A day on the campaign trail with Mark Sargent

Mark Sargent, a UConn graduate and former president of the university's Undergraduate Student Government, speaks Saturday morning at the Mansfield Transfer Station. Sargent is one of three Republican candidates for town council in the November elections. With the minority party guaranteed at least three seats on the town council, he is a virtual lock to be elected. (Amar Batra/The Daily Campus)

Mark Sargent began his Saturday morning with a black coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts. That’s how he plans on starting a revolution in Mansfield.

Sargent, who graduated from UConn in May after serving one term as president of the Undergraduate Student Government, is running for a seat on the Mansfield Town Council as a Republican.

And on Nov. 3, he will win – barring disqualification, of course.

Under Mansfield election laws, the minority party is guaranteed at least three seats on the nine-member town council, and Mansfield Republicans are only running three candidates. Despite the inevitability of his election, Sargent is devoting hours and hours of his time to the campaign trail leading up to Election Day, shaking hands and listening to the concerns of Mansfield residents.

After buying coffee and a dozen donuts Saturday morning, Sargent drove to Storrs Center to pick up myself and Amar Batra, a staff photographer for The Daily Campus. He pulled in front of the CVS just after 8:30 a.m. and invited us to get in the car. Sargent, who appeared a little scruffier than usual, had clearly just rolled out of bed.

“I need a haircut,” Sargent said. “The one thing politicians need to be is clean shaven, and well, look at me.”

Sargent was wearing grey athletic shorts and a dark jacket. He said we were going to drive back to his house in Freedom Green before heading to the first stop on the day’s agenda – the Mansfield Transfer Station.

The ride to his house took about 15 minutes, during which he ran through the basic tenets of his platform and how he reached the decision to run for town council.

“I always thought I would go straight to D.C.,” Sargent said.

However, as he grew older and spent time working in the Mansfield community while at UConn, his interests shifted from national politics to local issues, which he believes everybody needs to take the time to understand. Sargent said UConn was like “a glass box,” and he would only catch a glimpse of the real world every time he drove back to his family’s home outside of Albany, New York.

Sargent summed up his platform in a few words, saying he had no intention of “being a yes-man” for UConn or its students, but that he wanted to give them greater representation on the town council. He said he plans to advocate for a balance between the agrarian roots of the community and growing urbanization in the area immediately surrounding the university.

“I wish we could just draw a circle around UConn and say, ‘This is yours. Stay inside the circle,’” Sargent said.

As he pulled into his neighborhood, Freedom Green, a Revolutionary War-themed community with street names like Liberty Drive and Patriots Square, he couldn’t help but weigh in on the greater implications of his campaign.

“Maybe we’ll be starting a young revolution here in Mansfield,” Sargent said.

Walking into his house, Sargent said he was not always planning on starting a revolution. After changing into a pair of jeans, a blue UConn student government pullover and a tan Polo cap to rein in his hair, he confessed that he had spent his entire life as a Democrat before arriving at UConn in 2011.

Sargent credited former UConn College Republicans president Joe Gasser with winning him over to the Grand Old Party. The two had many conversations during Sargent’s freshman year, and it was not long before Sargent began regularly attending College Republican meetings. It was also during this time that Sargent began drinking black coffee.

“Joe told me, ‘You can’t be a Republican unless you drink black coffee,’” Sargent said.

Back in the house, Sargent scrambled around to get it ready for the student volunteers who planned to join him around 10 a.m. Before picking us up, he bought donuts and a Box O’ Joe, which he placed on the counter in preparation for their arrival.

Ten minutes later, Sargent was back in his car and on the road to his first campaign stop of the day. During the ride over to the transfer station, Sargent once again expounded on his platform, focusing specifically on the need for better roads. He cited a study that he said determined 30 percent of Mansfield’s roads needed to be “completely torn up and replaced.”

Sargent also talked about taxes, a sensitive issue for him. He said promising to cut taxes is “very difficult” and that in certain cases taxes should be higher to pay for “things that matter, things that you can invest in.”

