For a woman who has faced African war lords during UN peace-keeping negotiations, the challenge to take the town’s top job from long-time incumbent Jim Zeoli in this fall’s election is hardly daunting – which is one of the many reasons why the Democratic Town Committee (DTC) tapped Orange native Margaret Novicki to be its candidate for First Selectman.
Novicki recently retired from a 22-year career with the United Nations, where she served 12-years at UN headquarters in New York City and a decade in four African countries. She headed the UN’s information offices in both Ghana and South Africa and was the UN’s spokesperson for its 15,000-strong peacekeeping forces in Liberia and Sierra Leone—then the largest peace operations in the world that ended brutal civil wars in the two countries. She was later named UN Special Advisor to the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Ghana, providing training to military officers from West Africa and also headed communications for the UN office on children and armed conflict.
In a speech before the Democratic Town Committee to nominate his mother for the post, Novicki’s son, Thomas said, “I think if she can jump headfirst into two ongoing wars in Africa and come out unscathed; Margaret will do just fine in Orange.”
The opportunity to run for First Selectman seems kismet to Novicki who only retired from her UN post in May because of the agency’s mandatory retirement age of 62. “After having such an active and motivating career all my life, I couldn’t see just sitting back and putting my feet up in retirement,” she said. An ad in a local newspaper seeking Democratic candidates for office caught her attention and after a long meeting with DTC chairman Jody Dietch, the plan to run for First Selectman took seed. “I gave it a lot of thought and talked it over with friends and family and decided this was an exciting opportunity that excited and engaged me and can bring to bear all the experience I’ve had to serve the town I grew up in and love,” she said.
She and her husband, Amadou Ndiaye, and their 24-year-old son, Thomas, returned to Orange in 2013 to live in the home Margaret grew up in on Center Road Circle with her late parents, Ted and Martha Novicki, and her two brothers who still reside in town. Although she has lived overseas and in New York throughout most of her career, Novicki maintains her connection to Orange runs deep. “It’s inexplicable, this feeling of deep roots that this is where I belong, this is my home,” she said.
In her acceptance speech before the Democratic Town Committee, Novicki acknowledged all that’s special about Orange, like its great education system and “warm and inviting” family-friendly environment – but she believes the town can be even better. “This town has tremendous potential. It’s a town people want to live in,” she said. Novicki says she doesn’t have a pre-ordained campaign agenda – instead she intends to take direction from the residents to see what they want. “I plan to go door to door and hold meet and greets with different groups and listen to what they think the future of the town should be,” she said. She intends to investigate whether more services are needed for the aging population in town, and what can be done to spur economic development and investment in the town. As the mother of a young adult living at home, friendly spaces where young people can gather and meet is also on her agenda. “Who knows, maybe we could have a dog park! Everyone should feel that Orange is a town that cares about them whether young, elderly or disabled, and there may be different ways that we can bring our community together,” she said. “People love living here but maybe they would love it even more if they could feel more connected to their community. Change is good and it brings new vision.”
Novicki is confident her life in public service and experience working in dangerous and war-torn countries has well-prepared her for the job of leading the town. “I have fought every step of the way throughout my life to meet and surpass challenges, always with a clear vision of who I am, what I believe in and what I want to accomplish. I accepted what the UN lexicon calls hardship stations, places no one wants to go to – with no running water, no electricity, and a traumatized population from terrible civil wars. I’ve sat with the parents of children whose limbs have been amputated by crazed rebels, women who had been raped by crazed rebels, lobbied for release of child soldiers, and flown on helicopters into rebel held territory where I came face to face with armed and dangerous war lords and talked to them about disarmament,” she said. “I know how to get a message across; I tell you these things so you know who I really am. I’m tough, tenacious and never met a challenge I haven’t faced with fearless determination.”
She has managed offices with as many as 300 staff members stationed around the world, and been responsible for large and small budgets. “I treat everyone as equals and my staff has always been high producing and respected. People were in tears when I retired. I’ve always had a commitment to improving the quality of people’s lives, whether its people in Africa or people in Orange, Connecticut,” she said. “People everywhere want the same things, good education, a safe and peaceful place to raise their families, job opportunities, and services that meet their needs.”
In her last post at UN Headquarters before retirement, she headed the Strategic Communications Division, managing 63 UN information offices around the world and leading the Organization’s communications campaigns on key issues, including human rights, sustainable development, climate change, gender equality and peacekeeping. She holds a BS degree from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Washington, D.C, and a Master’s Degree from Columbia University’s School of International Affairs in New York in 1979.
July 18th, the day of her nomination, was also the birthday of one of her heroes, Nelson Mandela. Novicki recounted it brought to mind one of his famous quotes, which she shared with her supporters, “It always seems impossible – till it’s done.”
DEMOCRATIC NOMINEES FOR BOARDS:
Board of Selectmen: (3) Mitch Goldblatt, Paul Davis, and Jen Alfaro;
Town Clerk: Patrick O’Sullivan;
Tax Collector: Kristin Zanjani;
Board of Finance: (3) PJ Shanley, Shirley Fiedler, Stu Chrystal;
Plan and Zoning: (2) Mike Sodins, Matt Norko;
Orange Board of Education: (3) Mary Welander, Frank Renaldi, Charles Flynn;
Amity Board of Education: (3) Carla Eichler, Mark Rawden, Ray Tuccio [2-year term] John Gagel;
Constables: (4) Bob Shanley, Randy Thomas, Santo Galatioto, Jr, Marianne Miller.
By Laura Fantarella – Orange Town News Correspondent