NORWALK, Conn. – Three of Norwalk’s Democratic mayoral candidates gathered for a debate at the South Norwalk Community Center on Tuesday night: Matt Miklave, Vinny Mangiacopra and Harry Rilling discussed the local economy and school system, among other topics.
The debate, sponsored by local Spanish-language newspapers, focused primarily on issues affecting the Latino community. The three candidates expressed support after questions on improving Latino and African-American representation in city government, better integrating undocumented immigrants into the larger community and improving city services and facilities that serve all neighborhoods.
The forum also featured questions on topics that affect all Norwalkers. Candidates were asked what they could do to improve Norwalk’s unemployment rate, particularly for the Latino and African-American communities that see higher jobless rates.
Mangiacopra said Norwalk needed to “aggressively pursue” new developments, particularly as nearby Stamford and Bridgeport attract new projects. Yet he also cautioned that Norwalk should “stop settling” for low-impact developments and work to attract those that would bring in well-paying jobs.
“Norwalk’s being left behind quickly. So if we don’t get our act together in a timely fashion, we’re going to be behind the eight-ball even more so,” he said.
Miklave’s platform stressed developing small businesses. He pledged to appoint an “economic accelerator team” on his first day in office to guide entrepreneurs on how to get their businesses started and direct them toward state grants and other services.
“Yet we have no plan in Norwalk to grow local entrepreneurs, to grow local jobs, to support the men and women who build businesses,” he said.
Rilling suggested starting with Norwalk’s schools to “engage our youth” before they hit the job market. For example, at the debate he suggested improving the life skills curriculum at Norwalk’s schools or setting up apprenticeship programs with local trade unions.
“We know that not every child can go to college,” Rilling said. “But we can make sure that every child has the opportunity to graduate high school, and we can ensure that every child has an opportunity to get a good job.”
The candidates were also asked how they would improve Norwalk’s education system, specifically at the early childhood level and for student learning English as a second language.
Rilling applauded the recent appointment of Manuel Rivera as school superintendent and said he would “let him do his job.” He also said he would advocate in Hartford for a universal prekindergarten system and to bolster the Head Start program, which serves students younger than preschool age.
“It brings a child into a learning environment at 4 years old, and prepares them for entry into school, and it gives them a greater chance for success,” Rilling said of pre-K programs.
Miklave pointed to the Board of Education’s recent budget problems as an area to address in office. His plan is to institute “performance-based budgeting” on the town side, to fully fund schools while keeping taxes in check.
“I believe that we must do more with the resources that we have than we’ve ever done before,” Miklave said.
Mangiacopra mentioned some specific ideas, such as adding bilingual staff members to communicate with Spanish-speaking parents and better promoting the resources available to families. He also said he wanted to see more from the “accountability” from the mayor’s office, superintendent, school board, Common Council as well as kids and families themselves.
“Everybody needs to bear responsibility for their actions, and everybody needs to do their part to chip in to make sure that our kids have a great education,” Mangiacopra said.
Mangiacopra, Milkave, Rilling and former Town Clerk Andy Garfunkel are all on the ballot for the Democratic primary Sept. 10. Norwalk’s registered Democrats will vote to decide which of the four will challenge Republican incumbent Richard Moccia in November.