Exclusive Interview with Danbury’s First Portuguese-American Mayor Roberto Alves

Two weeks after Election Day, Danbury's first Democratic Mayor in over 20 years, Roberto Alves, sat down with Tribuna Newspaper in an exclusive interview to lay out his vision for the city.

By Tribuna Staff

Two weeks after Election Day, Danbury's first Democratic Mayor in over 20 years, Roberto Alves, sat down with Tribuna Newspaper in an exclusive interview to lay out his vision for the city.

The 40-year-old, born in Portugal and raised in Brazil, migrated to Danbury with his parents at five years old. He won his first two-year term for mayor on November 7, defeating Republican incumbent Dean Esposito by 394 votes. 

In 2017, during his last speech to the country as president, President Obama said, "If you don't like what you're seeing in your communities, do something about it. Grab a clipboard, run for office." Mr. Alves took that sentiment to heart and decided to seek elected office. One year after hearing the speech, Mr. Alves received his United States citizenship and ran for a position on the City Council. He also believed there should be better representation in the elected city government, especially from the Portuguese and Brazilian communities. He hoped to have an impact on school funding as he and his wife, Robyn, have two children entering the Danbury public school system. 

In 2019, Alves was elected to the Danbury City Council and ran for mayor in 2021 unsuccessfully. Now, in 2023, he has become the City's first Latino mayor.

During his swearing-in ceremony at Rogers Park Middle School, Probate Judge Joseph DaSilva Jr., Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, and Senator Richard Blumenthal administered the oaths of office to various elected officials, and Governor Ned Lamont administered the mayoral oath to Alves.

"This is democracy in action. It's democracy at its best and Roberto, you represent the very best of America… Coming over to this country, you were five years old. You had to do some of the translating in the family. And didn't know much English yourself. Talk about headwinds," Gov. Lamont said. 


The interview below has been edited for length and clarity. 


Tribuna: You have a 17 to 4 super majority on the City Council, you control the board of education, and you sit in the mayor's office. In a sense, there won't be political impediments to any of your plans for the city. What are your top five primary concerns for the new Danbury government administration?

Mayor Alves: My top priority right now is ensuring the transition goes efficiently and effectively. I am proud of our transition team, with former State Representative David Arconti, former State Senator David Cappiello, Attorney Dan Casagrande, and CEO of the United Way, Isabel Almeida. 

My second priority is building an office that's effective, efficient, and ready to run on day one and that is also representative of the community. The first person I named to office was Chief of Staff Taylor O'Brien, a previous city hall employee who had worked for prior Republican administrations. I wanted to ensure that the chief of staff position was representative of Danbury, and O'Brien's Lebanese-Irish background fit that mold.

I have appointed State Representative Farley Santos as Community Relations and Constituent Services Advisor and Francesca Capodilupo as Government Affairs and Communications Advisor.

Farley Santos brings a wealth of knowledge and a lifetime of community engagement and service to Danbury. Our community knows Farley and how hard he works on our behalf in the state legislature. Having that level of experience on my team is a critical part of our mission to ensure that the City of Danbury, the fastest-growing city in the state, is at the forefront of everyone's mind.

Working with government entities across the state for most of her career, Francesca brings an unmatched skillset to our team. Her expertise in communications will bring a new level of transparency and accessibility to the mayor's office, the constituents, and key stakeholders across our city.

Priorities three and four are holding meetings throughout the city to hear from residents and get their feedback on local government decisions. I am planning on numerous town hall-style meetings in all voting wards.

My final priority is to focus on the operations of the city and the school system, addressing infrastructure and making sure projects are seen to completion.


Tribuna:  Should the City of Danbury look for a more bipartisan approach from the Alves administration?


Mayor Alves: Absolutely. The commitment was not about politics; it was about what was right for the city. I'm driving down Main Street right now in Danbury, and I see this big pothole in front of me. While it's a state road, that pothole isn't a Republican problem; that pothole isn't a Democratic problem; that pothole is a problem that we need to fix. And that's the approach I'm taking with the government as well.


Tribuna: With the recent influx of new immigrants in Danbury, what is your plan to assist their needs and connect them to the resources and the community?


Mayor Alves: Well, this is going to be an exciting time. As far as I'm aware, this is the first time in Danbury's history that we're going to have a mayor who is fluent in Portuguese and Spanish. So the accessibility and those shared life experiences as somebody who came in as an immigrant, who saw his parents work multiple jobs. As a result, I am in the position to say that through all their hard work, that shared experience, that connection with the immigrant communities, will go a long way, that accessibility that we're going to create with them. But now, I want to create a community advisory board with folks from all communities, not just immigrant leaders. 


