Rob Werner is on a mission. Emerging from virtual obscurity among Darien politicians, Werner said he wants the state representative seat because he speaks the Hartford language.
In an interview with The Darien Times, Democratic candidate Werner said in a Democratically controlled House of Representatives like the one in Connecticut, he’s going to be able to accomplish his tasks. First on his list? Fix the affordable housing statute, 8-30g, which requires towns have at least 10% of its housing stock classified as affordable.
“We’re 600 units under in Darien,” Werner said. “I mean, that’s just not going to happen.” But his three-part plan to change the statute doesn’t address the quota. Instead he’s asking for a financial penalty of $500 per unit that the town is under, paid directly to neighboring communities “that carry the burden of it,” he said. In Darien’s case, that would be Stamford and Norwalk.
Under this plan, Darien’s fine would be $300,000 per year, which is roughly equal to what Darien spent on legal fees battling potential affordable housing developers Chris and Margaret Stefanoni last fiscal year. The fine would be paid in lieu of compliance with the quota.
“Everybody is terrified,” Werner said of the statute’s implications in town. “Every time you see a ‘for sale’ sign, they’re worried an apartment building is going up.”
The next step would be to build a financial incentive for senior housing, which Werner said currently has a six year waiting list in town.
“We have a lot of senior citizens in town that live in a house that’s worth $2 million,” Werner said, “but don’t have the income to live in Atria or any of these places.”
He added that he’d like to see the town get double points for senior housing, but the need to build units immediately is pressing. He’d also like to set up a subsidy for teachers, firemen and other public employees to go toward living in town.
“You can do it in a way without threatening people’s neighborhoods,” he said. “The incentive for the town to create affordable housing still exists, but not in a way that punishes people who are in that situation through not fault of their own.”
As far as altering the quota, Werner said he’d like to see it adjusted based on the quantity of developable land per town.
“Ten percent is probably not a realistic goal for Darien,” he said. “I don’t know where you’d put them.
“But I’m also trying to be realistic,” he added. “I think the change has to be evolutionary. My first goal is to get that black cloud out from over our heads.”
What qualifies Werner to represent Darien and part of South Norwalk? He was elected to the Hartford Democratic Town Committee (an elected position there, volunteer here), and he was a speechwriter for Sanford Cloud Jr., a state senator from 1977 to 1980 and voted one of the 100 most influential blacks in Connecticut by the NAACP in 2009.
Werner has a law degree from the University of Connecticut, and has worked in the state Supreme Court for the reporter of judicial decisions, as an associate in the law firm of Brady, Tamoney, Willard & Alexander, corporate counsel for Ames Department Stores, and general counsel for FW Enterprises, a real estate development firm in West Hartford.
He’s been a stay-at-home dad since his son Doug was born. Doug, who is in sixth grade at Middlesex, earned the Darien Schools Superintendent’s Award as a fifth grader at Royle last year. Adding to this fatherly pride, Werner noted that three of the five elementary school winners of the award last year played for the little league team Werner coached.
“Coincidence?” Werner said with a smile. His wife, Liz, works in the city in the finance industry. They’ve been married 18 years. In addition to coaching little league, he’s also been on the Royle PTO.
But getting things done in Hartford takes negotiating skills, and Werner said he gleaned this from his lawyer days. The only time he ever enjoyed being a lawyer, he said, was when opposing sides could not come to an agreement and he would find the common ground.
“I didn’t get a lot of those moments, but I got enough of them that it would make my whole year,” he said.
What sets him apart from Terrie Wood, the Republican incumbent who’s seeking a third term as state rep?
“Well, I’m a Democrat,” Werner said plainly. “I’m from Hartford. I grew up in Hartford politics… There’s a mindset in Hartford — that the urban communities have — ‘If only the suburbs would take some of our problems we’ll be fine.’ And it’s just not true. Not only is it not true, its’ not workable… The idea is to speak their language…”
“The truth is, if you’re a Republican, you don’t get a seat at that table,” Werner added.
Werner said he differs from Wood on some issues, such as the repeal of the death penalty, which he would have supported when Wood did not. Wood told The Times in June that the death penalty repeal, which passed, was “probably the hardest vote” she had, and said she voted against it because most of constituents urged her to keep the death penalty.
Werner also would have voted in favor of same-sex marriage, which Wood was not present for. Werner said he and Wood also differ on financial disclosure. Wood was not present for the vote on a campaign finance reform bill that required more disclosure after the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling allowed for corporations and unions to spend an unlimited amount of money on public office candidates. The bill passed the House and Senate but was vetoed by Gov. Dannel Malloy.
As an example of his dedication to disclosure, Werner joined the voluntary Citizens Election Program, which is a pledge candidates make to not take money from special interest groups, to not take donations over $100, among other funding limitations.
“Every week I get things from everybody from the NRA to the Sierra Club, saying, “If you go 100% on these questions we’ll endorse you’,” Werner said. “I said, ‘I’m not having any part of it.’ Someone else approached me and said, ‘You know, I can get one of those PACs for you that can support you but you can’t know about it.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to hear it.’ I’m not going there. I have enough money to run a credible campaign, and that’s it.”
Even though Wood did not join the voluntary program, Werner said he is determined to avoid negative campaigning.
“I will only say positive things about Terrie Wood,” Werner said. “She’s a really warm and gracious and reasonable person. One of the things I’m going to do at a local level, is elevate these elections to get away from the vitriol, and the partisanship and the bickering. That’s one thing that I can definitely accomplish.
“I will take issue with Terrie from time to time on her record, but it will not be personal,” Werner said. “I will not assume she thinks a different way because she’s from a different party, and I hope she’ll do the same for me.”
Even though Malloy vetoed a bill that Werner supported, the Darienite said he still supports the governor.
“I think he’s instituted a whole slew of reforms,” Werner said. “I know he’s not popular right now. But I know this: State employees are at a 20 year low. I know that for the first time, a governor has taken on unions and extracted a lot of concessions, especially in the pension fund. He’s also put in place a plan to fund that pension fund that will save us billions of dollars over the years.”
Other ideas Werner has for the House include bringing a governor’s school program to the state. This allows for high-achieving students to spend a few weeks during the summer with other similar students from around the state for intense learning and positive social growth.
He also mentioned he’s concerned about invasive species in the Long Island Sound, the sea squirt in particular, which was first discovered in Maine in 1993, according to the USDA. The sea squirt is a tiny animal that grows in large colonies and can overtake native populations of flora and fauna, and can even disrupt clam and oyster harvests.
Werner also said he’d like to establish a statewide initiative to coordinate fundraisers that support U.S. troops in Afghanistan. He said he’s already talked to state Sen. Carlo Leone, who represents Stamford and the southern portion of Darien, who gave Werner his support.
“I want Connecticut to be on the forefront of taking care of these guys in Afghanistan,” he said. “Not supporting soldiers, really, really makes me angry. That’s something I think we can do.”
“I’m trying to be practical about what a state rep can do,” he added. “One thing I’m not trying to be is everything to everyone.”
When he’s not on the campaign trail or coaching little league, he’s also the neighborhood bike mechanic.
“I’m somewhat handy, although I sometimes injure myself,” he said. “I don’t usually make the same mistake twice.”