,000 residents, he said his management experience working with hundreds of employees at different organizations will make him a successful mayor.

“At the end of the day, we can talk about the things that we want to change, and those are critically important. We do need radical change,” Macdowall said. “However, the town still needs to continue to function and be managed, those projects and departments that need to continue functioning for the daily service of residents.”

Peter Cyr

Even though 26-year-old Cyr is the youngest candidate in the race, he came from the background of a political organizer. After graduating from Hamden High School in 2012, he went to the University of California Berkeley for political science. He worked for former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut and the Massachusetts State House.

As a Hamden native, he said the town is heading down the wrong path. He wanted to step in with his new ideas and his “most comprehensive platform” to end the “very toxic” local politics.

Photo contributed by Peter Cyr

“I think the incumbent is sort of the reason,” Cyr said. “There’s a lot of leadership missing. There’s a lot of lack of planning when it comes to council meetings and things like that (are what) we could be doing better.”

With more expansion of non-taxable properties like Quinnipiac and public lands, Cyr said the state government needs to get involved to help mediate the budget hole from the decrease of tax revenue.

“Every time that Quinnipiac expands, that hurts us,” Cyr said. “But we can’t really stop that and we don’t really want to stop that, because it employs so many people.”

Gun violence is also a big issue for Cyr. 

He said that the violent crime rates in Hamden and New Haven are on the rise, but the current elected leaders are not looking into the best practices out there to prevent such crimes. His plan is to institute a program modeling after Oakland’s Ceasefire Strategy of Oakland, California.

“This was associated with a 50% reduction in gun violence in Oakland from 2012 to 2018,” Cyr said. “It is an organizing community-based approach. You try to identify people that are most likely to be involved with the violence and you match them up with resources.”

Another underlying issue for Cyr is Connecticut’s tax structure. Considering the average income and tax rate in town, he said the current system is “totally unfair” for Hamden, especially for middle-class families.

“Our effective local and state tax rate comes out to about 22% for a middle-class community in Connecticut, which is defined as under $500,000 per household,” Cyr said. “(But) if you make over $500,000 per household, your effective rate of local and state taxes is about 7%. To me, that is a backward system.”

Cyr said Hamden needs a mayor who is more vocal about this issue and addresses it.

Ron Gambardella

After two unsuccessful mayoral races in 2007 and 2009, former two-term Councilperson Gambardella decided to run again with the hope that his over-40-year experience in finances will solve Hamden’s financial crisis.

Even though Gambardella is the only Republican candidate for the office, he said he has not been a party’s active participant in at least the last 12 years. He said his political views remain “very neutral” as he has been criticizing both Democrats and Republicans.

Photo contributed by Ron Gambardella

“I was pleased to see that the makeup of the Republican Party has significantly changed,” Gambardella said. “There’s a lot of younger people there. They feel like they can make a difference in Hamden politics. Me, as an experienced politician, I felt like I could bring a level of knowledge and leadership.”

Similar to other candidates, Gambardella said the biggest problem the town faces is its financial stability. He believes other candidates in the field and the incumbent lack the financial expertise.

“Given Leng’s results so far, we have the highest debt per capita in the state of Connecticut, according to the New Haven Register,” Gambardella said. “Taxes continually go up, mill rate goes up, and services come down. In my opinion, (Leng) has failed as an administrator.”

Gambardella also looks to enhance public safety because he said the crime rate in town is on the rise. He explained that people are shopping in neighboring towns because they do not feel safe in Hamden.

“I need to bring safety back to Hamden and I need to do that in a smart (way), and use social justice as a key to how we get that done,” Gambardella said. “It’s not simply strong-handed the police department and cracking down on crimes. (It’s) nothing like that at all.”

He said he will implement a modern approach to prevent crimes by offering access to resources and expert professionals for offenders to start positive interactions.

When it comes to listening through constituents, Gambardella said he will push for a more open government to closely engage with the residents and hear their concerns. He anticipates formulating a bipartisan ad hoc committee with direct access to the mayor.

“Any issue that comes before the Mayor’s Office, I’m going to invite the public to participate in that decision so it’s not going to be a unilateral decision. It’ll be a collaborative effort,” Gambardella said.

Gambardella mentioned his interest to create animal shelters and as many animals have been without shelter for over 20 years. He said he has very specific plans that will not burn the taxpayers and will construct a state-of-the-art modern facility, which people can be proud of.

The Chronicle sat down with the four candidates individually in the past weeks to also discuss their positions on the Hamden-Quinnipiac relationship. The following are the dates those articles will be published on The Chronicle’s website.