New London - Little new ground was covered and there was no clear winner at Tuesday's mayoral debate, but hundreds were able to glimpse the personality of the next mayor of the city.
The six candidates vying to become the city's first elected mayor in about nine decades jabbed at one another during a lively 90-minute exchange at New London High School. Voters and supporters cheered and clapped as their favorite candidate took a turn at the microphone defending his or her positions on youth violence, disbanding the New London Development Corp., social issues, development, education and other issues.
Rob Pero, the Republican candidate, presented himself as the steady steward of the city, who with 16 years of experience on the City Council, knows how to put together a budget and promised no tax increase for two years.
He called out his Democratic challenger, Daryl Justin Finizio, on his inexperience and criticized him for sloppy campaign finance report filings.
"You are untried, untested and a little unpredictable,'' Pero said.
But Finizio shot back that Pero's greatest achievements during his career on the City Council have been the redevelopment of Fort Trumbull that involved eminent domain and the recommendation to sell off a portion of Riverside Park.
Finizio said his finance reports, which were done by a volunteer in his grass-roots campaign, were clerical errors and were corrected. All donations and expenses have been accounted for, he said.
Martin T. Olsen Jr., the current ceremonial mayor and a petitioning candidate, bristled when asked why he downplayed an incident last summer involving a homeless man who washed off in a downtown fountain. The state ordered the Whale Tail fountain shut down until it was re-sanitized. At the time, even though some downtown merchants said the incident was indicative of a bigger problem involving the homeless, Olsen blamed City Councilor Michael Buscetto III for blowing the incident out of proportion.
"No, I'm not out of touch,'' Olsen said, "... for our children to be denied the opportunity on a hot day to cool off in the fountain was a travesty,'' he said, adding that he himself walked under the fountain to show people it was safe.
"I have to say," Buscetto responded, "I would never have let your grandchildren run under that fountain in that condition. It's recycled water."
Buscetto, who is running as a write-in candidate, said he was blamed for making a big deal about the fountain and for talking to a New York Times reporter about it. He called the fallout from the event "one of the most disturbing pieces of propaganda for political gain I've ever seen."
Olsen added that a committee that includes members of the fire department, the Lawrence & Memorial Hospital and the Homeless Hospitality Center has been quietly addressing the homeless issue.
Finizio, who moved to New London less than two years ago, looked surprised when Lori Hopkins-Cavanagh, a petitioning candidate, said he has never paid taxes, never owned property and never had a private-sector job.
"He's never really done anything,'' she said, as the crowd murmured.
"I've worked,'' said Finizio, saying he's been working since he was 14 and has had many jobs. "I've worked hard all my life."
He moved around when he was in his 20s, going to school, taking internships and getting a law degree, he said, and has owned property in Waterford. Now at 34, he's settled down and moved to New London. His house, he said, is in his partner's name for liability reasons, like many other lawyers in private practice.
Petitioning candidate Andrew Lockwood was asked how, as mayor, he could ask people to pay taxes when he owes more than $37,000 in unpaid taxes.
"I'm glad you asked that,'' said Lockwood, as the audience broke into laughter. "No, I'm glad you did.''
He said there has been a misunderstanding with the city for 10 years over classification of his house as a rooming house, and he said he's tried to get Mayor Olsen to help resolve the issue. Olsen would not respond.
"As your mayor, I won't push things off,'' Lockwood said.
Olsen responded: "All my taxes, water and sewer bills are paid.''
It was the last time the six candidates will meet before Tuesday's election.
The Day and the League of Women Voters of Southeastern Connecticut sponsored the round-robin format, which allowed the candidates to face off one-on-one.
Questions were posed and asked by Paul Choiniere, editorial page editor at The Day.
The debate can be seen in its entirety at www.theday.com