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Ron Pugliese Returns Home To Lead Economic Development Under Mayor O’Leary
Ron Pugliese grew up in the Bucks Hill neighborhood of Waterbury and was a talented athlete at Wilby High School. Four decades later, Pugliese has returned to Waterbury to become the executive director of Economic Development under Mayor Neil O’Leary.
Story and Photographs By John Murray
Ron Pugliese was born and raised in Waterbury and is a firm believer in public service. His father was the assistant city clerk in the 1950s, and all three of his sons have forged a life in the public sector arena.
“My wife is a teacher and our entire family believes in volunteering and giving back,” Pugliese said. “If an organization asks me for help, I never say no. That’s who I am.”
Back in November, in addition to being the President of the East Hartford Chamber of Commerce, Pugliese was a board member of the Connecticut State University System, a board member of the Palace Theater, and a recently elected selectman in the town of Southbury.
And it’s that generous spirit of public service - and a love of Waterbury - that Ron Pugliese an easy mark when Neil O’Leary recruited him to be the city’s new economic development director.
“Neil called two days after the election and asked to meet with me,” Pugliese said. “I’ve known Neil for many years and I thought he wanted to pick my brain. I wasn’t looking for a job, and I didn’t think he wanted to talk about me.”
Pugliese, 62, was happy working as the President of the East Hartford Chamber of Commerce, a position he believed would be the last of his working career. When Pugliese pulled into O’Leary’s driveway for a private meeting with the newly elected mayor, he believed O’Leary was seeking counsel about who might be a good fit for the new economic development post.
“Neil explained the position and then said I was the man he wanted for the job,” Pugliese said. “My mouth sort of dropped. I didn’t see it coming.”
Flattered and stunned, Pugliese agreed to think about the offer, but the more he thought about it, the more excited he became.
“I am a Waterbury guy and I love this city,” Pugliese said. “Coming back home was an unexpected opportunity.”
Shortly after their first meeting, O’Leary and Pugliese met at Diorio’s Restaurant with a group of people to discuss economic development, and Pugliese was again offered the position. “I was really torn up because I loved my job in East Hartford,” Pugliese said.
The next morning - still undecided - Pugliese attended an East Hartford Chamber function when one of the board members approached him and asked if “Is there is something on your mind?”
Indeed there was. Pugliese then had an emotional conversation with the board member and realized his hometown was calling, and he wanted to heed the call.
After the conversation Pugliese called O’Leary and said, “I’m in.”
Pugliese started his new job on January 2nd, and is thrilled to be working inside City Hall.
“Everything I have ever done has led me to this position,” Pugliese said. “I am energetic, passionate and committed to moving Waterbury forward.”
Waterbury sits at the intersection of I-84 and Route 8, and has an abundance of water, and manpower. All selling points for Ron Pugliese to capitalize on.
The Rowland Situation
Economic development was the key issue in Neil O’Leary’s successful mayoral campaign. O’Leary blasted five-term incumbent Mike Jarjura for a Laissez Faire approach to recruiting new businesses and growing the grand list. At the heart of the debate was how to structure economic development efforts in Waterbury. Jarjura was in favor of continuing the unique relationship between the city and the Greater Waterbury Chamber of Commerce, which allowed former governor John Rowland to be the economic “czar”.
John Rowland’s reluctance to work out of the mayor’s office, and to give up his popular radio show, opened the door for Pugliese to return to Waterbury.
O’Leary, a long-time friend of Rowland, openly stated the situation was unacceptable. During a Q&A with the Observer in late September, O’Leary said, “The economic development director in the city of Waterbury will not work out of the Chamber. He will have an office in my office. I don’t care who it is, that is where they are going to be. That is the most vital position in the city if we are going to get this grand list going in the right direction. We have to have someone who is going to be out there 24/7 attracting businesses to Waterbury. I personally like John Rowland. I personally like what he did for Waterbury. Listen, John Rowland has paid his price to society. I still like John Rowland, but I will say this, the Economic Director for the city of Waterbury in an O’Leary Administration is a full-time job. When I say full-time I don’t mean 8 hours a day. I mean 24/7. No other jobs.”
The “no other jobs” comment was a direct reference to Rowland’s three-hour mid-afternoon radio show, State and Church, on WTIC-1080. O’Leary said the radio show presented two problems; first it detracted from Rowland’s flexibility to meet with new businesses and manufacturers, and second, the tone of the radio show was openly critical of Governor Dan Malloy and was creating friction between Waterbury and Hartford.
