In front of two video cameras in the backyard of his East Rock home, then on the campaign hustings, Matt Nemerson sought to single himself out as the one mayoral hopeful promising he will not raise taxes, period.
Just like a manufacturer that can’t raise its prices, the city has to increase “productivity” to attract investors, Nemerson said.
In numerous takes, Nemerson (pictured) improvised variations on that message Thursday, generating footage his campaign will edit together into the first TV ads of what has become New Haven’s most hotly contested mayor’s race in years.
Nemerson is one of seven Democrats running to become the next mayor of New Haven. Two-decade incumbent John DeStefano is stepping down at the end of the year. The primary election is on Sept. 10.
Thursday was a busy day of campaigning for Nemerson, the 57-year-old former president of the Chamber of Commerce. After filming the TV spot in the morning, he campaigned door to door at downtown businesses, where he got an earful about parking problems downtown. Nemerson, who’s chair of the board of the New Haven Parking Authority, offered several possible solutions, including connecting smart parking meters to a mobile phone app that would let parkers know what spots are free.
Returning to home to his campaign headquarters in the afternoon, Nemerson trained three new campaign volunteers and sent them off to Westville to spread the Nemerson promise: No new property taxes. Period.
Nemerson has made a point of declaring that he alone is not “pandering” to people as he tries to win their votes in the campaign. He has promised not to say just what people want to hear rather than be up front about tough choices elected officials must make.
He was asked if pledging in advance not to not raise taxes during his first term as mayor could be seen as the very definition of campaign pandering, as some have argued since then-President George H.W. Bush declared, “Read my lips: No new taxes,” and a generation of office-seekers proceeded to issue variations on that cry.
He’s not pandering at all, Nemerson, said. Rather, he is requiring the the city to work more efficiently.
“What’s missing in government is the pressure to be more productive,” he said. By deciding up front that the city won’t raise taxes, Nemerson said, he will ensure “a dialogue about productivity and being customer-facing.” Knowing that the city won’t have more tax revenue to work with, the government will have to be more efficient, he said.
A Yale MBA, Nemerson peppered his campaign pitches with business analogies, often comparing New Haven to a company that has to compete for a share of “the market.” He refers to the “real world” of business, where competition means you can’t raise prices on your product. Companies have to deliver more with less; and New Haven will too, without raising taxes, Nemerson argued. As he portrayed it, New Haven is competing on a global stage, fighting to have businesses set up shop here, rather than anywhere else in the world.
“I’m Not Going To Say That”
Nemerson said he’s not looking to be a politician in the mold of other business-minded elected officials, like George W. Bush, who was touted as the first MBA president. Nemerson said the difference is that he doesn’t think government is the problem. “It’s part of the solution,” he said.
Government can create predictability for investors by, say, declaring it won’t raise taxes, he argued.
“You have to hold some constants steady,” Nemerson said into a Canon video camera on Thursday morning in his leafy backyard of his house on Huntington Street, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. Once you decide not raise taxes, it creates a “whole different dialogue,” he said.
“Stop, stop, stop, stop,” declared Mark Cestari, the campaign’s communications director, cutting Nemerson off after a few minutes of ad-libbing. “You’ve got to do these in shorter chunks.”
Nemerson started over. “I’m a progressive guy. … I believe in government. I believe in taxes.” His words petered out.
“Say, ‘Taxes are a necessary evil,’” Cestari suggested from the deck overlooking the lawn. West Hartford videographer Tom Virgin (at right in photo) adjusted his cameras and lights.
“I’m not going to say that,” Nemerson said. He started again. “Let’s talk about taxes. … Look businesses around the world don’t have the option of raising prices.”
“This is a key point,” Cestari said, during another break in filming. “The market sets the price.”
Nemerson talked about using technology to increase productivity, calling for “relief on some work rules” to get more out of city employees. Again and again, he returned to the word “productivity.”
“How do we grow?” he asked the camera. Two ways: productivity and new investment, he said. And new investment comes from increased productivity. “People want to be with winners.”
Asked later about specific ways the city could be more productive, Nemerson said, “I’m not going to go there right now.” The specifics would “evolve out of discussions that can come later.” He did say that the city could move more services online, to keep people from standing in line.
Nemerson also declined to specify ways he might have trimmed to avoid a tax increase in this coming fiscal year’s budget, which will raise property taxes by 7.7 percent. “I don’t want to get into this year’s,” he said. “This is something that you have to get involved in a year ahead of time. I’m not going to start second and triple guessing people who have been in the process already.”
Filming in his backyard, Nemerson moved on to soundbites about education and crime. He praised the “experimentation” of charter schools and called for cops to work more closely with other city departments, like by reporting signs of blight to the Livable City Initiative.
“Good. It’s a wrap,” Cestari finally pronounced.
Mayoral candidates Justin Elicker and Henry Fernandez declined to comment on Nemerson’s choice to film TV ads, and also declined to say if they’ll be doing the same.
“He’s filming a TV commercial already?” said Jason Bartlett, mayoral candidate Toni Harp’s campaign manager. “Interesting strategy. Maybe he should wait until he qualifies?” Nemerson will have to petition his way onto the primary ballot if he’s not endorsed by the Democratic Town Committee.
