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Thursday, October 19 News

Independent Suggs makes for three-way first selectman’s race

WESTPORT — The race for first selectman grew more crowded this week, with 10-year Representative Town Meeting member John Suggs announcing his candidacy as an independent running on a platform of non-partisanship.

“I have been doing a lot of listening,” the 56-year-old said. He recounted conversations with residents as he gathered signatures to run. “Westporters are tired of the partisan, toxic mess. I was hearing people say they can’t even watch the news anymore, they’re so tired of the partisanship.”

Suggs enters the race alongside Democrat Melissa Kane and Republican Jim Marpe, the current first selectman, who each garnered their respective parties’ endorsements late last month.

While he recognizes he’s an underdog — running without a political party or running mate, the latter due to town charter rules — Suggs believes his message of solving problems as Westporters, rather than members of a particular party, will resonate.

In office, Suggs would look to end what he characterizes as unnecessary spending on consultants’ surveys and instead draw on community expertise, ensure the William F. Cribari Memorial Bridge is preserved and not replaced and preside over a nonpartisan Board of Selectmen that would inevitably be comprised of an independent, a Republican and a Democrat should he claim victory in November.

A former member of the Democratic Town Committee, Suggs resigned in March after a petition called on RTM members not to be affiliated with the Democratic or Republican town committees, a call to remove partisanship from the town body. The then-moderator determined the petition was outside the RTM’s purview and it wasn’t considered. Suggs, however, emailed his resignation from the DTC on March 17.

In preparation for his selectman run, Suggs recently changed his voter registration to unaffiliated.

The candidates

Suggs moved to Westport with his wife in the spring of 2003, shortly after his twins — now set to begin at Staples High School this fall — were born. The family lives on Center Street.

A former Jesuit who wears a silver ring bearing a Jesuit insignia with pride, the California native went on to found the Los Angeles Homeless Coalition and was then recruited to help create the City of Los Angeles’ ethics commission; he worked as lead investigator for political corruption and campaign money laundering.

Suggs now works as a forensic genetic genealogist. He founded his Stamford-based firm Family Orchard in 2014, where he specializes in finding adoptees’ birth families and reconnecting them.

Despite differing policies, Suggs expressed his respect for his fellow candidates, a sentiment they echoed. Kane said she welcomes Suggs’ point of view and the chance to have different points of view represented in the race.

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“I’m thrilled to welcome him to the race,” Kane said. “I’m happy to have a good exchange of all of the ideas and issues looking forward — to speaking with him on his take on all of the issues. I think democracy really works best when we have a hardy discussion of issues.”

Kane is also chairwoman on the DTC, although she has pledged to step down if elected first selectman, and responded to former member Suggs’ argument of nonpartisanship. Kane said, despite her party affiliation, she is still running to represent everyone.

“I know that I’m running to serve all of Westport, and I don’t feel I need to leave my party, the Democratic Party, to make it clear that I have the whole town’s best interest at heart — that I’m running to represent the whole town,” she said.

Marpe said he offered his congratulations to Suggs following his announcement.

“His candidacy will add another dimension to the election process,” Marpe said. “He’s been an active and passionate member of the RTM, and I look forward to the election dialogue that’s sure to include a focus on historic preservation.”

Nonpartisanship

Among his reasons for running, Suggs listed the state’s fiscal troubles and belief they will mean a challenging few years of budgeting for Westport, as well as how he has seen partisanship across the country “seeping down into Westport.”

“I’m concerned about all the finger-pointing. I know that the solution is to be able to have a nonpartisan office,” he said. “I want to be a nonpartisan first selectman and to be able to lead everyone in town to be able to find very simple solutions.”

Suggs said he has seen finger-pointing at the local level by Republicans blaming Democrats for the fiscal state of Connecticut and by Democrats blaming Republicans for concerns with President Donald Trump and his administration. He claims that his independent status frees him up to work across the aisle, free of loyalties to a party.

He seeks, too, to empower local volunteers and residents to get involved in solving the town’s problems, in particular as a way to stop unnecessary spending on outside consultants when the town has plenty of “in-house” expertise.

“I will listen to them. I’m not going to come in with a preset agenda for a particular party or a particular contingency and ram policies through whether or not the community wants it,” Suggs said. “I’m going to start the other way around.”

The Cribari Bridge

A member of the Westport Preservation Alliance, Suggs has been in favor of preserving the Cribari Bridge, which the state Department of Transportation has been evaluating for replacement or repair. On his newly-launched campaign site, suggs.org, he is shown standing on the historic Saugatuck swing bridge that has been a hallmark of his advocacy over the past two years.

He wants to be the one representing Westport as the issue continues over the next four years and said he is in favor of protecting the bridge at all costs.

Suggs has been a vocal advocate of a “no” vote on next week’s South Western Region Metropolitan Planning Organization decision on whether to put $40 million in funding for the project on a state improvement plan list for the next four years of DOT projects. He said he has worked on preserving the bridge for the past two years, adding that Marpe committed to vote for removing the funding several times before changing his mind.

“In the fall of 2015, he wasn’t supporting protecting the bridge. In February of 2017, he agreed and then changed his mind to protect the bridge by taking out the funding. In June of 2017, he agreed and then changed his mind again,” Suggs said. “That’s three times he has changed his mind about whether or not to protect our bridge. Three strikes and you’re out.”

Suggs added that he believes the way he’s rallied the town to support preserving the bridge “has forced (his opponents) at the 11th hour to take a position.”

“I am on a position before it is popular,” he added.

Marpe announced he will vote against the funding in July; Kane posted on Facebook at the time, voicing her support for the “no” vote but urging further action.

When asked this week, Marpe reiterated his plan for the Aug. 17 vote.

“I will be asking my colleagues to vote against the funding. That is my plan,” Marpe said.

“With regard to the Cribari Bridge, I think everyone recognizes its contribution to the character of the Saugatuck neighborhood and I’m anxious to preserve it in a way that contributes to that character and also contributes to traffic safety throughout Saugatuck, as well as along Greens Farms Road,” Marpe added.

LWeiss@hearstmediact.com; @LauraEWeiss16

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