O’Leary told the Observer, “No more radio show. Do I agree with some of John Rowland’s points when he criticizes Governor Malloy on the radio? I might go so far to say that I can find some common ground of agreement, but how is it that the economic development director for the city of Waterbury can openly criticize the governor of the state of Connecticut and hope to bring economic development to the city? I’ve got an issue with that.”
After the O’Leary victory on election day, it came down to an “all in, or all out” decision for John Rowland.
“Neil made it very clear that he wanted the position to work out of the mayor’s office,” John Rowland said, “and that’s not my cup of tea. We had very positive discussions about his style, and my style, and agreed that it wasn’t going to work in the long run.”
And the radio show? “I didn’t want to give up the radio show,” Rowland said. “I really enjoy my work on WTIC.”
O’Leary was not surprised at Rowland’s decision. “The radio show is very important to John, he gets great fulfillment out of it,” O’Leary said. “We agreed to go in different directions, At the end of the day we are all friends, who most importantly, all want to move the city forward.”
Rowland's contract expires in June, but O’Leary needed to find an individual to fill the new economic development director position. His attention immediately turned to Ron Pugliese.
O’Leary met Pugliese several years ago for lunch and said the two immediately clicked. “I was the police chief and I heard that Ron was semi-interested in applying for the vacant executive director position at the Waterbury Development Corporation,” O’Leary said. “A mutual friend set up a luncheon, and I loved Ron’s energy and ideas.”
Pugliese - a close friend of Leo Frank - ultimately didn’t apply for the WDC post (Frank got the job), but O’Leary said he ran into Pugliese dozens of times at events over the years and two remained friendly.
With John Rowland’s status settled, O’Leary set out to recruit Pugliese to be his go-to guy for economic development.
“Ron is a very likable guy, very knowledgeable, and he has friends on both sides of the aisle,” O’Leary said. “His deep connections to lobbyists could be very helpful with big issues - like the hospital merger - and he is wired in throughout the state of Connecticut. He was the guy I wanted.”
Lynn Ward is the President of the Greater Waterbury Chamber of Commerce, and is Rowland's employer. "We now have one economic development leader in Waterbury and it's Ron Pugliese," Ward said. "Joohn Rowland has always been a great ambassador for the city and he will continue to facilitate Waterbury's positive image."
Ron Pugliese’s varied background in politics, lobbying, manufacturing, running a for-profit company, a non-profit company, and a chamber of commerce, enable him to connect with businesses and politicians.
Former five-term mayor, Mike Jarjura, made a surprise visit to the Board of Aldermen meeting January 10th to speak out against transferring money to the mayor’s office to fund two new economic development positions (Pugliese, and a full-time aide, Saranda Belica). Jarjura said the move would create a financial burden in tough economic times, and chided the aldermen that they would have opposed the concept had he proposed it last spring.
“I bet you didn’t expect to see me this soon,” Jarjura chuckled at the podium, and then he panned O’Leary’s effort to raise the budget in the mayor’s office 25%. “If I had asked for that you would have told me to go fly a kite, and you would have been 100% correct.”
Jarjura said his opposition was motivated by the fact that the city is still operating on the budget he helped craft last June, a budget he feels personally responsible for.
Waterbury mayor, Neil O'Leary, right, watched as former mayor, Mike Jarjura, proceeded to the microphone to denounce O'Leary's plans to finance economic development out of the mayor's budget.
O’Leary rebutted Jarjura’s claims minutes later. O’Leary said he didn’t want to rehash the campaign, but that he had promised to bring economic development inside the mayor’s office. He acknowledged there was an expense, but said it was important to invest in the effort to bring new business to the city.
“Let me remind you of a couple of things,” O’Leary told the aldermen, “Number one, the Grand List in the city has not grown since 2007. Number two, we have one of the highest mil rates in the state. Number three, we have the dubious distinction of having the highest unemployment rate in the state for the past ten years. The voters in Waterbury spoke very loudly and clearly for change. To bring change we need to invest. Give us a chance.”
The $100,00 transfer request went before the Finance Committee, which was controlled by the Republicans 4-3. Democrat aldermen Joe Begnal, Tony Piccochi, and Greg Hadley voted in favor of the transfer, and Republican aldermen Lysa Margiotti, Steve Giacomi and Carlo Palladino all voted against the transfer. The fate of the transfer came down to Republican alderman Frank Burgio, a feisty maverick, who voted in favor of the transfer. Once voted out of committee the transfer was voted by the entire Board of Aldermen who passed the resolution to transfer the money by a 9-6 vote. (again, Burgio was the only Republican to vote in favor of the transfer).