Bartlett said it’s a little early to hit the airwaves: “People want more intimacy. 30-second soundbites is not what we’re looking for.”
Nemerson said the campaign will put video spots on the internet and on local-access TV. “I have to make sure people know who I am,” Nemerson said. Although he has lived in New Haven for 30 years, “I’ve been doing state stuff for the last 10 years.” Since 2003, Nemerson has been president and CEO of the Connecticut Technology Council, a tech-business advocacy group.
“I’ve been reduced to this caricature of ‘former Chamber prez,’ with a z,” said from behind the wheel of his Prius sedan, one of three in the Nemerson family. After the video filming, he’d changed into a gray suit and open-collared shirt, and headed toward town with campaign manager Matthew Zagaja and Jane Snaider, the campaign’s “head of special events.”
“My differentiation in the race is I come to the election having spent all these years trying to sell New Haven,” Nemerson said. In the 1980s, that meant selling tech businesses on the idea of Science Park, the business complex at the old Winchester factory, he said. (He served as vice-presidnet of the Science Park Development Corporation.] After that, he served as president of the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce, boosting New Haven business.
“For me, this is a little deja vu,” Nemerson chuckled as he walked up Chapel Street after parking the Prius near the Green. He used to walk door to door at New Haven businesses in the 1990s as chamber prez.
He stopped first at the New Haven’s Taste of China, the new restaurant on Chapel between Temple and College streets. Owner Huping Dolph (pictured) said she has another restaurant in Clinton. “People only complain about parking here,” she told Nemerson.
“I’m head of the parking authority,” Nemerson told her. He suggested getting some maps showing customers where all the parking in town is.
After greeting Mayor John DeStefano, who was having the sea bass for lunch, Nemerson offered more suggestions for how to tackle parking problems downtown. Free parking is a bad idea, he said. You have to charge, to get the turnover in parking spots. Parking options should be “integrated with the marketing of restaurants.” Business websites should link to the parking authority and create coupon programs for parking. Marketing would get people to know the options, and help with the “psychological” shift visitors need to make. People “have a sense that parking should be like in Branford,” free and abundant. But New Haven is not Branford.
Part of the problem is “the uncertainty” of parking availability, Nemerson said. The city should have a mobile app that will tell people in real time where spots are available, he said.
Nemerson walked west on Chapel and stopped in Idiom clothing boutique, “one of my wife’s favorite places.” Like Dolph, owner Kimberly Pedrick (pictured) said parking is a problem for her business.
Next was Raggs, the men’s clothing store. “I’m a Raggs guy,” Nemerson said as he walked in. He was wearing a new suit and shoes recently purchased there.
“Parking is an issue,” said owner Tom Maloney (at right in photo). Nemerson mentioned maps, links to the parking authority website.
Stopping at Peter Indorf jeweler, Nemerson picked up his wife’s pearl necklace, the clasp of which had been repaired.
At Enson’s clothing store Nemerson again discussed parking woes. And he spoke about neighborhoods beyond the downtown. He said New Haven needs to develop its “ethnic and historic neighborhoods” as other cities are doing, he said. He mentioned Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood, thriving home to Cubans and other immigrants.
Outside of the soon-to-be home of a Panera cafe on Chapel Street, Nemerson heard a different take on immigrants, from a United Illuminating employee named John, who was upset about the 3-mill property tax hike in the coming fiscal year. “The illegals,” he said. “We’re paying for them too.”
Nemerson called that “not accurate.” He said, “The real issue is investment. How to get more people to invest in New Haven.”
“Tell Yale they can’t expand” unless they give more money to the city, offered Joe, another UI worker.
“I want Yale to expand,” Nemerson replied. New residential colleges at Yale will bring more investment into the city, he said.
Following a pattern, the conversation returned to parking. John said he and his wife don’t like to come into town because of the threat of a parking ticket.
Inside Atticus cafe and bookstore, Nemerson found owner Charles Negaro eating his bakery’s toast at the counter, reading David Kennedy’s The Modern American Military on his iPad. Nemerson praised him as an entrepreneur who started a bookstore, a cafe, and a bread company.
“It’s all about responding to the market,” Nemerson said.
“Too business school for me,” Negaro said of that assessment.
On the subject of parking, Negaro pointed to two buses parked in front of the Yale University Art Gallery, taking up several spots. Something should be done about that, he said.
Nemerson riffed on a walkie-talkie system whereby tour buses could drop people at the gallery, then wait for a pick-up call from a parking location outside downtown. He said the city should work more with the gallery, make a plan for tour bus visits. “It’s a small point,” he said. “But we can be responsive.”
Just before 3 p.m., Nemerson headed to City Hall, where he fulfilled his duties as chair of the parking authority with a closed-to-the-press signing of a set of deed transfers and easements between the state, city, parking authority and developer Carter Winstanley, paving the way for the construction of 100 College St. at Downtown Crossing.
After doubling back to New Haven’s Taste of China for some Kung Pao shrimp, Nemerson returned home, where three new young campaign volunteers were waiting for him. He gave them a short synopsis of his “philosophy”: New Haven needs to compete with San Diego, New York, China, India. He said a key message to communicate during door-knocking is “we can’t raise taxes anymore.”
“The big thing to remember is that Matt Nemerson will hold the line on property taxes,” coached Zagaja, the campaign manager.
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