The first sign of Mayor Erin Stewart’s excitement about the visit by President Barack Obama came on Friday, Feb. 28.
“Honored to announce that our President is visiting New Britain next week,” the 26-year-old Republican mayor wrote in a message to her Facebook followers. The post attracted more than 140 comments and 260 “likes.”
Stewart said she was shocked when she first learned about the president’s visit through a phone call she received the day before from Police Chief James Wardwell. On Saturday, she received a call from the White House confirming the visit and informing her that 18 tickets would be available for her staff, a city resident studying journalism in New Haven, and for members of the Common Council.
Over the next few days, the excitement about having the 44th United States President built. She kept residents and students informed about how to get tickets. The evening before the big visit, she posted on Twitter: “Tomorrow’s goal…take a selfie with @BarackObama.” She also took a photo of a firmly planted red shoe and posted it for her Instagram followers, saying, “Preparing for my #presidential best.”
Obama’s visit marks the sixth-time a president has visited the Hardware City. “Apparently we are a pretty good pit stop for presidents,” Stewart said in an interview following Obama’s address. “Come back with some bacon next time,” she quipped.
Stewart had a third-row seat for the president’s speech, sitting in between Mayor Bill Finch of Bridgeport and State Senate Major leader Martin Looney. Before the president took the stage, Stewart was given a VIP bracelet and was brought to the backstage of the gymnasium. Lined up waiting to take photos with the president were the family of U.S. Senator John Larson, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, State Senator Don Williams, Rep. Joe Aresimowicz, and Looney.
“I got to meet him and shake his hand,” Stewart said. “He has very soft hands. He’s a tall guy. He was very personable.”
Stewart said Obama commented to her that he was aware of the “flack that she was catching” on Twitter for welcoming a Democrat to the city.
“He said, ‘I appreciate what you said on social media’,” Stewart said. “I said to him, ‘It’s my honor. The city of New Britain respect you and respect the presidency, and as do I. It’s an honor to have you in our town, but you have to refer to New Britain as hard hittin’ New Britain’.”
The President smiled and asked, “Hard Hittin’ New Britain?” Stewart laughed and handed Obama a silver “Made in New Britain” Stanley Works tape ruler and a noted addressed to him as keepsake of his visit to the Hardware City.
“At the end of the day, it’s still a true honor to have the President of the United States in your town. How many mayors can say that the President came to their town under their watch? It’s history in the making.” Stewart said.
Asked what she thought of Obama’s 30-minute speech, Stewart noted that the President’s trademark is his ability to motivate people from the podium.
“He knows how to get people engaged. I am quite jealous of his public speaking abilities,” Stewart said. “Some day maybe I’ll get them perfected like that.”
Beginning on the Saturday before the President’s arrival, city police started working with the Secret Service to develop the route that would get Obama to the college and to discuss other security measures, such as how to monitor bridges and overpasses. “We had the entire perimeter of CCSU, on every intersection, every angle. That’s in addition to the bomb-sniffing dogs,” Stewart said of where police were situated, adding that New Britain was the “safest city in America” on the day of Obama’s visit. To help assist city police officers, police from West Hartford were brought in. There will be some overtime pay costs associated with Obama’s visit, Stewart said.
CCSU spokesperson Mark McLaughlin said college officials were informed of the presidential visit during the last week of February. “Our security and administrative staff met with the White House Advance Team during the past several days to develop a security plan according to Secret Service and Homeland Security protocols,” McLaughlin said the night before Obama’s visit.
CCSU has previously hosted Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and both George H. and George W. Bush. “I suspect that President Obama admires the efforts that Connecticut and Governor Malloy have made in advancing the minimum wage issue,” McLaughlin said, speculating on the reason for the visit.
CCSU President Jack Miller called Obama’s visit an “extremely exciting” day for the college. He said that the university is proud of its record of acting as a forum to discuss important state, regional, and national issues.
Stewart says she thinks Obama chose to come to New Britain because the “demographics certainly are a mirror of what it is that he is trying to accomplish.” Stewart noted the city’s high poverty rate the large amount of residents who have minimum wage jobs “who can’t put food on their table and have to rely on state subsidies.”
The city’s top five employers are The Hospital of Central Connecticut, CCSU, the Hospital for Special Care, the state of Connecticut, and the city of New Britain. Stanley Works employs around 900 people in the community and ranks No. 6 on the list.
The mayor said she thinks raising the minimum wage to $10.10 would help the living conditions for some as short-term fix, but is leery about the ability of businesses to afford the increase. She notes that some businesses could potentially make full-time workers part-time employees, while others could lose their jobs all together.
Stewart’s first job was working for a local newspaper as a carrier during middle school. All through college she was a waitress, earning $5.43 an hour plus tips. She also worked as a banquet server making $9 an hour.
“There is definitely some good and some bad to it,” she said of Obama’s proposal. “More should be done on the state level to make it easier for businesses to come into Connecticut and thrive in cities like New Britain. They are leaving because of taxes and whatever the reasons may be. They are going to states down South. They are not here.”
Stewart went further by saying that raising the minimum wage is an “insult” to some. “Don’t you want to be better than minimum wage? Don’t you want something higher? Where are you setting the bar for yourself individually?”