“I’m very grateful to Frank Burgio for giving us the opportunity to do our job,” O’Leary said. “I’m a little disappointed the Republicans made an issue out of this. I do understand their reluctance to spend more money, but you have to have a little faith.”
Burgio took some heat for his vote from fellow Republicans, but said he didn’t want to handcuff the new mayor. If Burgio hadn’t crossed party lines to support the transfer, O’Leary said he would have been forced to lay off other positions within the mayor’s office to keep the economic positions funded. “People would have been hurt,” O’Leary said, “But the bottom line on this investment in our future is that by June 30th, there will be no increase to the bottom line.”
It took some political wrangling, and an unexpectedly dramatic vote by the Board of Aldermen, but O’Leary has his wish - economic development is now located and funded inside the mayor’s office, and the task is squarely in the hands of Ron Pugliese.
Growing up in Waterbury
Ron Pugliese was born in 1950 and attended Bucks Hill Grammar School for nine years. He attended Crosby High School (where the police station is now) for one year, before redistricting sent him to Wilby High school.
“I was really disappointed to be leaving Crosby,” Pugliese said, “but I had a great time at Wilby playing basketball and baseball, and made life-long friends there.”
At Wilby, Pugliese played under Jack Delaney and Billy Evans, and in his junior year he encountered Dick Genuoa, a dynamic history teacher who altered the trajectory of his life.
“I fell in love with history, and decided I was going to be a history teacher,” Pugliese said. “That was my passion.”
Upon graduation in 1968, Pugliese accepted a prep school scholarship to Kingsley Hall in Westbrook, CT. Also attending the school with Pugliese was Ron Spann, a fellow classmate from Wilby, and the two became inseparable. Spann and Pugliese were roommates. Pugliese was elected president of the student council and Spann the vice-president.
In the late 1960s Waterbury experienced racial tension between blacks and whites with riots erupting in the North End.
“We blossomed at the school,” Pugliese said. “We were involved in everything down there. We travelled to Puerto Rico with the baseball team, and this white Italian kid and an African-American kid became best friends.”
Pugliese with his best friend, Ron Spann. The two young men were roommates at prep school.
When Spann died in the 1980s Pugliese was a pall bearer at the funeral. Pugliese is also friends with Reggie Beamon and Maurice Mosley, two black men who grew up to be state representatives in Hartford, and community leaders in Waterbury.
“Ron Pugliese is all about relationships,” Reggie Beamon said. “There are 1000s of people throughout Connecticut who know who he is., and he knows how to navigate Hartford. Hiring Ron was a brilliant move by Mayor O’Leary.”
The 1968 Wilby High School basketball team. First row, left to right: Ron Spann, Joe Ramonas, co-captain Rich Lebel, co-captain Art Williams, Rod Eason, Gordon Salokus. Second row: Jim Corkindale, Ron Pugliese, Dave White, Glenn Orkin, Ken Gatling. Third row: Bill Tracy, Julius Harrison, Ted Karotie, Gerald Ridenhower, coach Jack Delaney.
After Kingsley School, Pugliese attended Western Connecticut State College to fuel his ambition of being a history teacher and baseball coach in Waterbury. After graduating from college, Pugliese worked as a substitute teacher in Waterbury for several years while waiting for a history teaching position to open up. In the summers he worked in the Parks Department. He taught in the Waterbury Adult Education program, Wallace Middle School and was a long-term substitute teacher for Jack Gorman’s history class at Crosby High School.
Patience did not pay off for Pugliese, and when no full-time history position opened up, he moved to Naugatuck to work at Allied Foundry, where he was the assistant forman on the night shift. “It was the dirtiest environment I have ever seen in my life,” Pugliese said. “I was filthy and couldn’t leave the foundry without taking a shower, but it was a great experience.”
From there Pugliese went to Connecticut Tube where he began in sales. Within five years he went from sales manager, to general manager, to president of the company. That job ended when the three owners broke the company apart, and an effort led by Pugliese to have the employees buyout the company, failed.
“We tried to work through a local bank and they insisted I put personal money into the deal,” Pugliese said. “I was willing to do that, but the deal blew up because the workers distrusted the owners.”
