Sunday, November 04, 2007

A Rare Challenge Facing DeLuca

In The Small Town Of Woodbury, An Opponent Has Come Forward For Post Of Moderator


MARK ALVAREZ is running a write-in campaign against state Sen. Lou DeLuca for town meeting moderator in Woodbury. "ItÂ’s crazy, under the circumstances, that he should run unopposed," Alvarez said. (MICHAEL MCANDREWS / October 31, 2007)

By CHRISTOPHER KEATING | Capitol Bureau Chief, The Hartford Courant
November 4, 2007

WOODBURY [Connecticut] - In this quaint New England town of antique shops and well-manicured lawns, the politics are almost as genteel as the ambience.

Woodbury is one of the state's most reliably conservative communities, and Republicans have controlled politics here for decades, long before the town supported Barry Goldwater in the lopsided presidential election of 1964.

Democrats have held the first selectman's seat for only four years since the town was settled more than 300 years ago; they haven't even bothered endorsing a candidate for the town's top post for the past four elections.

But this year is different.

The town's longtime Republican kingpin - state Sen. Louis DeLuca - is facing possible expulsion from the Senate after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of conspiring with a garbage executive facing accusations of racketeering to threaten his granddaughter's husband.

And Tuesday, DeLuca is facing an unexpected challenge in a local election for a second office that he holds: town meeting moderator.

The unpaid position requires the moderator to keep order at the old-fashioned town meetings, and this election has become a referendum on DeLuca himself.

Mark Alvarez, a 59-year-old Dartmouth College graduate and former five-term selectman, joined the race less than three weeks ago as a write-in candidate because he believes DeLuca should not be permitted to run uncontested.

"It's crazy, under the circumstances, that he should run unopposed," said Alvarez, an author who has written seven books, including several about sports. "The Democrats know, by and large, that they have no shot at this office, but this is a special case."

Alvarez, who is married to a former federal prosecutor who is now a magistrate, said he launched the race out of principle and steadfastly insisted it is not a prelude to a potential 2008 run against DeLuca for a seat in the state Senate.

"The moderator should be a person who doesn't have the kind of baggage that Lou is carrying around these days," Alvarez said, sitting last week at a wooden picnic table outside the town library.

"Lou has forfeited the confidence of the town. To a certain extent, it's that simple. ... To expect to have a free ride to this particular office is bizarre. Let the people decide."

But in a town controlled by Republicans, Alvarez immediately felt the backlash for trying to hit DeLuca at a time when he is particularly vulnerable.

"It tends to be a pretty polite town. They think I'm being impolite to someone who's suffering difficulties," Alvarez said.

One of DeLuca's close political friends for the past 35 years, Woodbury First Selectman Richard Cranesaid Alvarez's run is an example of "piling on" a person who has already pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, been fined $2,000 and been ordered to make a $1,500 charitable contribution.

Despite DeLuca's problems, he clearly still has support in the town where he has lived since 1972.

"At this point, I'd say it's overwhelming support," Crane said Friday. "There's a lot of people who think he's being railroaded. People are constantly commenting to him and me that it's a shame. Calling him an embarrassment to the town is unconscionable."

At the age of 74 after 17 years in the Senate, the race for town meeting moderator could be one of the last in DeLuca's political career.

"I'm not sure he's going to run again [for Senate] - even if he's exonerated," said Crane, who is not running for re-election for his own position as first selectman. "He may run if he gets angry enough. I would be surprised if he ran, to be honest with you."

Crane said he is confident that DeLuca will win on Tuesday night, but Alvarez said he could not predict the outcome in a local race in which as few as 1,500 people could vote.

With about $4,000 for a local election in a town that has fewer than 10,000 people, Alvarez is well-financed and has sprinkled the town with red-and-white signs that say, "Mark for Moderator." He's not using his last name, a testament to how well known he is in Woodbury.

While walking down Main Street, Alvarez waved to the UPS driver in the little brown truck.

"Hi, George!" he yelled to a man who was walking near the white-steepled First Congregational Church near Mountain Road.

Alvarez moved to this classic New England town when he was 7, and he graduated from Woodbury High School before heading to Dartmouth. He is well known as the past chairman of the Region 14 school board and the current chairman of the library's board of trustees.

With an adult daughter, Alvarez never expected to be in a contested local election at this stage in his life.

"I'm worn out in local politics," Alvarez said. "But I thought somebody's gotta do this. [DeLuca] has had basically a free ride his entire political career."

One of the unknowns in Tuesday's election is how the constant publicity regarding DeLuca's case over the past several months will affect the voters.

DeLuca initially refused to answer questions under oath when being interviewed by a six-member special Senate committee last month, but he later swore that the answers he gave were true. He has also refused to release copies of his statements to an undercover FBI agent who offered a $5,000 cash bribe to DeLuca while posing as an associate of Danbury trash hauler James Galante, who is alleged to have mob ties.

DeLuca declined the bribe, saying he was "afraid of them guys ... tracing things."

Alvarez conceded that it is always difficult for any candidate to win a write-in election without his name on the ballot, but he said Tuesday's election is a special case without precedent that is tough to predict.

"I just don't know," Alvarez said. "I think that most people in town agree with me. It's hard for me to judge, but most people know what the issues are."

DeLuca, who has frequently declined to answer questions about his recent troubles, could not be reached for comment for this story.

Contact Christopher Keating at ckeating@courant.com.

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