Sargent took a final sip of his coffee as he pulled into the Mansfield Landfill to begin campaigning for the day.

The Transfer Station

Republican town council candidate Virginia Raymond had already been at the Mansfield Transfer Station for a while before Sargent pulled in around 9:20 a.m. She stood in front of one of several large dumpsters, talking with residents as they poured their trash into what serves as the town’s garbage processing center for those who do not use the roadside pickup option.

No more than two minutes after Sargent showed up, the third Republican candidate, Steve Kegler, pulled in as well. The whole gang had arrived.

Raymond quickly jumped into a monologue about her frustration with the design of Storrs Center. She could not understand how such a modern, built-from-scratch urban center had failed to include bike lanes. The town council is currently considering new regulations that would allow bikes on the sidewalks, which she said were already too narrow and cluttered as it is.

“She is a firecracker on the town council,” Sargent whispered to me as she talked to the group. “But she’s also the voice of reason.”

Sargent said he still has a lot to learn from Raymond and Kegler.

The candidates approached more than a dozen residents in a span of about 45 minutes. A lifelong Mansfield resident with long, flowing white hair – he said he is in his 70s – told candidates he had been frustrated with the town losing its rural character and continued mismanagement of town funds. Specifically, he seemed incredulous about the fact that former school superintendent Fred Baruzzi had not been found guilty after misreporting mileage reimbursements to the tune of nearly $11,000 in stolen funds.

All three did not hesitate to remind the man it had been the Republican Town Committee that unveiled the scandal last year. The man shrugged. He knew the candidates could do nothing to address the issue directly.

Overall, the Republicans were well received by most people at the transfer station.

The candidates were talking to another resident when Sargent’s phone began to ring just before 10 a.m. He answered it, and a grin filled his face within a few seconds.

The caller, UConn College Republicans vice president Gianna Bodnar, had just told Sargent they were bringing six volunteers instead of the three they estimated earlier in the morning. She also informed him they were already outside his house waiting for him.

Sargent told Bodnar he would be back at the house in about 15 minutes, wanting to meet a few more residents at the transfer station before leaving. After a string of generally receptive individuals, Sargent and the other candidates finally encountered their first belligerent resident.

“You’re Republicans? I’m not interested,” the elderly man told Sargent.

That’s when Donald Trump made his first appearance of the day in campaign conversation.

“Aren’t you ashamed of that man? You should be ashamed,” the elderly man said as he got back into truck to pull ahead to the next dumpster.

With that, Sargent had heard enough and decided it was time to head back to the house and hit the doors. Al Fratoni, one of the Republican candidates for board of education who showed up at the transfer station 20 minutes after Sargent did, asked if he could come along as well. Sargent told him that would be fine, and Fratoni followed close behind as Sargent pulled out of the transfer station.

While Sargent was still visibly frustrated by the Trump comment (“Should I be ashamed of my party?”), he admitted the Mansfield Republican Town Committee desperately needs rebranding. He pointed to younger statewide Republican leaders who are playing a major role in that process.

Tim Herbst, who is in his 30s and serves as the first selectman of Trumbull, Connecticut, had the strongest performance of any Republican running for statewide office in the 2014 elections. He narrowly lost the race for state treasurer to Democratic candidate Denise Nappier. Sargent said it was as a result of gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley’s unpopularity at the top of the ticket. 

The Connecticut Republican Party also recently appointed the youngest state executive director in the country, 25-year-old John Kleinhans, whom Sargent said is helping to modernize the state’s operations.

The briefing

Sargent arrived back at his house around 10:15 a.m. to find five College Republican volunteers waiting in his driveway – the sixth, chapter treasurer Steve Perry, was running a little bit late. The group filed into Sargent’s house, and Sargent insisted that they eat some donuts and have some coffee. In fact, he more than insisted and was frustrated later when there were still a few donuts left in the box.

