At sixes and sevens
GREENWICH — Is a seventh campaign in the future for Peter Tesei? The answer had seemed a solid “yes,” but the first selectman this week said a recent declaration of his interest was not meant to be an official announcement.
“I’m going to make a more formal and definitive decision probably after the first of the year,” Tesei said this week. “There’s a lot that goes into it in terms of evaluating family considerations, looking at what’s required to run a very aggressive campaign, which is of course money, and personally looking at where I am in my life. I’ll be 50 years old next year. I love what I do, but what I do is coupled with politics and politics has become increasingly more negative and, frankly, not the same political environment from when I initially got involved.”
Tesei, a Republican, is in the middle of his record sixth two-year term as first selectman, continuing a career in local government that began for him as a teenage member of the Representative Town Meeting. He later served as chair of the Board of Estimate and Taxation. But nearly 12 years in Greenwich’s top elected office, plus a changing political environment, which has not only seen Greenwich Democrats gain ground but, to Tesei’s eyes, become harsher and more divisive, is giving him at least some pause.
At his annual State of the Town address last month, Tesei said his intention was to run for a new term.
In response to an audience member’s question about his plans following his speech, he said: “I like what I do and I enjoy it very much, otherwise I would not be here today. If you’re asking me today, I would like to continue to do what I do but the election is about a year away. My answer today, if you’re asking me, is yes.”
He qualified those remarks this week, saying it was how he felt on that date and that no formal decision has yet been made, adding he wants to make sure his family and his core supporters are on board and prepared.
When asked directly if he will run, Tesei would only say, “stay tuned.”
Tesei’s initial remarks regarding a new term came before the most recent election, in which Greenwich Democrats won two seats in the state General Assembly. The last time they won even one was 88 years ago. That followed the 2017 elections, in which Democrats won control of Greenwich’s Board of Estimate and Taxation for the first time in recorded town history, and Tesei saw his margin of victory significantly shrink. Tesei had been elected by landslides in his first five terms, including 2015 when he won with 75 percent of the vote. In 2017, Tesei defeated Democrat Sandy Litvack, but his vote total was down to 54 percent.
Tesei said this month’s election results have not caused him to reconsider, and insisted his stance on running again is the same as it was when he initially discussed his plans. But he did not deny the recent election could be a factor in whatever decision he ultimately makes.
“Certainly you have to look at some of those results,” Tesei said.
Republican Town Committee Chair Richard DiPreta said this week he didn’t take Tesei’s remarks last month as any kind of official announcement. He also said while there are Republicans in town who have not been happy with specific decisions Tesei has made in office, there also are Republicans who are very happy with the first selectman’s performance.
The party has not even discussed the 2019 ticket, he said, having until now been focused on the 2018 elections.
“I think there is a lot of support for Peter Tesei, but until he makes any decision official, it’s premature for me or for any member of the RTC to comment until we know who is running,” DiPreta said. “The presumption is Peter will run again but he has a lot to consider on many levels. It’s a big decision.”
If Tesei doesn’t run, it would throw the door open to other members of the party for the first time in a long time.
State Rep. Fred Camillo, R-151, whose re-election victory this month was a bright spot for Greenwich Republicans, has long been mentioned as a possible successor to Tesei.
Camillo this week confirmed his interest in the job, but said he will not challenge Tesei if he runs again, saying the two are great friends and he supports him.
“I love my job and I love what I do,” Camillo said. “It’s a great honor to serve and I don’t want to ever take it for granted. But this is something that a lot of people have talked to me about, especially recently.”
Michael Mason, a former chair of the BET and current Republican leader on the finance board, is another person discussed in political circles as a potential Republican first selectman candidate.
“I have always had an interest in that position,” Mason said this week. “Peter Tesei has been very successful and very electable and I have thought that one day if Peter decides to move onto something else, I would consider running for it, just like I think other people would do the same.”
When asked if he would challenge Tesei from within the Republican Party, Mason said, “I don’t see that happening at the moment” and stressed his insistence that he does not want to see a divided Republican Party, or town.
But if the position were to open up by Tesei not running again, Mason said he “would seriously consider it.”
On the Democratic side, Litvack said he is undecided about his own political future, and whether he might challenge Tesei again or run for another term as a selectman, a job he at first did not want.
“I would hope to make a decision after the first of the year,” Litvack said.
Democratic Town Committee Chair Tony Turner said Democrats are invigorated by the results of the last two elections and work is already beginning internally on the 2019 elections. That includes hearing from potential candidates for first selectman.
“The line is starting to form,” Turner said. “People are making serious inquiries and these are highly qualified candidates that will be going in with their eyes wide open.”
It won’t just be Tesei Democrats have their eye on in 2019, he said.
“The Democrats are looking at every elected position in town government,” Turner said.
Tesei, who briefly was a candidate for lieutenant governor this year on a ticket with Republican New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart, before she ended her gubernatorial run and ran for lieutenant governor instead, said he remains committed to the job of first selectman.
But if he does run for a seventh term, Tesei said he will have to approach the campaign differently than he has in the past.
Greenwich Republicans still hold an advantage over Democrats in registered voter numbers, but the gap between the two parties is much narrower than it once was, and the largest bloc in town is now unaffiliated voters.
“I have to do much more outreach and go door to door and get out earlier,” Tesei said. “I definitely need to engage more. I like doing it, but finding the time is a challenge. I have two kids in their formative years and a professional wife who works. For me I’m at a little bit of a disadvantage in having the time to do that. That’s something I have to take into consideration.”
Beyond Greenwich’s demographics, Tesei also said the Republican brand is struggling along the coasts to overcome perceptions of President Donald Trump. Locally, the president’s behavior has been a campaign issue in 2017 and 2018, and Tesei said he would expect the same in 2019.
“He’s his own person and that may or may not work for him, but that’s not everybody,” Tesei said. “But people are not making that distinction, at least a lot of people. They’re saying, you’re Republican then you must be bad.”
To distinguish himself from someone like Trump, who may well be his polar opposite in terms of personality, Tesei said he would tell someone to look at his own record — both in office and the decades of community service that preceded his being elected in 2007, and talk to the people who have worked with him. Tesei pointed to committees he has created, including the Diversity Advisory Committee and the Disability Advisory Committee, as examples of how he has championed inclusion as a core value of the town.
A takeaway from the 2017 and 2018 elections, he said, is the need to employ professionals to focus on social media and other newer ways of communicating with voters.
“It’s a matter of how committed people are to making that happen,” Tesei said, meaning the RTC. “The candidate can only do so much.”
He said the party has been having necessary conversations toward that end. DiPreta said the RTC is looking at what it needs to do to have better outreach, particularly on social media, improve fundraising and, most importantly, register more Republicans in Greenwich and get them out to vote.
“When you lose you obviously need to do things better,” DiPreta said. “Winning cures all.”