Election 2017: Democratic second selectman candidate spurred on by presidential election
WESTPORT — Rob Simmelkjaer says it’s not a coincidence he’s waging his first run for political office nearly a year after the 2016 presidential election.
“My dismay at what’s going on at the national level in this country definitely spurred me on to getting involved at the local level,” the Democratic second selectman candidate said. “I know that local politics are different than national politics, but I don’t really see it that way. I think everything is connected, at the end of the day.”
President Donald Trump’s victory hit Simmelkjaer especially hard, due to his involvement in Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign. He fundraised as a member of Clinton’s state finance committee, volunteered as an Election Day legal observer in Pennsylvania, and attended the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Simmelkjaer did similar volunteer work for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns.
Simmelkjaer grew up primarily in Bergen County, N.J., but also spent time living in the New York City as a kid, graduating from Horace Mann School. He studied government at Dartmouth College and earned a law degree from Harvard University.
After a few years practicing law, Simmelkjaer switched careers.
“I didn’t like the big law firm very much,” he said. “It was just not work that I enjoyed much and I’d always loved sports and media, so when an opportunity came along to go that route, I decided to take it.”
Simmelkjaer has worked in the sports media business for 15 years now, first at ESPN for nine years and now as a business executive at NBC Sports.
When NBC Sports moved from 30 Rockefeller Plaza to Stamford four years ago, Simmelkjaer and his wife Kathryn had their second daughter and moved to Westport. Simmelkjaer said he had some friends in town and fell in love with the place.
“One of the first things I did when I moved here was look up the Democratic Town Committee,” Simmelkjaer said. He went to a reception for longtime Westport Democrat Martha Aasen at Kibberia restaurant and started meeting people in the local Democratic committee orbit.
A year after his move, Simmelkjaer saw a listing for a position on the Zoning Board of Appeals on the Democratic Town Committee website and jumped at the opportunity. In June, Democratic First Selectman candidate Melissa Kane asked Simmelkjaer to be her running mate and he accepted.
If the Kane-Simmelkjaer ticket is elected Nov. 7, Simmelkjaer said he promises to work proactively with landowners to fill empty commercial space.
“One thing that I really do feel very strongly about downtown is that we need more local mom-and-pop character in downtown,” Simmelkjaer said.
Simmelkjaer wants to bring larger businesses to Westport as well and said he would make it his “pet project” to bring Tesla to Westport.
“They wanted to build a charging facility and that didn’t happen. I believe Tesla needs to be in Westport, full stop,” Simmelkjaer said. The Westport resident said Saugatuck would not make a good home for the car company due to its traffic issues, instead recommending the Post Road as a good place for Tesla.
“In my job at NBC I invest in a lot of startups and spend a good chunk of my time looking at funding startups,” Simmelkjaer said. From an investment standpoint, Simmelkjaer thinks Tesla is a good choice. “It’s a growth company,” he explained. “It represents the future of our economy. It is part of the green economy and it is the sort of thing that has long-term potential for jobs and adding to our tax base.”
Housing concerns are embedded within Simmelkjaer’s economic re-invigoration plan for Westport.
“Westport needs to be a place where young people want to live and start businesses. But to do that you need diversity of housing and you need a business-friendly set of policies,” the Democrat said. “There are not the number of entry-level homes for young families who can’t afford millions of dollars to come into the town and be part of the community.”
If elected second selectman, Simmelkjaer also hopes to be a liaison to the parent population, “someone they feel can be their advocate in town hall when it comes to issues that relate to the schools,” he said.
In response to the school budget crisis last year, Simmelkjaer said he and Kane “would not have gone up there and given a wishy-washy speech in which no one could ascertain where we stood, which is what Mr. Marpe did.”
“We would have made it 100 percent clear that our schools are an absolute priority in this town,” he added.
“I am in the core demographic of young families who moved here because of the schools,” Simmelkjaer continued. “One of the reasons I’m running, essentially, is to protect the investment that I made in these schools, in my kids’ future, and in my home.”
Simmelkjaer also said he will focus on upgrading the town’s amenities with such projects as adding a “real clubhouse” to Longshore golf course and shading options for the swimming pool.
“I think there’s some low-hanging fruit that could make some of these facilities much nicer,” he said.
With an executive position at NBC, family commitments, and second selectman duties, Simmelkjaer is sure to be busy but doesn’t think this will be a problem.
“My mom always said if you want something done give it to a busy person,” he said.