Andy Ross, the owner of a mortgage company and a virtual unknown in city political circles, said on Tuesday that he is running for mayor of New Haven.

Ross’ entry into the race brings to three the number of candidates looking to unseat seven-term mayor John DeStefano Jr. Ross is running as an independent — he is a self-described social liberal and fiscal conservative — against DeStefano, who, with rare exceptions, has been unfettered by competition in his 14 years as mayor. Willie Greene and Thomas Holahan ’63 have also announced plans to challenge DeStefano for the Democratic nomination in 2007.

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Although Ross said he “really like[s]” DeStefano, who has indicated that he will run for reelection, Ross said he has been deeply disappointed by what he called DeStefano’s “dropping of the ball” over the past several years, especially during his three-year run for governor. Ross said he decided to run as an independent in part due to his perception that the system all but guarantees DeStefano will win the Democratic nomination even though he is no longer the best leader for the city.

“In the beginning, when I first started thinking about it, I thought [winning] would be impossible, but as time went on — and I guess when schooling myself [on politics] — I began to think it is doable,” said Ross, 50, who lives and works on Chapel Street. “I remember saying to my wife over and over again that I just don’t see the city going in the direction it had been. A lot of things [city officials] talk about, and you never see them get off the ground.”

Ross embraced the fact that he has little to no political experience in the city. Instead, he said, he offers unique leadership abilities, perspective as an outsider and independence because he is not entrenched in the political workings of the city. Ross is the founder and chief operating officer of the Andy Ross Group, a mortgage company with more than 70 employees and eight offices throughout Connecticut and New England.

“I like the fact that I am a total unknown,” he said. “I always believe in jumping in the deep side of the pool if you’re learning how to swim. Someone that has not been a part of it all could be a refreshing break. I will learn it and I will do what I have to do to accommodate people and make the right decisions, but I readily admit that I do not know the deep-rooted infrastructure of the political [system] in New Haven.”

Rob Smuts ’01, DeStefano’s acting spokesman, said Ross “will have a hard time pointing to anything” to substantiate his claim that the state of New Haven affairs has worsened. Smuts said the mayor is “very proud of the direction New Haven has gone in the past four years.”

“We continue to make progress in the areas of importance to people of New Haven — education, test scores, graduation rates, whatever metric you suggest,” said Smuts, adding that the mayor is proud of increasing home ownership in the city. “I don’t think there has been a loss of jobs … You look at our numbers, particularly compared to comparable cities, and we’re doing extremely well.”

Smuts said he does not think DeStefano has lost focus on governing New Haven. But in an interview several weeks before last year’s gubernatorial election, in which DeStefano was defeated by Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, the mayor said it had been hard balancing his stewardship of the city with his statewide campaign. At the same time, Board of Aldermen President Carl Goldfield — a close political ally of DeStefano’s — said the mayor had “lost focus” on some facets of city government.

According to employees of the company, Ross is has a unique leadership style for the often hard-nosed and fast-paced world of real estate and brokering.

“Typically in the mortgage industry, a lot of owners are not like Andy — they are very abrupt, but he was very calm,” loan officer Ralph Natalizia said from his office in Rhode Island. “He almost reminds me of a very calm Donald Trump kind of guy. You know his wheels are spinning, and he’s thinking about stuff, but he takes in all the information before he says a word.”

Branch Manager Jonathan Mercurio described Ross as “straightforward,” noting that in order for a company to be named after a single individual, that individual must have integrity and a pristine reputation.

“He can put his name on everything,” Mercurio said. “He’s always been very up front. He follows through with everything he needs to do. Anybody you talk to would have the same feeling about him.”

Politically, Ross said he does not associate with any political party, although he may lean conservative on some economic issues. He said he would “absolutely” continue DeStefano’s support for ensuring the safety and well-being of illegal immigrants, within the confines of the law, and would also support civil union legislation for gay couples.

With the primary election still about half a year away, many more candidates — such as James Newton, who ran against DeStefano in 1999, but has not yet officially declared his candidacy — may still enter the ring.

Regardless of who comes out on top, however, Yale is likely to find an ally in City Hall. Holahan is a Yale graduate, DeStefano identifies improving the city’s relationship with the University as one of his top accomplishments in office, and Ross said on Tuesday that he might value Yale even more than the current mayor.

“It’s a great institution that makes this town what it is,” he said, adding that he is looking for students to help lead his campaign and start a “grass-roots” effort to unseat DeStefano. “I’m a marketing man by nature, and I really like to use all kinds of methods and strategies that are unique to getting the message out to people. I do really want to get a lot of young people involved. I’ve always believed in that, even in my business.”

DeStefano has also traditionally counted on the support of recent Yale alumni and current students.

Ross, who moved to New Haven four years ago from Madison, Conn., attended Sacred Heart University for two years before dropping out because both his parents were ill; they died soon after, within six months of each other. He then became the legal guardian of his younger sister. Before that, in 1972 at age 15, Ross earned his real estate license, making him one of the youngest recipients ever of a real estate license in Connecticut.

For the duration of the campaign, Ross said, he plans to appoint an interim leader of his company, though he said it already runs almost on “automatic pilot.” He also said he plans to take advantage of the new public financing for mayoral candidates, although he is still examining the rules to ensure that he can contribute significant personal funds when launching his campaign in the coming weeks.