Day laborers, early childhood education and "nasty" city parks were among the topics touched upon Tuesday as three Norwalk Democratic mayoral candidates were questioned by members of the Latino community.
Vinny Mangiacopra, Harry Rilling and Matt Miklave sparred just a little bit in the mayoral forum sponsored by the South Norwalk Community Center, the League of Women Voters and several Hispanic publications.
Mangiacopra drew applause when he spoke briefly in Spanish and took direct aim at Republican incumbent Mayor Richard Moccia.
Miklave repeated the central theme of his campaign -- performance-based budgeting and fiscal responsibility -- and Rilling made a few definite promises and cited examples of his sensitivity to the Latino community from his years as police chief.
The forum was moderated by the Rev. Oscar Destruge and held before about 40 people in the SNCC community hall. Mayoral candidate Andy Garfunkel had a prior commitment and couldn't make it, SNCC spokesman Pat Ferrandino said.
The candidates are each vying to win the Sept. 10 primary and moving on to campaign against Moccia in the general election on Nov. 5.
Destruge first asked them what they would do to improve early childhood education in the Latino community. Rilling said that the Latino community is the fastest growing community in Norwalk, with many different cultures. He said he would fight in Hartford for a universal pre-K education program and find funds in Norwalk to support that and Head Start.
Miklave said education was the issue that had inspired him to run for mayor, and that performance-based budgeting would give the city the funds to support education.
Mangiacopra said his wife is a kindergarten teacher, which gives him insight to the importance of early childhood education. Offering an equal opportunity for every child to succeed would be a priority for him, he said.
The event was marked by two unscheduled questions from the audience; Doug Peeples interrupted one exchange to ask about the presence of sporting facilities that South Norwalk residents cannot use and John Mosby shared his opinion that certain things were done to turn the black and Hispanic communities against each other.
A representative of El Sol news later asked how the candidates would make undocumented immigrants feel a part of the community.
Rilling said he had helped the day laborers when he was police chief by sending the Department of Health and a police vehicle to do health screenings.
"The undocumented residents provide revenue to the city in the form of sales taxes, in the form of paying rent, in the form of working to beautify the city, in landscaping," he said. "They are citizens, they are residents of our city, they need to be treated as such and we need to recognize the value that they have."
Mangiacopra said, "Washington, D.C., needs to get its act together on comprehensive immigration reform," and referred to a St. Patrick's Day event at SNCC, which was packed with people who wanted to learn about driver's licenses for immigrants living in this country without documentation, he said.
The center should be a hub to reach out to the community, he said.
Miklave took aim at that.
"I also support comprehensive immigration reform, but I'm running for mayor of Norwalk, I'm not running for president of the United States," Miklave said.
As an attorney, he said he had gone to El Salvador in 2006 to work with a non-governmental agency. He would like Norwalk to partner with other countries.
"My vision would be that we reach out and form partnerships with as many communities across the world that want partnerships with us, that we become a gateway for the United States," he said.
A Columbian immigrant, who has lived here for 30 years, said he is concerned about his 25-year-old son and other young people.
"What will your administration do on behalf of the youth and young men to address the problems of alcoholism, addictions and the lack of availability of sports?" he asked.
Miklave said his son plays soccer and he understands the frustration.
"There is simply a shortage of space in Norwalk for sports," he said. "It is because we are a city and because we do not have enough places for our youth. I would love to promise you that as mayor I will take property by eminent domain and turn it into sporting stadiums, or I will take open spaces and turn them into playing fields, the reality is we are challenged. We don't have the resources to do that."
Mangiacopra said he has experienced the frustration people feel during his seven months of campaigning.
"There are people that feel that there's favoritism because, I've got news for you, there probably is," he said. "Because, again, going back to my favorite theme, the same folks have been in charge for too long. Their friends get all the favors and that's how it works around here."
Ryan Park and the field behind Ely School need to be taken better care of and activities there should be better organized, he said.
"We have plenty of fields," he said. "It's just a matter of people having the opportunity for people to participate in them."
Rilling said he agreed. The fields at Norwalk and Brien McMahon high schools aren't in constant use, he said, and could be made available.
Several years ago, members of a newly formed football league were forced to go out of town, he said. He worked with the Norwalk Housing Authority and made the field behind Colonial Village available to them.
"It wasn't the best, but these young people made it into something they could play on," he said.
Miklave offered a rebuttal.
"I don't think there are plenty of fields," he said, adding that he had once played tag football at Taylor Farm, the dog park, because there was no other place available.
"It was nasty, very nasty," he said.
"They get a lot of tax breaks," he said. "They get a lot of stuff that none of these guys can utilize. I'm trying to figure out why we can't, as a community, get facilities for our young people."
Mangiacopra went on to speak of his desire to get a Boys and Girls Club in Norwalk.
After the debate, Peeples said, "I don't think I got an answer. I don't think it's a question they can answer at this point."
He is an unaffiliated voter and cannot vote in the primary.
The debate, he said, was like any debate.
"They touch on things but they can't really say what they're going to do," he said. "A debate like this is really about personality. Whoever comes across with the best personality is going to garner the most votes coming out of here."