And listen, some things are happening that are already good. I know The New American Dream Foundation partnered with CFIC, and there's a space to create a welcome center for immigrants. I want to build on that. I want to work with current community leaders because, like I said, this is about something other than politics currently or politics in the past. Sometimes, the government can help and be part of the solution, but I want to work with folks on our private sector side who are doing great things to build on what they're doing and enhance the programs.


Tribuna: During your campaign, you promised to address the overcrowding of Danbury schools. What is your strategy to improve education standing in the short and long term?

Thanks for that question. In the short term, what we really have to continue to work on are the projects that have been started. Going back to my time on the city council, we talked about the career academy. So we must ensure that those are built on time and that we are open with the public on what that will cost the taxpayers once it opens. We also want to work with the state government and advocate and lobby for expanding Abbott Tech. Abbott Tech is a tremendous resource in our community.

Abbott Tech, yes, services other towns, not just Danbury, but 70 percent of the students that go to Abbott Tech are from Danbury. And in my conversations with Principal Durkin from Abbott Tech, he says if he has just access to seven to 10 more classrooms, he can get 250 more kids in there. The school has a waiting list of 300 students and expanding would allow for an additional 250 students. The expansion would be funded by the state government, not by Danbury property taxes. The aim is to expand successful services at Abbott Tech, such as carpentry, HVAC, electrical work, plumbing, culinary arts, and hairdressing. This will provide students with a high school degree and experience in a trade, opening opportunities for those who want to work in trades after graduation. Abbott Tech is a school that benefits the immigrant community greatly and provides options for both college and trade work.

I remember when I was a kid, it was a hard decision to decide if I wanted to go to Danbury High School or Abbott Tech because of what that could mean. I'm sure it's a tough decision for so many kids now, and why they have so many students on a waiting list. 

So right away, we're going to start advocating for that, try to get the wheels of government moving faster than they typically do. And I'm going to leverage my friends in state government. It's nice and refreshing to have a mayor who will work with them instead of blaming the state. We have a Democratic governor, a Democratic legislator, a Democratic senate, a Democratic delegation in the federal government, and yes, it helps to have a Democratic mayor leading the City of Danbury. That's going to give us access to more; it's going to put us in the room for more conversations. These are my personal friends, so we will leverage that to get more for Danbury.


Tribuna: Do you favor a charter school in Danbury?

We've been very clear and open on where I stand on that. I have viewed the challenges facing the education system in Danbury as opportunities for growth. With the current state of our schools, we can make necessary adjustments to improve education within the community. This includes addressing the issues faced by Abbott Tech and the Danbury Public Schools that previous administrations have neglected for over two decades. While the charter school proposal is not inherently good or bad, I believe we can address the current challenges with what we have now. I'll be the first to say that if the time comes, if I am wrong, which I do not believe I am, if we fund schools adequately, then, let's have conversations about any and all options. I think there's another way to do it at the moment.


Tribuna: Public safety has been emphasized in your campaign. How will you address the public safety needs of the city, including keeping our city safe?

Mayor Alves: It's clear that the rate of assaults in Danbury has spiked dramatically, and this is not just a recent occurrence since the pandemic. Even when looking at pre-COVID figures, the numbers have increased at an alarming rate. While the current administration has hired a record number of police officers over the past two years, the leadership has been in place for a long time, and we should have been doing that faster.

The data from the October City Council agenda of 2023, compared to 2007, only showed an additional nine police officers on active duty. This is because we haven't taken the issue seriously and haven't acted quickly enough. It's necessary to hire more police officers and increase our table of organization to ensure public safety, more community policing, and to have more officers on patrol.

I have spoken with the chief of police to discuss the feasibility of increasing the number of police officers on staff. We need to hire more Portuguese-speaking police officers, especially those from the Brazilian community, and encourage local residents to consider law enforcement as a potential career path. By doing so, we can build a stronger, safer community in which people can work together.


Tribuna: What is your vision for Danbury in 2030?

Mayor Alves: I envision a Danbury where people feel heard by their government, and that is why I'm committed to addressing the challenges in our school system and public safety. By doing this, Danbury can become a premier location that attracts more employers. While some may use statistics to argue that Danbury is a top 100 place, we can do better. We need to strive for excellence and compete with other towns in our area like Stamford and Norwalk. By focusing on average salaries and high-paying jobs, we can maintain our unique culture while attracting new residents who will take pride in calling Danbury home.

It's important to note that Danbury shouldn't be compared to cities like Hartford or Bridgeport, as they face different challenges. But we can learn from communities like Stamford and Norwalk and strive for similar opportunities. We can have a mix of that in Danbury, without losing our culture, without that complete gentrification that happens sometimes. I see a community where folks like us who are immigrants walk down [the street] with a sense of pride when we highlight that to the rest of the state. People want to be here, and we highlight the people who got us there.

Photos By Al Robinson - Hatcityblog.com.