In the film "Gangs of New York", Daniel Day Lewis plays the role of "Billy the Butcher." As leader of the Natives gang, he steadfastly fought for control of the five points neighborhoods of New York City. Billy was opposed to anyone who was not "native born". The character was based on the actual historical figure of William Boone, a leader of the aptly named "No Nothing" political movement. Active in the 1850s, the movement promised to purify American politics by limiting the influence of Catholics, the Irish and anyone that was deemed a "non-native."
I couldn't help but chuckle and think of old "Billy the Butcher" when I was accused of being a "non-native" in my own run for political office. No, I was not being accused of being born in Kenya. No one demanded my long form birth certificate. I was accused of not being "born and bred" in the city of New Britain. Sadly, tis true my fellow Americans. Though I was a familiar face around town, you wouldn't find my smiling mug in any local high school yearbook. It was my bitter secret. I was born a few towns over in Rocky Hill. Someone had uncovered my dark secret. I grew up in the suburbs. I was part of the foreign horde.
Bravely posting anonymously, a handful of curmudgeons with internet access had taken upon themselves to question the credibility of any candidate not born in the city of New Britain. One opposing candidate actually wondered aloud if I was not an opportunist from Rocky Hill who was using his law office to establish residency (actually both my business and home are in the city). Others accused me of living in the "bath house" of the local state senator to establish residency. An anonymous poster demanded that I do a 360 and leave. I politely pointed out that if I did a 360 I would just be making a circle. He reminded me of the character Biff in "Back to the Future." He told Marty to "make like a tree and get out of here." Biff was pretty bad at insults too.
Apparently, it did not matter that I made a conscious choice to live in the city. It wasn't like I was crashing on someone's couch or even renting an apartment. I owned a home and volunteered for local organizations. I shopped in local stores and gave free legal seminars. I spoke in support of business owners applying for variances and permits. I sat in on streetscape design meetings. I founded a local business association that encouraged investment and fighting crime. The street festival we organized brought in over 8000 people to shop in city stores and dine in city restaurants. Heck, I even convinced my law firm to move to New Britain after 65 years in downtown Hartford. How was I remotely a carpetbagger? I cursed my father for bringing my mother to Hartford Hospital for my birth. Couldn't he have driven her to New Britain General? I would have waited.
The carpetbagger label has been a desperate vintage of whine in politics for years. They tried it famously on Bobby Kennedy and Hillary Clinton. Both won their respective seats. I understand the argument. You want a candidate who understands the needs of their neighbors. Theoretically someone who grew up in town would have his or her finger on the pulse of the community. But when does that simply become overly provincial? Is a candidate who was born in a city somehow more qualified than another who moved here but might have more qualifications? Do you need to hire cousin Eddie to paint your house just because he is family or do you go with someone a little more professional?
I wasn't born in the city of New Britain, but I spent a good deal of my childhood there. My brick mason grandfather helped build some of the buildings on Broad Street. That particular street was the one where I opened my law practice forty years later. I was proud of that fact. An immigrant from Poland, my grandfather also worked at Nozewski's meat market where I would visit and marvel at the long lines out the door. I could still picture him preparing the spices as he smiled broadly at me. No one made a kielbasa like my grandfather. I also had family members buried in a town cemetery. Each year when politicians showed up at the cemetery for All Souls Day, I was actually there paying respects to my family members.
Sentimental journeys aside, I was the neighborhood attorney. I studied and understood laws and ordinances. Our street level office had open office hours. Over the past seven years, I had heard the daily concerns of my neighbors. From crime to potholes, they came to our office for advice. I was the chairman of the ethics commission under the Republican mayor and a member of the Economic development commission under the Democratic one. Did it really matter that I was not born in the city? Did anybody really care? Heck, I even spoke New Britain's three main languages: English, Polish and Spanish. No one could credibly accuse me of not being a "New Britain guy." I was a resident, community volunteer, business owner, landlord and trilingual advocate. Not to mention the fact that I had advanced degrees and flossed regularly. When the sign said "leave a penny or take a penny," I would leave a penny. I was a good guy. I was happily married. Did my place of birth matter? What about fresh ideas? What about a fresh perspective? Why were these old men tormenting me on the website of the local newspaper?! But I digress..
Walking the neighborhoods, I got the real story. I received a warm welcome. The people I encountered were my neighbors. Although some didn't know me personally, they knew me through my community and charity work. Others attended our law firms free legal seminars. I had chosen to live in the city. New Britain was my home.
So if you do decide to run for office, remember. Stay true to your values and stay on message. Don't let Billy the Butcher get you down. If he has you in his crosshairs, it only means you're on the right path. And as Oscar Wilde put it, "there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about".
Paid for By Baron for New Britain. Marie Baron Treasurer Approved by Adrian Baron