Published October 27. 2011 4:00AM Updated October 27. 2011 8:12PM
Lori Hopkins-Cavanagh says running for mayor of New London as a petitioning candidate is something of a calling, and her hopes for the city are to oversee its resurrection.
"This was in me, and I had to get it out," she said of her run for mayor. "I believe I could change New London."
Hopkins-Cavanagh is not running for the post in the conventional sense. She attends debates and candidate nights with the other five contenders but has refused to go door-to-door courting votes, saying she is more interested in selling her ideas than in being a politician.
"I'm focused on content and substance," she said. "I'm 51 years old. I want these things done yesterday."
Hopkins-Cavanagh has a detailed, 10-point initiative she calls her four-year resurrection plan. A few of her ideas are:
• Instituting an efficiency program at City Hall, training municipal employees in customer relations and cutting waste by 50 percent.
• Unifying municipal services by possibly acquiring the U.S. Post Office building across the street from City Hall and including the school superintendent's office as part of the consolidation.
• Instituting a Homeless Services Consortium to encourage other towns to open shelters for the indigent.
• Creating an official Visit New London tourism site.
A real estate broker who owns the New London-based ShoreViews agency, Hopkins-Cavanagh said she is running on her own, with no party machine backing her, and is not beholden to any special-interest groups.
"Her party affiliation is New London," said her husband, Timothy Cavanagh.
Hopkins-Cavanagh, now unaffiliated, said she used to be a Democrat but switched to the GOP because she disagreed with the way the city was being run.
"They were destroying New London," she said of the Democrats. "They oversaw 50 years of continuous decline."
People who know Hopkins-Cavanagh say they think she can be a catalyst of change for the city.
"She'll fight for you," said Lori Utz of Montville, whom Hopkins-Cavanagh has been helping to resolve a real-estate issue related to a recent divorce. "She does what she says. It's not just hot air."
Hopkins-Cavanagh's basic attitude, Utz said, is "I have a lot to do - let's get it done. I don't want to play ring-around-the-rosie with you."
Home ownership the key
Born on Vauxhall Street in New London in a three-family house, Hopkins-Cavanagh came from what she describes as a blue-collar background and recalls the six people in her family at one time being squeezed into a two-bedroom apartment. She attended Catholic schools as a girl - first St. Mary Star of the Sea School and then St. Bernard High School - and graduated from the University of Connecticut.
"New London when I was young was much different than it is now," she said, before a "sea of apartment houses" began popping up everywhere, attracting out-of-town investors.
While Hopkins-Cavanagh has been dogged by questions of residency since her marriage to a Waterford resident who maintains his own home, the candidate brushes aside the issue as a canard. She pointed to her well-kept home on Ocean Avenue in New London, with its beautifully maintained gardens that feature low-impact native plants, as proof that residency is not an issue.
"I've been a resident longer than anyone else in this race, and I'm being targeted," she said.
Hopkins-Cavanagh ties improving the city's fortunes to encouraging home ownership.
"Home ownership is key," Hopkins-Cavanagh said during a nearly three-hour interview at her home. "It will change everything for us."
She often cites the statistic that 63 percent of the city's housing stock is not owner-occupied, adding that she thinks this lack of ownership is at the root of all of New London's problems, from the poor performance of its schools to lower home values and high crime.
"You can add as many cops as you want, but if you don't change that problem you're not going to change crime," she said.
High-rises must go
Hopkins-Cavanagh's plans for New London renewal include retaining Riverside Park as city property rather than selling a portion of it to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, a proposal that voters are being asked to decide in referendum.
"Riverside Park is the only open space for that neighborhood," she said. "Keeping it helps property values."
She sees the park as the linchpin of the east New London neighborhood and says she thinks the Coast Guard would be amenable to acquiring in its place the site where the Crystal Avenue high-rise apartments are located.
"The high-rises helped destabilize that neighborhood," she said.
The high-rises, perceived to be a magnet for crime, should be torn down and the tenants moved to better housing, said Hopkins-Cavanagh, who wants to work with Habitat for Humanity and other housing groups to build affordable single- and multifamily homes with at least one of the occupants being a homeowner.
"This overwhelming rental population is destroying our city," she wrote last month in response to criticism about her plans for the high-rises.
Hopkins-Cavanagh decries the taking of properties in the Fort Trumbull area that led to the Supreme Court eminent-domain case, Kelo v. City of New London. And she says she thinks the City Council is only making matters worse by approving a development plan for the area that features scores of rental-housing units on the 6.5-acre site.
Hopkins-Cavanagh says she would dismantle the New London Development Corp., the agency responsible for coordinating Fort Trumbull plans, and revert ownership of the property to the city.
At the same time, Hopkins-Cavanagh opposes Democratic candidate Daryl Justin Finizio's proposal for a land-value tax, saying it amounts to a penalty for owning vacant property. The tax on land alone, rather than a traditional levy on land and buildings, is intended to penalize those who let their properties go into disrepair and to maintain low taxes for those making improvements, but Cavanagh says it is untested and would lead to unintended consequences.
"Why would you want to increase the number of foreclosures?" she asked.
Hopkins-Cavanagh's vision for the city calls for a variety of other initiatives, including moving the New London police station to a site at the corner of Howard and Bank streets and converting the current station into a visitor center. New London Main Street, the downtown promotions group, would be a paying tenant and help run the tourist center, she added.
Hopkins-Cavanagh also wants downtown New London to take advantage of its free enterprise zone by developing internationally themed shops in the central business district to turn the area into a destination for tourists and locals alike.
"Come to New London, shop the world" would be the theme, she said.
Adding to the downtown ambiance would be a trolley system running in a continuous loop around New London; Hopkins-Cavanagh says the system could be self-sustaining if college students, tourists and locals paid for the service.
"When people see success and they see things happening, it's like a drug," she said. "You have to have a strong leader to get things done."