September 24, 2022

Democrat Norman Needleman and Republican Bruce MacMillian Compete for Open Essex First Selectman Seat

ESSEX— The contest for the open first selectman seat puts four-term incumbent Democratic Selectman Norman Needleman against Republican Bruce MacMillian, a retired insurance company executive.

The two rivals are competing to succeed incumbent Democratic First Selectman Phil Miller. Miller, who has been the Democratic nominee in every town election since 1999, was elected with Needleman in 2003, but declined to seek a new term after he was elected state representative for the four-town 36th House District in a special election last February.

The candidates share some personal similarities. Both moved to Essex in the 1980s. Needleman, a Brooklyn, N.Y. native, arrived in 1985, while MacMillian, a West Hartford native, arrived in town in 1986. Both are fathers, Needleman, 60, has two grown sons. Now divorced, Needleman’s companion is Jacqueline Hubbard, executive director of the Ivoryton Playhouse. MacMillian, 64, is the married father of three sons.

Both candidates have had successful careers in the private sector, along with varying public service experience. Needleman is the founder of Tower Laboratories, a company that manufactures effervescent products, or as Needleman says, “anything that fizzes.” The company, with a dozen employees when it relocated from Westerly, R. I. to the Essex Industrial Park in 1985, now employs over 150 people. Before winning election as selectman, he served on the zoning board of appeals and the economic development commission.

MacMillian, a former vice-president for Travelers Insurance Company, later founded and sold a company called CEU.Com. MacMillian is on the board of directors for Middlesex Hospital, and after appointment by Miller, was chairman of the Essex Housing Authority from 2005 to 2007.

Both candidates pledge to serve as a full time first selectman. Needleman said his company has a management team of four vice-presidents that would allow him to devote full time to the job of first selectman, adding “I have already been the most active and engaged second selectman in anyone’s memory.” MacMillian said he would be a full-time first selectman with “no other commitments or distractions.”

The candidates share similar views on some town issues, and differing perspectives on others. MacMillian said he would be the town’s “chief salesman,” to push economic development and fill vacant commercial structures. He would consider incentives from the town if that was necessary to bring the right kind of business to Essex. Needleman does not favor incentives, suggesting tax abatements would set a bad precedent in a town that already has a low tax rate.

Neither candidate advocates changes to the structure of town government. MacMillian said a town charter could help clarify some government policies and procedures, but opposes any change to a town manager form of government and has “no interest,” in a four-year term for first selectman. Needleman sees no need for a town charter or a town manager, pointing to efforts by he and Miller to have “well-trained professionals,” in town hall positions. Needleman said he would only raise the option of a four-year term for first selectman if residents asked for the change, adding “it’s not in my mind to bring it up now.”

Essex was one the first town in Middlesex County to consider the option of a four-year term, with voters rejecting the change in a 2000 referendum during the administration of former Republican First Selectman Peter Webster.

Police service has emerged as an issue, though the candidates stated positions are similar. MacMillian said the town should have a resident state trooper and four full-time officers, a staffing level that was established during the last decade. He also suggests forming an advisory police commission to assist the board of selectmen in police hiring, evaluations, and negotiations with the local police union.

The town currently has a resident state trooper and two full-time officers, with a backup state trooper who was retained last year when two other officers were on leave. One senior local officer who was on leave retired in August while another remains on medical leave.

Needleman has suggested that MacMillian favors a full-time town police department. He favors continuing with a resident state trooper, and suggests the exact number of town officers should be decided as part of the town budget for 2012-2013. He said a police commission would only be necessary for a full-time department, adding that selectmen have sought input from law enforcement professionals in all recent police hires.

In commenting on the idea for a police commission, Needleman said MacMillian lacks the town government experience needed to be an effective first selectman. “My opponent doesn’t know what he doesn’t know,” he said, adding “I don’t think somebody should run for first selectman without first being on the board of selectmen.”

MacMillian said he would be “a more effective manager,” and has “more of an open mind,” than Needleman.” I have the advantage of looking at things with a fresh set of eyes,” he said.

Despite active door-to-door campaigning, multiple political mailings, and heavy fundraising, the candidates have avoided personal attacks, with each expressing respect for the other. MacMillian’s campaign has raised and spent slightly more campaign dollars. MacMillian’s campaign committee had raised $9,945 and spent $7,517, according to the October finance report that was filed earlier this week. Needleman’s campaign committee raised $8,312, with expenditures of $6,796 as of Oct. 25.

MacMillian is running with incumbent Republican Selectman Joel Marzi. With past service on the zoning commission and board of finance, Marzi was elected to the board of selectmen in 2009 after losing the first selectman contest to Miller by 376 votes. Needleman is running with Stacia Rice Libby, an insurance agent who has served previously on the park and recreation commission. A former Republican who changed parties to run with Needleman, Libby, if elected, would be the first woman to serve on the board of selectman since the 1980s.

After a winner of the first selectman race is determined, the top two vote-getters among the other candidates, including a possible losing candidate for first selectman, will be elected as the board of selectmen for the 2011-2013 term.