Chat with...Outgoing selectman Avi Kaner, who reflects on past 12 years
WESTPORT — About 12 years ago, Avi Kaner got a letter in the mail that changed the course of his trajectory for the next decade.
The letter, sent from the Westport Republican Town Committee, sought candidates for various offices.
“My father had passed away a few years before that,” Kaner said. “I was driving home one day and I was thinking of my father and thinking about the way he always volunteered in his community and I decided to explore this opportunity solely for the point of giving back to the community in honor of my father.”
Kaner interviewed with town Republican Town Committee leaders for a position on the Board of Finance, which he thought would suit him, considering his job at Booz Allen Hamilton focusing on financial services and the MBA he had earned from Columbia University.
“The next day I called back the interviewers and said, ‘Thank you, but I think you should offer it to the other person.’ They, in turn, told me, ‘Avi, we’ve already had the discussion and we’d like to nominate you.’ I was taken aback, but in a good way, and I went for it,” Kanner said.
Kaner won the election and, although he was not previously engaged in politics, he had a clearly developed political philosophy influenced by his familial origins, religious affiliation and historical context.
“Both my father and my mother moved to Israel as young refugees, and then they moved to the United States,” said Kaner, who was born in the U.S. As a child growing up in Monsey, N.Y., Kaner said one of his first encounters with politics occurred when he happened upon a record of John F. Kennedy’s speeches and convinced his parents to buy it for him.
“I remember just listening to John F. Kennedy’s speeches when I was in elementary school. That was kind of like an omen of future political (office),” Kaner said.
As an undergraduate at Columbia University, Kaner was captivated by then-President Ronald Reagan.
“I was really fascinated by him. I actually had a poster in my dorm with a picture of Ronald Reagan ... his vitality and showing the might of the United States doing good and promoting freedom around the world really resonated with me,” Kaner said.
In college, Kaner read Ayn Rand’s books, “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead.”
“I was captivated by Ayn Rand’s spell and her philosophy and it really shaped who I was to become,” the 52-year-old said.
Kaner’s move to Westport 21 years ago was as natural as his turn toward the party of Reagan. He and his wife, Liz, were living in New York City at the time and had a 1-year-old daughter, Julia. (They had two more children, Jack and Jonathan.) The couple was drawn to Westport’s cosmopolitan flavor, cultural vibrancy and strong amenities, and Kaner’s love for the town is part of why he later got involved in town politics.
In his eight years on the Board of Finance, which preceded his time on the Board of Selectmen, Kaner said he called upon the Talmudic teachings he learned in Jewish day school to achieve his proudest moment, which Kaner said was “helping Westport remain stable through good times and bad.”
For example, Kaner said he drew from the story of Joseph in the Old Testament to guide his work on the Board of Finance to increase the town’s reserves, which he said helped moderate the impact of the recession in Westport.
“When Joseph was imprisoned in Egypt, he had these dreams about the good years and the bad years,” Kaner said. “During the good years, you should put food aside so that when the bad years come you can use the food.”
While chairman of the Board of Finance, Kaner is proud of electing a Democratic vice chairman, Helen Garten, which he said set a precedent for a “totally nonpartisan” finance board.
Kaner “always dealt in a very nonpartisan way,” said Garten, who went on to become a selectwoman. “We didn’t always agree, but we worked it out because we always worked in a collegial way.”
First Selectman Jim Marpe also had kind words for the outgoing selectman, who was elected to that role in 2013.
“He maintained the Board of Selectmen’s focus on the need for, and possible solutions to, affordable senior housing,” Marpe said.
Despite his focus on senior housing, Kaner said he came up short on that subject.
“My greatest disappointment on the Board of Selectmen was not being able to put affordable senior housing on Baron’s South. I spent a full year negotiating and working out what many felt was a wonderful opportunity for the seniors and the town,” Kaner said. “In the last minute, the Planning and Zoning Commission changed the rules by rezoning Baron’s South to be passive space. In other words, we were dealt an unfair hand.”
Unfinished business aside, Kaner said he decided not to run again for the Board of Selectmen in order to focus on his growing New York City supermarket business and to spend more time with his family.
When he announced his retirement, Kaner said Marpe asked him to serve as his 2017 campaign chairman. Kaner accepted and garnered some criticism from Democratic supporters who said he was “trolling” them online during the election.
“Activists on our opponent’s side started commenting things that were politically motivated so I, as campaign chair, went in and commented, defending our candidates, and that escalated. My role as campaign chair is not only to elect the candidates, but communicate the messages and defend them from false allegations,” Kaner said.
Of his 12 years in Westport politics, Kaner said he had “never ever seen this level of negativity brought into our town.
“It was really awful. I’m glad it’s over,” he said.