In Hartford’s open mayoral race, who will the Democrats endorse?

On Monday night, Hartford’s Democratic town committee will meet to endorse a successor to Mayor Luke Bronin, an initial test of who is best positioned to navigate the shifting racial and geographic coalitions that influence politics in Connecticut’s capital city.

Hartford was inching toward insolvency eight years ago when Bronin, a white lawyer, unseated a Puerto Rican mayor, Pedro Segarra, in a city where non-Hispanic whites are just 15% of the population, 45% are Latino or Hispanic, and 36% are Black.

With a state bailout, long-term debt restructuring and belt-tightening in city hall, Bronin has stabilized city finances. But Hartford remains the poorest of Connecticut’s four largest cities, plagued by a limited tax base and the social ills that come with intergenerational poverty, including one of the lowest home-ownership rates in the U.S. and voter disengagement.

At least three names are expected to be placed in nomination Monday: Arunan Arulampalam, 37, chief executive of the Hartford Land Bank and former Lamont administration official; Eric Coleman, 72, former state senator and retired judge; and Sen. John Fonfara, 67, co-chair of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee. Nick Lebron, 44, a first term councilman, hopes to be a fourth.

Hartford and Waterbury, where Neil O’Leary is retiring after a dozen years in office, are the only two of the five largest cities with open mayoral races in 2023. Mayors Joseph Ganim of Bridgeport and Justin Elicker of New Haven are seeking reelection, while Caroline Simmons of Stamford is in the second year of a four-year term.

Arulampalam, the candidate who appears to be best-positioned for a chance at a first-ballot endorsement, is testing the degree to which a racial, geographic or electoral base is necessary to prevail in a Hartford mayoral contest. He was born in Zimbabwe to Sri Lankan parents and never has held elective office.

He is married to the Rev. Liza Arulampalam, the pastor of the historic Center Church in Hartford, whose first minister was the Rev. Thomas Hooker, a founder of Hartford. They are the parents of five children, biological and adopted.

“I really feel like we are in an era where race and identity still matter a whole lot, but we are better at seeing the commonalities and the struggles and challenges we have,” Arulampalam said.

Identity politics has a long history in Hartford, especially in races for council seats. The council is elected from at large districts, but council slates typically were assembled with a racial and geographic balance. Mayoral races have been different.

Since 1981, when Thirman L. Milner became the first Black candidate to win a mayoral race in Hartford or anywhere else in New England, the city has elected a diverse string of mayors: Carrie Saxon Perry, a Black woman; Mike Peters, a white man; Eddie A. Perez and Segarra, both Latinos; and Bronin, a white man.

“I think people are too quick to assume that if you are an African American candidate, African Americans will vote for you. Or if you’re a white candidate, whites will,” said House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford. “I mean, it just doesn’t work that way. And it really hasn’t worked that way for several elections for mayor.”

Two of the three mayors elected under the strong mayor charter that took effect in 2003, Perez and Bronin, won without holding previous elected office. Segarra was council president and became mayor when Perez resigned in 2010. Segarra won a full term in 2011.

In 2015, Bronin won strong support in the Black neighborhoods of the North End, a counter to Segarra’s base of Latino voters. In 2019, Bronin won a broad-based victory, defeating a Black state representative, Brandon McGee, and Perez, who was attempting a comeback. Bronin carried all but five of the city’s 24 precincts, winning 59% of the vote.

“I think our support is pretty evenly spread out throughout the city,” Arulampalam said. “When I first launched the campaign, I think a lot of folks were skeptical — and I heard from folks in the media or from politicos, people on the ground — that someone who wasn’t rooted in one specific community could win.”

Arunan Arulampalam, holding his son, talks with John Fonfara at the candidate forum.
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Arunan Arulampalam, holding his son, talks with John Fonfara at the candidate forum. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

Coleman, who is Black, represented the North End of Hartford in a Senate district that also included portions of Bloomfield and Windsor for a dozen years. Coleman hasn’t been on a ballot since 2016, when he won reelection, but resigned before the opening of the 2017 session to seek a judicial nomination. He also won seven terms in the House, beginning in 1982.

Fonfara, who is white, represents the South End of Hartford and part of Wethersfield in the Senate. He was elected to the House in 1986 and Senate in 1996. His Senate district is predominantly Hispanic and Latino, and he is backed by Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, a leader in the Puerto Rican community.

Lebron is Latino. Other candidates in the race have raised little or no money.

Fonfara ended June with $390,000 in available campaign funds, compared to $285,000 for Arulampalam and $146,000 for Coleman. Lebron had $6,800.

The winner of the endorsement will have the top line on the ballot in a September primary. In a city with 37,000 Democrats, 20,000 unaffiliated voters and fewer than 3,000 Republicans, the Democratic primary is tantamount to election. In 2015, a hard-fought contest between Bronin and Segarra generated a turnout of only 26%.

The intense concentration of poverty in Hartford depresses turnout by voters, who have a justified skepticism about the ability of government to make significant change, Bronin said. The overall poverty rate of 28% has remain unchanged for 30 years, with 20 of the 32 census tracts at 40% or higher.

“That poverty, intense accumulation of trauma and vulnerability and uncertainty, all of that together is really deeply rooted,” Bronin said. “And there are very real limits to how much any mayor, any administration can do at the local level to fundamentally change that.”

The candidates acknowledge the skepticism.

“Our poverty is an enormous weight,” Fonfara said. “And when people are struggling just to pay the rent, to put food on the table, maybe their car broke down, they’ve been trying to find a better job or get a job, they’re not seeing the government as a big part of their lives.”

Frustration was evident last week at a forum that drew seven candidates to a library branch on Park Street, a commercial corridor where 40% of the storefronts are vacant. Voters complained about mattresses and TVs abandoned in city streets.

“What happened? What happened?” one woman asked. “Our city looks terrible.”

Coleman was interrupted when he spoke generally about what he has heard from voters.

“They want to make sure that they’re living in a city that is safe,” Coleman said. “They want to make sure that you’re living in a city where the schools are properly preparing young people for the future. You want to live in a city where economic development is taking place.”

“That’s not the question,” a woman shouted. “That wasn’t the question.”

Coleman said he would make his commissioner of public works accountable, an answer that drew some applause. Others loudly complained about homelessness, blight and crime, noting four recent homicides. The mood was angry.

“I think the voter turnout in these elections shows you some level of frustration and disengagement, frankly, from the process,” Arulampalam said after the forum. “At least the people in that room are still engaging in the process, but the vast majority of voters in the city are completely disengaged. There are a lot of people who just don’t feel heard. They don’t feel like their voices and complaints matter.”

Nick Lebron waits to retrieve the microphone from a woman who angrily challenged the candidates over homelessness.
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Nick Lebron waits to retrieve the microphone from a woman who angrily challenged the candidates over homelessness. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

The next mayor will be the fourth since Hartford acted in 2002 to abandon a council-manager form of government that had been in place since 1947. All executive power had resided with a manager appointed by a nine-member council elected at large.

Perez was the last mayor elected under the old charter in 2001 and the first under the new one, winning a four-year term in 2003. 

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