Published October 29. 2011 4:00AM Updated October 29. 2011 4:05PM
New London - Up until four years ago, Michael Buscetto III said, he never thought about getting involved in politics, let alone running for mayor.
Back then the New London native was busy developing a housing project known as Easy Street and a shopping center in Waterford. With his wife, Heather, and three kids at home, and coaching youth sports, his days were full.
That's when a group of residents concerned about excessive spending and taxes approached him about running for City Council because of his background as a businessman and entrepreneur.
At first Buscetto was hesitant. His family had never been involved in politics, and he worried about the negativity that often comes with being an office-holder. But he eventually agreed to run and was elected twice to the council, where he has chaired the Public Safety Committee.
"I have a passion for the city," Buscetto says. "I grew up here and I went to school here. My family started Michael's Dairy here. My father ran a towing business here.
"I want to bring people together as a team and move New London forward. We're still talking about the city having potential when we should be moving forward."
Since being elected, Buscetto has become one of the council's more outspoken members.
While his supporters say the straight-talking Buscetto is not afraid to let people know where he stands, his detractors say he's a bully.
"I'm not a smooth talker who gives speeches," says the 40-year-old Buscetto. "I'm out doing things. I'm someone who takes a vision and turns it into reality."
Sitting in his headquarters at the former Falvey's auto dealership on Ocean Avenue recently, Buscetto wore a black Under Armour polo shirt and jeans. He greeted supporters and campaign workers as he always does, with a hearty handshake, calling them "buddy" or "pal."
When a campaign worker was on the phone trying to order 1,000 copies of campaign material, Buscetto said to tell the company that he had to have it by noon the next day.
"They say I'm a bully," he joked.
While his supporters were shocked when he was defeated in the Democratic primary by newcomer Daryl Justin Finizio, Buscetto said he was not.
"I'm an athlete," says the former basketball point guard. "You win games and you lose games. You never take things for granted."
After the primary, Buscetto said, he was ready to accept defeat and move on. But he said his supporters wanted him to continue on because they felt the city needs options.
"This is an example of why I'm passionate about New London - the people," he says. "If the people didn't encourage me to run, I wouldn't run."
In addition, he said, his children reminded him he has always told them that "when you get a bad grade you work harder and when you lose a game you don't quit on the team."
So Buscetto decided to take on the challenge of trying to get elected as a write-in candidate. As such, he has a built-in disadvantage as his name does not appear on the ballot. Instead, he has to count on voters not only to write his name in the appropriate box, but also to color in the corresponding circle.
Buscetto and his campaign workers are trying to educate people about how to vote for him, handing out explanations of what to do and putting up posters.
Buscetto said he's confident he can win on Nov. 8.
"While it's hard, it's certainly not impossible," he said, pointing to the 2005 successful write-in campaign of Waterbury Major Michael Jarjura. "It's just educating people to fill in 1G and write in my name. It's just one extra step."
On the issues
One of the issues Buscetto has became known for over the past year is his controversial idea to transform the former J.B. Gates Correctional Institution in Niantic to a regional homeless center. Critics say it's an attempt to warehouse and isolate the homeless, but Buscetto says it would create a regional responsibility to help the homeless instead of New London shouldering the burden. He says it would also centralize services for the homeless.
"I'm just trying to come up with a solution," he says. "I haven't seen any others."
Buscetto also supports selling a portion of Riverside Park to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, a decision that voters will make on Election Day. Buscetto said the $2.9 million the city would receive from the sale could be used to renovate the section of the park the city would continue to own and the surrounding neighborhood.
The academy makes great contributions to the city in a variety of areas and, as mayor, Buscetto said, he would not want to get a letter from the academy someday saying it needs more space and has to relocate.
Most recently, Buscetto has been involved in a public dispute with Police Chief Margaret Ackley, who has filed an ethics complaint against him for not recusing himself from a meeting in which a retirement contract she signed with the city was discussed. The Board of Ethics has found probable cause to investigate and will hold three public hearings over the next two months. Buscetto responded to the complaint, saying there is no evidence to support an ethics violation.
The City Council has hired an investigator to look into Ackley's allegations that Buscetto has tried to undermine her authority and interfered with her management of the department.
Buscetto said the dispute between him and Ackley began when he questioned changes in her benefits.
"I continue to question that deal today. If I was mayor, it would have never happened," he says. "I might be accused of micromanagement or harassment, but I'll continue to stand up for the taxpayers of this city."
Buscetto accused Ackley of taking "vindictive action" to make sure he does not become mayor.
"It's her department and her job until she wants to leave," he said, but added what has to be repaired is the relationship she has with officers who have publicly criticized her management of the department.
As for economic development, Buscetto said he would first work on developing smaller projects such as the Capitol Theater, parcel "J" and the Lighthouse Inn so the city can build on those successes.
Knowing that the Harbor School is going to close soon, he said the city should be talking to neighbors and finding a use and a developer.
"I have the connections to make that happen," said Buscetto, who owns Filomena's restaurant in Waterford.
Successful economic development is a combination of improved public safety, lowered city taxes and stable finances and improving education and job training for students so employers looking to relocate can find a skilled work force, Buscetto said.
The education piece is something he is passionate about.
"I believe every kid can learn," he says. "And someone with a job is less likely to be involved in crime."