TORRINGTON-On the third floor of Torrington City Hall, the mayoral suite is tucked away at the end of the corridor. Artwork created by talented local residents adorns the walls in the reception area, and on Tuesday morning, in the inner sanctum of the suite-Mayor Ryan Bingham's office-a bottle of daytime cold relief medicine and a Styrofoam cup sat on an otherwise uncluttered credenza behind his desk.
If the over-the-counter elixir was an indication of a current affliction, one would have never guessed it. The 22-year-old mayor, who will turn 23 May 5, presented a picture of health, even though he had already logged three working hours before this 10 a.m. meeting.
On his desk were neat piles of papers and folders, including a stack of 250 certificates to be awarded during an upcoming volunteer recognition luncheon at the senior center-each requiring the mayor's autograph.
Mayor Bingham's chief aide, Stephen Nocera, who had joined the morning's meeting with a reporter, said he had offered to have a rubber stamp made of the mayor's signature. But the city's new Republican mayor wouldn't hear of it. He felt strongly that the recognition certificates required a personal touch, out of respect for those who would receive them.
Just who is this young man-this political upstart-who exhibits the kind of grace rarely found in even the most sensitive of individuals, let alone someone charged with the heavy task of leading a city of about 36,000 residents and overseeing a roughly $100 million budget?
Last November, Mr. Bingham, a Torrington native, ousted the city's popular two-term incumbent, Democrat Owen Quinn, also earning him the title of one of the youngest mayors in the country.
The circumstances surrounding the unusual election results begged for more information, and the discussion that took place in Mayor Bingham's office this week focused less on politics and his plans for the city, and more on what makes this young man tick.
"I'm not selfish, and I'm not selfless," said the mayor, whose family has lived in Torrington for four generations.
While other 20-something guys keep themselves busy on the weekends in ways that often don't present a very pretty picture, Ryan Bingham is traveling the pasta-supper-circuit. "There's always a pasta supper [to attend]," he happily noted. This is the type of obligation he genuinely enjoys, he said, calling these frequent forays out into the community a "perk" of his elected position.
That said, having been raised in a political family was more off-putting than encouraging to a recent college graduate who was contemplating a run for office.
His mother is State Rep. Anne Ruwet (R-Torrington), and her father-Mr. Bingham's grandfather-is Joseph Ruwet, a former state representative who is now 87 and still drives a tractor on the family farm.
"It was hard," Mayor Bingham said of seeing what his family members who were involved in politics went through, with "… people stabbing you in the back while being nice [to your face]."
If that's the case, then one has to wonder why he decided to run for mayor. "I ran for mayor because I wanted to help Torrington," he said matter-of-factly.
And there is no choice but to believe him, because, earlier in the meeting, Mayor Bingham confessed, "I am a terrible liar. I get red-faced and jibber-jabber."
There was no evidence of either quality Tuesday morning.
The primary role that his family played in Mr. Bingham's dramatic leap into city hall largely involved the values imparted by those who raised him, he explained. "I'm a hard worker. I do as much as I can," the mayor said in referencing the family tradition.
Upon graduating from college, Mayor Bingham worked with mentally retarded people, and while he was a college student he worked at an IHOP-and within a year was managing the pancake place. His management style, he said, is "personal," meaning that he is tuned in to people's concerns and approaches the task at hand with compassion.
"There is no school for mayors, no matter how old you are or how much preparation you have," he said. "I knew I was as fresh as any mayor… ."
If this mayor had a mantra, it would likely be: Listen, listen, listen. During his first 100 days in office, Mayor Bingham committed to mostly keeping quiet and to hearing out constituents' concerns in order to help him formulate a solid impression of the current Torrington, and where the city needs to go next.
"Leadership is listening," he said Tuesday, underscoring the importance of listening by explaining, "What you decide [in the office of mayor] affects everyone."
Mayor Bingham explained that when he is in the mayoral seat, "I am not a Republican. I represent the party of Torrington."
"There's really no stopping Torrington from becoming the next major 'happening city,'" Mayor Bingham enthused. He noted that the city's industrial base is flourishing, and that specific projects, such as the project to build a new Litchfield County courthouse in Torrington, as well as the city's downtown redevelopment project, have the city pointed in the right direction.