After going on a frantic search to find his laptop, he realized he had left it on the couch in his living room. He asked for everyone’s email addresses to send them digital copies of the walk lists along with maps showing each road’s location.

The first question Sargent asked was whether anyone in the room had experience canvassing neighborhoods in the past. Almost everyone raised their hands. Sargent smiled and said he hoped the team could knock on 100 doors before the end of the afternoon. Bodnar promptly informed him most of them were leaving around 12:30 p.m. The smile faded a bit.

Sargent remained confident they would reach all of the doors in the Freedom Green neighborhood and reach some of the surrounding neighborhoods before that time.

In briefing the group on what to expect at each door, Sargent said 60 percent wouldn’t answer, 30 percent would answer and listen to what they have to say and 10 percent would answer and be “nasty.” For those that did not answer, Sargent asked the volunteers to put two flyers in each door – one for the three town council candidates and one for Fratoni’s campaign.

At each door, Sargent wanted the volunteers to talk about three particular issues: improving roads, fiscal responsibility and strong schools.

One of the volunteers asked about how to respond to any questions or concerns related to the referendum last spring on the new sewer system installed in the Four Corners area. Town residents rejected the proposal, but strong turnout of same-day registered voters in UConn’s voting district resulted in the referendum’s passage.

Sargent pondered his answer. He said that students had probably undermined the will of town residents, but told them to give what he called “a politician’s answer” to the question: tell them he is opposed to the way students were used to influence the process.

This answer does not provide a solution to the problem the new sewer system poses, but Sargent believed the answer would suffice.

With no other questions from the group, the volunteers split up into two groups of three. One group planned to walk with Sargent and the other with Fratoni. It took several minutes for Sargent to shuffle through the towering stack of papers that listed addresses and the demographics of each resident, but the canvassing began by 10:30 a.m.

Freedom Green and Meadowbrooks

When the groups departed from the house, Sargent decided his group should break up into two subgroups to cover more ground. It seemed like a sound idea, so he handed them a list with three doors and told them to contact him as soon as they finished.

Sargent had a bounce in his step as he approached the first door on his list. It was the residence of a woman in her 70s named Eleanor, who was listed as a registered Republican. He walked up to the door and applied three firm knocks before taking a step back. Within a few seconds, a woman greeted him.

“Hi, my name is Mark Sargent,” he began confidently. “I’m actually your neighbor. I live over on Fort Griswold Lane. And I’m running for town council.”

As it just so happened, Eleanor used to volunteer on Election Day as a polling station worker. More importantly, she was sympathetic with Sargent’s cause.

“All I want is to get rid of the Democrats,” Eleanor told Sargent.

Sargent said he would do everything he could to get Republicans in the majority. He handed Eleanor a flyer and told her she could come to his house if she ever had any questions for him.

He was off to the races.

The second door Sargent approached was the home of an unaffiliated voter, who was excited Sargent was a young Republican running for town council. The voter at the third door proved equally as receptive.

I asked Sargent how many doors he knocked on during his four years with the UConn College Republicans. He served as the group’s president for two years, but said he canvassed “probably only 10 doors” during that time. Sargent said he did not understand its importance in local elections until getting closer to graduation last spring.

At the fourth door, Melinda Walencewicz greeted Sargent, saying “Oh yeah, you’re politician guy.” Sargent chuckled and said it was indeed him. 

Mark Sargent is a native of New York, but became a resident of Mansfield when he began attending school at UConn in 2011. Sargent traveled to various neighborhoods in Mansfield while campaigning Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015, including Freedom Green, Meadowbrooks, Eastbrook Heights and Mansfield Center. (Amar Batra/The Daily Campus)

“So, what’s your thing? Stop spending all our money?” Walencewicz continued.

The two chatted for more than 15 minutes about issues facing the neighborhood and the town. By the end of the conversation, Sargent felt confident she would be voting for him on Election Day. 

