Melissa Kane: Dem wants to use bully pulpit to advocate for Westport
Updated 8:14 am, Monday, November 6, 2017
WESTPORT— Melissa Kane wasn’t planning to be the Democratic first selectman candidate.
“I thought we had another candidate, and I was the chair of the Democratic Town Committee and felt the work I was doing there was important,” Kane said.
However, the assumed Democratic candidate, state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, was purportedly needed in Hartford. Once the spot opened up, Kane said, “many people reached out to me and expressed a great deal of support for my running.
“I thought long and hard about it and coincidentally, but fortuitously, I went to the Women’s Campaign School at Yale University this June,” Kane said.
“It was an incredible experience, and it was really during that week and right around then that I was deciding,” she said.
The 49-year-old reflected on her involvement in town government and decided, “I can do a much better job advocating and being proactive than the current administration. I think in the end that was what kind of flipped the switch for me.”
“I really believe that one of the most important things about the role of the first selectman is to use the bully pulpit of the office, and that is not something Mr. Marpe does,” Kane said. “He’s not comfortable advocating for things. He takes the path of least resistance often, and there have been a number of missed opportunities.”
The list of opportunities Kane claims were sacrificed by Marpe’s lack of advocacy is extensive.
“One (missed opportunity) which was nearest and dearest to me was the dismissal of the project at the Save the Children Building that would have been a public-private partnership and brought diverse housing downtown,” Kane said. “It would have brought more restaurants and more vibrancy, but also moved the little house on the corner that’s in the way of dealing with one of our really major traffic concerns.”
“I advocated for it and Mr. Marpe did advocate for it, but he did not lead a lobby,” Kane said. “I think when you want something to happen, you need to advocate for it, you need to lobby for it, you need to have a coalition behind you, and he didn’t do that and it cost us.”
Kane also cites the 2015 rejection of a senior housing facility on the Baron’s South property as among Marpe’s missed opportunities. “He didn’t even speak when the RTM tried to overturn the Planning and Zoning Commission decision on Barron’s South. He never even got up and spoke. And then he put together a Senior Housing Commission that hasn’t come up with any senior housing.”
At the Oct. 12 debate, Kane criticized Marpe for his alleged lack of advocacy during the school budget debacle. “I feel like we missed a great opportunity this last spring during the budget fight to have our first selectman stand up and say we need to fully support our school budget at a time when, out in the public, the word was that Westport’s not fully funding its schools.”
Marpe responded to Kane, saying, “Actions speak louder than words,” and noting his administration found additional savings behind the scenes.
Kane said, “I think sometimes words are very important. When you represent a community, it’s very important that you are vocal and advocate for what you believe in.”
Kane has lived in Westport with her husband, Jonathan, son George, 18, and daughter Lily, 14, for over 15years, but started coming here for summer vacations when she was 10 months old. Kane attended The Dalton School in New York City and graduated from Mt. Holyoke College with a bachelor’s degree in international relations.
Her early professional career spanned the public relations, marketing and nonprofit development sectors. Soon after 9/11, one of her best college friends got married in a large San Francisco wedding. At the last moment, the wedding flowers fell through and Kane did all of the arranging.
Kane had toyed with the idea of starting a flower-arranging business, and after the wedding, decided to manifest the dream. Kane created MKK Design, which specialized in event design for special events.
More recently, Kane was mobilized by President Donald Trump’s election and helped organize Connecticut’s chapter of the Women’s March on Washington.
She’s served Westport’s District 3 on the RTM since 2011, chaired the Westport Democratic Committee since 2016 (though she stepped down to run for first selectman), and chaired the Downtown Steering Committee.
After running as the second selectman candidate on Democrat Helen Garten’s 2013 first selectman campaign, Kane said Marpe saw how well she connected with residents and appointed her the co-chairwoman of the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee.
Downtown revitalization is among Kane’s top priorities. She speaks often of improving Westport’s economic vitality in connection with building on the town’s artistic heritage. “In speaking with the arts community and the business community, concepts have come up like pop-up shops, gallery spaces and public art in partnership between arts organizations, artists and businesses,” Kane said. Kane’s mother, Judy Katz, is an artist and author living in town.
Coupled with Kane’s economic revitalization plan is her goal to improve town hall communications.
“We need to make the experience of dealing with the town better from making our permitting process less unpleasant and costly and more time-efficient to improving our communications and making town hall a lot more user friendly,” she said at the debate. “We have set a very low bar. We can do much better.”
While working on the Downtown Master Plan, Kane said she received survey responses from over 3,000 people because she reached out to various community groups.
When asked what differentiates her from the other candidates, Kane said she’s the only woman in the race.
“I am a woman, and I have a very different sensibility,” Kane said. “I think as a woman, as a mother, as a business person and with my experience in government, I am a very good manager because I know I’ve had to be in order to get things done.”