As far as the much-discussed downtown redevelopment plan, Mayor Bingham said that people will see something happen during the next two years as he serves his first mayoral term. However, he couldn't define precisely what that something would be, and he noted that a problem with downtown redevelopment in the past was that city leaders were not necessarily dealing with the issue realistically.
"People have been waiting for the sky to open" and drop money on the project, he said. So, Mayor Bingham is cautious about what he promises, but he is also optimistic-and excited. Although he would not talk specifics, he did note that there will likely be something tangible that surfaces this summer with regard to downtown redevelopment. "We're working on something now," he said.
Another big issue for Mayor Bingham is public safety, and he said that he supports the police chief's request for additional staff. The mayor noted that other Connecticut cities, such as Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport, have serious crime problems, and that while Torrington does have its share of crime, when he compared statistics with other cities during a conference for mayors held by Gov. M. Jodi Rell, he was heartened because he saw that Torrington's problems are still at the level where they can be addressed before they spiral out of control.
Mayor Bingham said that the Torrington police force is currently "going non-stop," responding to existing situations, and needs additional staff in order to help assess potential problems before they develop.
It sounds like the mayor is right on track. But the question remains: Can someone so inexperienced truly lead Torrington into the kind of renaissance that people, and the mayor himself, expect?
As for his young age, the mayor simply stated, in a manner that was not defensive, "I bring unbiased opinions because of my age … my decisions are pure."
One thing this mayor doesn't like is signing on the dotted line. When money is going out of the budget, every requisition crosses his desk, which allows him to know exactly what's being spent and why.
The managers of the city departments, the mayor said, "have been tremendous." They have been paring their budgets to the "bare bones" he said, adding, "Their dedication to the city is amazing." He noted that this is not an indication of the past administration's success-or the current administration's. "They were just good hires," he said of the city's employees. "Good people."
Speaking of the past administration, Mayor Bingham said that he has not spoken with former mayor Owen Quinn since unseating him, other than when he requested a meeting with the outgoing mayor shortly after the election. But Mr. Quinn, according to Mayor Bingham, didn't have much to say when the mayor-elect arrived at his office, opting, instead, to simply "hand over the charter and an empty office."
Since that rather awkward get-together, the two men have not crossed paths, which is a little surprising considering that Mayor Bingham seems to be everywhere these days.
The mayor's youth undoubtedly helps him keep his hectic schedule of meetings, make the rounds at pasta suppers and other events and work well in to the night. Depending on whether or not he has an evening meeting, Mayor Bingham is usually home around 9 p.m., or later.
The mayor acknowledged that he does cook, and he said that he tries to stave off the ill effects of so many pasta suppers by throwing chicken on the grill and making salad when he's at home.
One of the best pieces of advice that he has received since becoming mayor, he said, was to remember to take time out for himself in order to prevent burnout-advice that he is trying to take to heart.
"I just got a puppy," the mayor volunteered, looking a little love struck at the mention of Reagan (yes, named in honor of the late Republican president, Ronald Reagan, and also in honor of the fact that the late president and the current mayor were both members of the same college fraternity, Tau Kappa Epsilon).
The 11-week-old Puggle, a mix of pug and beagle breeds that is expected to eventually grow to around 30 pounds, came in to the mayor's life after he lost a beloved dog recently. Reagan is currently undergoing potty training, and his owner tries to schedule lunch at home so that he can walk his new "child."
Mayor Bingham said that he talks to his mother just about every day, "whether for personal or professional" reasons.
And for those who are wondering, the tall and handsome Mayor Bingham does have a special love interest in his life. However, you won't likely be seeing much of her at the pasta suppers because she resides outside of the region. The mayor said that he was introduced to her by a high school friend.
"Right now, my main priority is my marriage to Torrington," the mayor said. And his aide, Mr. Nocera, who was a college friend of Mayor Bingham's, nodded approvingly, and quipped, "The word 'marriage' is banned from this office."
When it was suggested by the visitor that it's probably not a good idea to settle down quite yet, anyway, both men readily agreed and a look of relief flashed across both of their faces.
So boys will be boys-whether or not they're the mayor. Age 22, it seems, is still too young for certain milestone achievements, even for a trailblazer like Ryan Bingham, who has his sights set high for himself and for the city that he loves.