Through an hour and a half on the campaign trail, Sargent visited seven doors total, three of which had no one home. That’s when he got a phone call from the three other members who split off earlier. They had finished their three doors 30 minutes before and were sitting outside of his house waiting for another list.

Sargent arrived back at the house, where a new student volunteer, Thomas Parks, was waiting to join in. However, there was a more pressing concern. UConn College Republicans secretary Jacqueline Devine told him one of the neighbors complained about their cars being parked along the street. Apparently, this violated an ordinance in the neighborhood.

Sargent immediately asked which house the neighbor lived in, and he spent five minutes apologizing to the woman for the cars being improperly parked. Crisis averted.

Hoping to get back to work before having to leave, the other three group members volunteered to take a few more doors. Sargent gave them six.

On the whole, Sargent was disappointed in himself for not being able to maximize their time in the neighborhood.

“I give myself a D-minus coordinating walking teams,” Sargent said.

Despite grading himself poorly, the group canvassing with Fratoni proved to be productive. Sargent decided bring Parks along with him and meet up with the others in the Meadowbrooks neighborhood adjacent to Freedom Green.

Bodnar, who walked with the other group, said it had been a “50-50” split between home and not home at the approximately 20 doors they canvassed. She mentioned they, too, encountered someone not particularly thrilled with Donald Trump. Somehow or another, Mansfield residents have tied in The Donald to the town council election.

Sargent then asked if I would drive the other group and Fratoni back to his house since he wanted to keep knocking on doors. I obliged. Batra continued on with Sargent.

While I was absent, Sargent visited two more residences with no one home before arriving at the door of a couple he met at the transfer station earlier that morning. The next door proved less productive, so Sargent said it was time to change neighborhoods.

Eastbrook Heights

Sargent got in his car with Parks and drove over to the East Brook Mall in southern Mansfield to campaign at several apartments in the area. Many of the residents were not home, but he still made in-roads with a couple of voters – and even one non-voter.

While the resident listed in the voter database moved away about one year prior, the new residents, a middle-aged French man and his daughter who looked to be no more than 7 years old, greeted him at the door. Sargent bent down, leaning in to shake the hand of the young girl.

“What do you want to be for Halloween?” Sargent asked.

“A princess,” the young girl said, as a smile washed over her face.

Sargent stood back up and handed the man a flyer, asking for the man to consider voting for him if he is eligible.

At the next door, the resident declined a flyer. A few doors later, the woman took a flyer but did not show any interest in the campaign.

Sargent needed a good door to give him an energy boost, because the neighborhood was clearly taking its toll. Fortunately for him, the next door was just what he needed. The apartment was the home of a Willimantic Kindergarten teacher who had recently graduated from Eastern Connecticut State University. She wasn’t the voter listed on his sheet, but she listened to his campaign pitch and seemed to take great interest in what he had to say.

After visiting one more apartment, Sargent was ready to tackle another area of the town. He wanted to campaign in central Mansfield, so he picked out several roads near Mansfield Center. On the ride over, he expressed some frustration with the other Republican candidates not being on the campaign trail with him.

“I am disgruntled,” Sargent said, adding that the other candidates should be going door-to-door as often as he is. “If we’re going to rebuild, it’s going to take work.”

Mansfield Center

Sargent perked up as he drove closer to the latest campaign stop, which was noticeably rural with several historic houses. It prompted him to talk about his love for Teddy Roosevelt, one of his political heroes.

“He was a pioneering man of astronomical proportions,” Sargent said. “An American patriot in every breath he took.”

Sargent is particularly fond of Roosevelt’s saying “speak softly and carry a big stick.” He said “a lot of people like to talk,” but not many people follow through with the appropriate action. Sargent said he hopes to serve as a council member who is willing take action, not just talk.

Three consecutive residences with no one home had Sargent concerned his window for the day was closing. It was about 1:15 p.m. Fortunately, though, the last of those homes had a “Steve Kegler for Town Council” sign in the backyard. Sargent said that was a positive.

