Longtime Board of Finance member Helen Garten was recommended Tuesday by a search committee of the Democratic Town Committee as the party's first selectman candidate in the fall election against Republican Jim Marpe.
But Garten, the finance board's vice chairwoman, could face a contest to be the Democrats' standard-bearer in November as both state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-136, and former Board of Finance member Kenneth Wirfel made strong pitches for their own candidacies at the top of the November election slate.
The full Democratic Town Committee will vote July 18 to make formal endorsements of candidates for its ticket.
"I'm truly honored to have been recommended by the search committee and if you do nominate me in July, I'll be truly honored to represent the party that has already given Westport three female chief executives," Garten told Democrats meeting in Town Hall.
Garten, who had been the chairwoman of the finance panel until Republicans won control of the board two years ago, has been a law professor at Rutgers University. A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, she was editor of the Harvard Law Review. She has served on the Representative Town Meeting from District 3 and was first elected to the Board of Finance in 2005.
She was one of three candidates interviewed by the search committee, comprised of district leaders and town party leaders. The two other contenders, Steinberg and Wirfel, both indicated they are interested in making a run for the first selectman nomination. Their names could be placed in nomination at the party's July meeting, and a candidate could challenge the town committee's nominee in a September primary.
Steinberg and Wirfel also both addressed the meeting Tuesday night, making respective cases for their candidacies.
"I have the highest public profile of any of the candidates, including Jim Marpe," Steinberg said. "I can win that election in November. I think you want a candidate who can represent a breadth of constituencies, and who can bring those constituencies with them. The arts community, the environmental community, the seniors, the parents. These are all constituencies that will come out in November."
Wirfel, a lawyer from District 1, said the Democrats' endorsed candidate for first selectman must continue to look ahead in determining the town's best interests.
"I believe whoever is the winning candidate must present a vision of the future, not the past, not to rehash what we've done, but what we're going to do. I believe I bring that vision, I believe I can include everyone in that process going forward," he said.
Kevin Connolly, the District 2 leader, said the search committee thought Garten would be the most well-rounded candidate.
"Through the interviewing process, it was clear to us that Helen exhibited a depth of understanding and insight into the issues around the town," Connolly said. "And through our further discussions, we were able to reach a very comfortable and strong consensus around Helen based upon what we perceive to be her experience and her unique qualifications."
Garten hoped the party's factions could align behind her candidacy, and shared thoughts about her potential administration.
"We will look forward with a vision that starts with strong, proactive management of town assets, a balanced approach to growth and development that sees value in open space, historic preservation, and community character, and better communication between town hall and residents," she said.
Democratic First Selectman Gordon Joseloff has announced that he will not seek re-election after two terms as the town's top elected official.
Republicans "want to win because after two decades of Democrats in power, they think it's their turn," Garten said. "We want to win because after two decades of Democrats in power, we have a record to show. A strong, vibrant town that weathered the recession and is growing again because of our foresight and our strong leadership."
Marpe, a former Board of Education member, and his prospective running mate, Avi Kaner, the current chairman of the Board of Finance, were backed for the top of the GOP ticket last month by a nomination search group of the Republican Town Committee. The RTC will make its formal endorsements in July, but so far no other contenders have emerged for the GOP nod.