Good governance is good balance. Politicians, bureaucrats, and citizens all make trade-offs, both under the table and overtly. So on balance, Ed Vargas is a good candidate for First Senate District (South Hartford and Wethersfield). He speaks of policy, particularly education, with rare fluency. Vargas’ flaws go down a lot smoother than do those of his opponent, his one-time ally, Sen. John Fonfara.
First time I met Vargas a decade ago, I was a Hartford newbie reporting for the Advocate. I encountered Vargas at the head of the teachers’ union picket line behind 10 Prospect Avenue, leading a protest about an aspect of society’s general disrespect for education. When I met him Tuesday morning at First and Last Bakery and Café on Maple Avenue for an egg sandwich and a cup of coffee, he’s a new incarnation of himself.
His deep voice still exudes a grave confidence. He’s only shaved his beard. And he’s retired from teaching. He’s cut back the time he puts into the union. And he is focusing his energy on the campaign.
We talked for about an hour. We started with his 35 years of union and political activism in the circles of the Hartford Federation of Teachers and the AFL-CIO.
After a round of history, we dove into the race. Have no doubt, Vargas will unseat Fonfara in the primary. It’s the Lieberman-Lamont Democratic party dichotomy template.
Fonfara has spent 22 years in the Capital in both the House and the Senate. During his reign, he has compiled an impressive prima facie rap sheet of ethical transgressions of the parasitic leaching off the taxpayer teat kind.
Vargas can expertly weave a Fonfara faux pas into a question about Eddie Perez or historical architectural preservation. He stressed an expired respect for Fonfara, wondering about Fon¬fara’s evolution from community stalwart and to corporate wart.
“He has been totally disengaged from the community,” Vargas said. “The biggest complaint against him is that he doesn’t return phone calls – community leaders, activists, people who worked on his campaign. People encouraged me to run in the neighborhood because they have no access to John.”
As an entrenched incumbent, Fonfara’s biggest electoral challenge of late has been Mike DeRosa, the Green Party perennial who refuses to raise money. Fonfara built his billboard duchy on lobbyist PAC donations, and he didn’t even need to do much to maintain it.
Here comes Vargas, ready and able to access the $85,000 in public financing from the Clean Election Program. I might guess that Fonfara could have a challenge even meeting the $15,000 small donation threshold to reach the big cash.
So far, it’s been fun to watch Vargas beat up on his rival. Vargas is aggressive with the press.
He is finally applying to his own endeavors the skills he’s mastered from having held positions of responsibility on many major Democratic campaigns during the past 35 years: Maria Sanchez, Teddy Kennedy, Thirman Milner, Eddie Perez, Ned Lamont, Chris Dodd, Obama.
Clearly, Ed Vargas is not afraid of a fight. He can challenge Mayor Perez, but still get along with him. According to Vargas, the First Senate district encompasses 80 percent of Hartford. It would be a good thing for Hartford to have a Mayoral ally aside from Kelvin Roldan in the state house.
Perez knighted Vargas head of the new Planning and Zoning Com¬mis¬sion. Yet Vargas showed an independence uncommon in Eddie loyalists when he backed Lamont to Perez’s Lieberman in the great 2006 Democratic Senate fracas.
Vargas’ campaign manager, John Murphy, a veteran of many Hart¬ford political battles, is setting up the ground game to outfox Fonfara. In full disclosure, I worked for Murphy on Lamont’s campaign, and Murphy once took this really funny picture of Gov. M. Jodi Rell and I.
So I know Murphy’s walk lists, with bar codes to scan for easier management of voter contacts. That system bested Lieberman, and Vargas embraces and is using these proven organizing methods.
Vargas carries a three-ring binder, family snapshots stuffed in the outside clear plastic pocket. The binder overflows with walk lists, voter registration forms in Spanish, press releases, photos and tidbits of Fonfara’s ridiculous direct mail franking privilege piece.
He is building a schedule of meet and greets across the district, and his communication network is getting the word out. I haven’t heard one word from Fonfara.
All of these things outweigh Vargas’ faults. His organization isn’t totally tip-top yet. It’s little things that can trip up a candidate, like giving me a calling card with the wrong date for his May 8, 2008 campaign kick-off event.
Bigger things, he can get away with. Vargas, like the good politician he is, won’t answer head-on questions. And he’s learned the maddening trick of glossing over contradiction.
Vargas talks a great game about education. He has a sweet mom-and-pop pharmacy story. He can pitch the idyllic vision of small-business, a thriving Hartford economy built on, of all things, drugs.
Not the teenaged illegal substance market. Nor does he think a legal weed market would create a tourist scene in Hartford. He lauds the local pharmacy. He decries how corporate beasts like CVS and Walgreens destroy neighborhood institutions like Sousa’s Pharmacy.
But when challenged on the Mayor’s inability to protect buildings in the South End, like the Italianate at the corner of Airport Road and Wethersfield Avenue that was demolished for a chain drug store, or the mixed use residential and medical house on Franklin razed for a different chain drug store.
Vargas, the chair of P&Z had nothing to say.
“This is not a referendum on Eddie,” he said. Of course, Vargas offered various platitudes about preservation, but I felt no substance, not what I should get from a P&Z chair.
The question, for me, though is how much of the fiery, vocal, activist Vargas of yesterday will survive when Vargas walks into the august Senate Chambers on Capitol Hill.
I hope we get a Vargas who envisions a fair funding mechanism for education distinct from the destructive property tax. Ed Vargas is wise enough to fight for kids, and to balance competing interests to get the best outcome for youth.
But simultaneously, I remain skeptical of Vargas. He didn’t offer any specific policies for the various societal ills he described.
I’ll leave you with his response to the question of whether poverty is the fault of the poor or the result of government policy and let you decide:
“I believe in the free market system. I am a social democrat. There has to be regulations and limits to avoid the concentration of capital in very few hands. There has to be fluidity in the marketplace so that small businesses can grow. There have to be many winners at the economic game, and not a handful.”