During this time Pugliese became very active in Naugatuck politics and was elected burgess (like an alderman in Waterbury) to three terms. Pugliese eventually became chairman of the Democrat Party in Naugatuck.
The next chapter of his life saw Pugliese head up the Connecticut Retail Merchants Association, an organization, according to its own website “that has been representing retailers at the State Capitol and in the marketplace since 1910.”
Before Pugliese took over the helm, the association had encountered ethical problems for improper reporting, and his first task was to clean up the association’s reputation. “We had to change our image with the business community and the legislature,” Pugliese said. “It was a lot of hard work, but it was fun.”
In 1994 Pugliese was recruited by Household Financial to be a lobbyist for the consumer finance company in New England. The company provided loans to individuals who may not have qualified through other institutions. With the higher risk, the company charged a higher interest rate. Pugliese’s worked as a government relations specialist, and his territory expanded from New England to include New York, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Pugliese had offices in Washington D.C. and Chicago, and spent “a lot of time on the road.”
“I dealt with state legislatures, especially in New England, primarily with issues before banking regulatory agencies,” Pugliese said. “I attended a lot of hearings. We tried to stop bills we thought were bad, and I spoke in every state capitol in New England, plus New York and Arizona.”
The most comfortable turf for Pugliese was Connecticut. “Connecticut was easy because I knew the people and the geography,” Pugliese said. “The entire lobbying business is personality driven. Maine was tougher because I didn’t know anybody.”
The key to being a good lobbyist, Pugliese said, is honesty. A lobbyist has to be in front of politicians and gain their trust.
“You have one shot,” Pugliese said, “if you tell the banking commissioner something that isn’t true, you have no future as a lobbyist. You have to tell the truth even when it’s something they don’t want to hear. Any good lobbyist will tell you to always to tell the truth.”
In March 2009, with the global economy in tatters, HSBC, the parent company of Household Financial, decided to shut down the operation. “It had become a toxic environment,” Pugliese said. “Household was being investigated for predatory lending, but the real problem in the industry was a lack of investigation and the approach to underwriting. The philosophy was ‘let’s make the deal’, and it all came home to roost in 2007 and 2008.”
And with a sudden thud, Ron Pugliese’s 15-year-career with Household Finance was over. The looming question in his life was, “now what?”
He took the summer off, played a lot of golf, and then joined a lobbying firm in Hartford. “I wasn’t happy in that position, and when an opportunity to lead the East Hartford Chamber of Commerce came, I took it.”
Before accepting the position in East Hartford, Pugliese insisted on being chamber president (which is executive driven), instead of executive director (which is board driven).
“The chamber was in bad shape, nearly bankrupt, and if I was going to turn it around I needed to make quick, hard decisions,” Pugliese said. “They agreed, and we turned it around in a very short time. I really loved working in East Hartford and the only reason I would have left was to come back to Waterbury. I thought East Hartford was going to be my last job.”
Ron Pugliese is already uncorking his enthusiasm and energy on the job, and with John Rowland, WDC and the Chamber of Commerce pitching in to support and promote economic development, Waterbury is beginning to pull in the same direction.
“I see a great deal of potential here in Waterbury,” Pugliese said. “The stars are aligned for economic development to be done the way it should be done.”
One of the first decisions Mayor O’Leary made after being elected was to explore finding other options for a new public works campus besides the former Chase Brass factory. O’Leary believes new businesses - tax payers - are a better fit . If O’Leary gains the support of the Board of Aldermen, public works might be housed on East Aurora Street.
Neil O’Leary’s positive contacts at the state level with Governor Dannel Malloy bode well for better communication between Waterbury and Hartford. Former Mayor Mike Jarjura had a strained relationship with Governor Malloy, and when one factors in the daily barrage of criticism leveled at Malloy over the public airwaves by Rowland, one wouldn’t blame Malloy for pinching his nose as he drove past the city.
Malloy was on stage with O’Leary during his election night victory over Jarjura, and vowed to work hard with the newly elected mayor to push the city forward.
“Neil is a great leader with great passion,” Pugliese said, “And we have an opportunity to work with the three partners in the hospital merger to try and convince them why they should build the new hospital downtown.”
Pugliese has already helped the city successfully court the Fireball Run (see story on page 12), and additionally, he sees opportunities to bring an arts venue into Bank Street, recruit businesses into the Waterbury Industrial Commons, redesign the Green, and help faciltate an inter-modal transportation center. “There has been a lot of talking and planning in Waterbury,” Pugliese said, “Now let’s get something done.” •