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Newcomer Werner sees affordable housing as top issue

Published 7:58 am, Friday, October 26, 2012
  • Robert Werner. Photo: Megan Davis
    Robert Werner. Photo: Megan Davis

 

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Rob Werner may be new to the Darien political scene, but politics isn't something new to him. Werner "grew up around politics" in Hartford.

The Democratic challenger is running for 141st General Assembly District seat, held by Republican Terrie Wood. He's a licensed lawyer in Connecticut as well as federal district courts and attended Kingswood-Oxford School in Hartford, the University of Pennsylvania, Trinity College and the University of Connecticut Law School.

As a lawyer, his experience includes working in the Connecticut Supreme Court for the Reporter of Judicial Decisions; as an associate in the law firm of Brady, Tamoney, Willard and Alexander; as a corporate counsel for Ames Department Stores; and as a general counsel for FW Enterprises, a real estate development firm in West Hartford.

Werner has lived in Darien for 16 years, and his 11-year-old son Doug is a student at Royle School. He and his wife, Liz, have been married for 18 years. He's volunteered as president of Southend Community Services in Hartford, as a member of the Darien Little League Softball Board, as a coach of Little League softball and baseball, Friendship league and fall baseball. He's currently chairman of the fifth grade committee and has been library coordinator for the Royle School PTO and the chairman of Royle Readers.

As for what brings Werner to the political scene -- he was asked to run.

"No one's run for this seat in 10 years," Werner said. "I felt we'd reached the point where we need to have that dialogue of an election for this seat. I felt it was my duty to do this public service."

His favorite thing about Darien is the people.

"There are a lot of people in Darien making it an even better community, and it's a pleasure to be a part of that," Werner said.

His No. 1 priority is fixing the affordable housing statute.

"There's a lot of places in Darien where you just shouldn't build," Werner said. "The Democrats in the Legislature control that law and our representatives can't get a seat at the table to fix it because they're Republicans."

Werner suggests a three-part fix.

Instead of the penalty for not having enough affordable housing being the abrogation of the zoning laws, Werner wants Darien to pay a fine for every unit its under to the neighboring communities -- Stamford and Norwalk -- that are bearing the brunt of affordable housing. "Currently, I'm thinking about $500 a year," Werner said.

According to Werner, Darien is 600 affordable housing units below where it's supposed to be, so that would mean Darien would pay the neighboring towns about $300,000. Werner wants to see that number lowered because Darien is 97 percent built up.

The second part of Werner's plan is that he wants to see more senior housing in Darien, which now has a long waiting list for units, he said. "There are many seniors who live in houses that are $1 million and want to stay in Darien, but don't want to stay in a single-family home, and don't have the income to live in Atria or anywhere else," Werner said. "These are people who spend their whole lives in the community and they deserve to stay in that community."

Finally, he wants to create a municipal program in which the town helps pay the town employees who live in Darien, whether it be some kind of low-interest mortgage or something else, which would count toward the affordable housing numbers.

"I believe this has to be an evolutionary change, and job number one has to be to take away the unfair advantage that the current statute gives. I think zoning laws are fundamental to the town," Werner said.

His second priority is education. He wants to bring Governor Schools to Connecticut. Governor Schools are two- to six-week summer programs for the highest-achieving high school seniors and some juniors. It takes place on college campuses and varies in subject from science and math to performing arts and agriculture.

"We have the facilities, and I think it's really important that Connecticut be number one in education," Werner said. The program would involve only a few hundred kids, but "it's a start," he said.

Werner's third priority is invasive species in the Long Island Sound because the Asian sea sword is beginning to show up.

"It's just kind of this blobby thing of stuff, but it does irreparable damage to shellfish, oyster beds and clams," Werner said.

According to Werner, the state Department of Environmental and Energy Protection is trying to do an inspection and education program, but it's not funded. "I think that would be a case of penny wise dollar foolish," Werner said.

Werner also said he's "grown weary of the nastiness that takes place in elections." He believes reasonable people can differ "without being unpatriotic or hating America or anything else."

"I just feel that in order to really get results for Darien and Rowayton, we need a Democrat out there with the majority," Werner said. "In terms of state politics, it's not always pretty, but it is political. That's the nature of the beast."

Since next legislative session will deal mostly with budgetary issues, Werner said most of the state's big expenses are mandated.

He said Democrat Dannel Malloy is the first governor to take on unions and change the pension obligations, which is the largest of the state's outstanding debts.

"We need infrastructure. Everyone wants to cut spending, but if you cut spending in a recession it just makes the economy worse," Werner said. "I'm in favor of cutting wasteful spending."

During his campaign, Werner said he's made it clear that he will not be taking any more money than he's allowed by the Citizens Election Program, which includes the money from the grant and whatever he raises from his constituents. In order to qualify for the grant, Werner had to raise $5,000 from 150 donors. The maximum amount of money he was allowed to accept was $100. He had more than 200 donors and 72 percent donated less than $50, he said.

"I don't want to go to Hartford owing anyone anything," Werner said.

Werner doesn't think his lack of political experience in town puts him at any kind of disadvantage to Wood, who is running for her third term.

"My professional background is very different from Terrie's," Werner said. "I'm a lawyer and I'm trained in conflict resolution. I do have experience in politics. I've dealt with Hartford politics, which is far more contentious than anything I've experienced in Fairfield County. I will go to Hartford not owing any special interest groups. I just want to fix the problems and move on."

As for where he and Wood differ, Werner would have voted in favor of same-sex marriage, which Wood did not vote on, abolishing the death penalty and requiring corporations to identify top donors for campaign contributions, both of which Wood voted against.

"I am in favor of full transparency of all political donors, and Terrie voted against that," Werner said. "You can go on the Internet right now and see everyone who gave me $5, and I truly believe in that."

Werner believes in order to work together as a state, people statewide need to understand each other."

"I know people in Darien who've never been to Groton," Werner said. "Sometimes I feel that in addition to needing a representative in our state, we need an ambassador in order to really cooperate effectively."

mdavis@bcnnew.com; 203-972-4407; twitter.com/megdariennews