Sargent decided to try another road in the area. I asked him how long he planned to stay in Mansfield. He said for “the foreseeable future,” but that he was focused strictly on 2015 before considering any other political future.

Checking in with Parks, Sargent asked if he had time to keep campaigning. Parks said he had all day. Arriving at the new road, Sargent thought he could get back into the swing of things. Instead, he found another residence with no one home.

“You kind of lose your steam when you’re not talking to people,” Sargent said.

Everybody got back in the car and Sargent proceeded to drive farther down the road.

“I love finding new places in Mansfield,” Sargent said. “This is fun.”

As Sargent turned into the next driveway, the bottom of his car scraped loudly against a lip in the pavement. The screeching sounded pretty bad.

“There goes the fun,” Sargent said.

At least the “not home” streak was finally over. The resident seemed fairly nervous talking to Sargent, but took a flyer and smirked before walking back into her house. Sargent said he remembered seeing similar reactions from UConn students during his two Undergraduate Student Government campaigns.

The next two doors were a bust, leaving Sargent feeling a little tired. He wanted to end on a high note, so he tried one more door. Firmly knocking three times, he received no response. He then used the door knocker in the hope that might get the residents’ attention.

“I’m determined to get these people,” Sargent said. “Would it be bad if I knocked a third time?”

I told him to go for it, but he still got no answer. Dejected, Sargent decided he would try one more door, one more time. An already overcast and chilly day had by that point become cloudy and cold, but somehow Sargent could still see the sun shining.

That’s because Sargent had been through much worse than not getting a response after knocking on a few doors. 

Sargent writes a personal note on a flyer to be left at a residences with no one home. Sargent and volunteers from the UConn College Republicans knocked on 60 doors in total during Saturday morning's door-to-door campaign efforts. (Amar Batra/The Daily Campus)

As Sargent’s junior year at UConn came to a close, it seemed as if he was standing on top of the world. Sargent had just been elected president of the Undergraduate Student Government and was already serving as president of the College Republicans and his fraternity, Pi Kappa Alpha. As if it couldn’t get any better, he had just learned he had received an internship in the U.S. House of Representatives for that summer.

But on June 12, 2014, at just 20 years old, Sargent was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer in a person’s immune system. Sargent underwent chemotherapy treatments and battled through the illness to return to the university for his senior year in the fall.

“It humanized me,” Sargent said. “Everything seemed so much smaller.”

Sargent said his mother kept him going, as she stayed with him “night and day” throughout the treatments. He said family is the most important thing in his life and his source of strength. He finished his senior year at the university with a new outlook on life, one that led him to stay in Mansfield rather than pursuing a career in Washington, D.C.

Sargent could see through the clouds and knew the sun was still shining as he approached the final door of the day. He knocked once and then knocked again, but no one came. Sargent nearly walked away, but a rustling inside of the house kept him at the door to knock one more time. Then the door opened.

An 18-year-old senior at E.O. Smith High School, Travis, stood there confused about what was happening. Sargent introduced himself as a candidate for town council, and Travis responded by asking where he could vote. Travis also said he would give one of his teachers the flyer and see if a class trip to vote on Election Day could be arranged.

The 60th door of the day proved to be one of the most promising. Sargent finally felt successful. Just after 2:15 p.m., he drove Parks, Batra and me to Storrs Center for lunch at Mooyah Burgers and Fries. He told Parks at lunch that before politics, he wanted to go into filmmaking. His love for cinematic masterpieces like “Star Wars” sustained his interest in the field throughout high school.

But Sargent didn’t end up in Hollywood – or in Washington, D.C., for that matter. He is still in Mansfield, Connecticut, going door-to-door and talking about better roads, fiscal responsibility and strong schools.

CORRECTION (Oct. 27) — The paragraph containing the amount of money that a Mansfield resident said former school superintendent Fred Baruzzi had allegedly stolen after misreporting mileage reimbursements was actually $11,000, not $50,000.


Kyle Constable is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at kyle.constable@uconn.edu. He tweets @KyleConstable.