Tonight’s forum hosted by the Hartford Public Library was aired live and will be rebroadcast on Hartford Public Access. If you missed the thrill of local politicians politicking, let me explain how the forum was supposed to work. Because of the number of candidates—even with Luis Cotto and Urania Petit not making an appearance—only four candidates were allowed a full two minutes to respond to a given question. After they had their say, other candidates could give their one minute rebuttals. Unlike other events I have attended where this method was attempted and poorly executed, it seemed to work well tonight, moving people along. It helped that all of the candidates were respectful to the time, only finishing their sentence after time was called.
Roster: Pedro Segarra ( D ), Matthew Ritter ( D ), Kevin Carroll ( R ), John Lupo ( R ), Michael Lupo ( R ), Veronica Airey-Wilson ( R ), Thom Page ( D ), Kenneth Kennedy ( D ), James Boucher ( D ), rJo Winch ( D ), Gerald Pleasant ( R ), Michael McGarry ( R ), Calixto Torres ( D ), and Larry Deutsch ( WFP ). Got all that?
On the issue of education and the superintendent’s new plan there weren’t any surprises. Michael Lupo and Page considered school uniforms to be a positive measure, along with the plan to allow school choice throughout the city, in essence turning all public schools into magnet schools. Ritter, to much applause, promoted universal preschool so that students perform better on tests later in their educations. Winch suggested that funding be based on services for the child, not the building; Airey-Wilson seemed to acknowledge the link between a building and student need when she said that there is a need to break “up these massive warehouses” that are Hartford’s high schools. Boucher’s comment that education is underfunded? No-brainer.
The next question posed was how the candidates would improve public safety besides increasing the police force. There was some debate over the City of Hartford Police Department located on Jennings Road, as well as the plans for a new public safety complex in downtown. McGarry said that building the current headquarters in that location was a bad idea, that Pleasant defended as being necessary at the time because of economic reasons. Winch viewed the new public safety complex as opening the possibility for the development of a positive relationship between cops and children, citing the potential for kids vs. police games. Page, when talking about where he would cut spending, spoke of the need for the council to really consider where the money goes, implying that the complex is either not necessary or too expensive. Segarra alluded to an ongoing problem of how “crime and the perception of crime hurts the city.” Though he didn’t sound as convinced as Winch that children would wholeheartedly take up the opportunity to play basketball with officers, Segarra did acknowledge that public safety is a matter of community responsibility, a part of which requires people to work with the police. Pleasant, a retired Deputy Chief, also mentioned the perception of crime issue, and added that “the needs today may change tomorrow,” meaning that there is no promise that crime will remain in any given neighborhood. Of the more creative responses, Carroll suggested that there be incentives for police to live in Hartford neighborhoods. Later, when asked about affordable housing options, he suggested that the vacant lots should be given away to those who would develop them, and that he would especially like to see police take advantage of that.
In the fashion of asking a question that can be spun any number of ways, the candidates were asked which two services or programs that they would cut from the budget to reduce taxes. Deutsch offered an original response, saying that he might cut from public safety anything that does not reduce the causes of crime. In his other responses, he expressed the same philosophy that “prevention and healthy living” is preferable to only dealing with fixes. One might not expect someone with a background in police work to suggest cuts there, but Pleasant said that some of the work uniformed officers do could be done by civilians, presumably at a cheaper rate. Segarra and McGarry both had unique responses, with the prior suggesting attention be given to mortgage payments and settlements, and the latter proposing that Hartford sell off 75 acres that it owns in Farmington. Ritter, in the true neighborly spirit suggested Hartford develop a better relationship with other towns so that there is less competition for corporations; as a result, Hartford can stop offering companies tax abatements and not suffer for it. He claimed that Hartford needs to “build a middle class tax base” and bring in young professionals. John Lupo said that Hartford needs to start acting like it is a capital city and make the rest of the state share the financial burden for certain legislative buildings here.
And then the battle of the cronies began. Ritter and Michael Lupo said they would cut some of the mayor’s staff. Page said that the mayor’s office jobs should return to public works, where employees get smaller paychecks.
Airey-Wilson would not cut from the mayor’s office. Later, Winch gave a fiery mini-speech about how 80% of Perez’s office is made of Hartford residents and recent college graduates. She wanted to know which of those young people should be fired. A popular response, but a clear contrast to her insistence that “government is not about personalities, it’s about people.”
And Everything Else on Your Mind
At the close of the posed questions, candidates had the opportunity to speak about any issue they wanted to. This was the pure self-promotional period of the evening, but some candidates had other ideas to add. Airey-Wilson wants to propose the building of an adult education and job training center. Michael Lupo wants voters to ask themselves if they are content with the status quo, or if they are ready for change. Torres seemed to respond by saying that “this is not an issue of changing faces,” which as an incumbent, he would not want it to be. Deutsch talked about the Working Families Party and how there is a “need [for] some new approaches,” which later he hinted would be doing something about health care and the war in Iraq. Segarra claimed to be running out of obligation, not ego. Segarra, my man, pass that message on to the other candidates.
In the final segment, questions from audience members were read. Citing the recent Giles contract scandal and strong mayor charter, one member wanted to know why voters should re-elect any incumbent. Segarra pointed out that he does not always agree with everything the other council members or the mayor does. Kennedy and Page advocated changing the charter, though Airey-Wilson would not go that far, saying that residents would ultimately decide that. Most of her comments sounded very “maintain status quo at all costs,” but one refreshing answer was how she thinks that if there is luxury housing in one area, low and moderate-priced housing should be available in the same area, including downtown. She did not want to see all of the low-income housing relegated to one or two areas. Page remarked that the “council has the authority to do things, but hasn’t done them.” McGarry sidestepped the issue, expressing a desire for more Republicans on the council.
The property tax and poverty discussions were not very fruitful or interesting, but the question of how candidates would deal with gang violence brought out some telling parts of their personalities. Winch and Segarra, while very prepared, spoke too damn fast for me to catch anything they said other than Segarra’s mention of the FBI. Carroll said that the way to discourage gang involvement is to provide ex-offenders with getting employment after release from prison. Deutsch also stressed the positive, saying that kids should be given places to go after school so that they can “channel their energy.” Airey-Wilson claimed that the way to stop gang violence is to prevent “children from having children.”
McGarry referenced the Cheshire murders, saying that one way to address repeat offenders was to have them wear the GPS bracelets. Torres called it “sad” how “we revert to 1984,” and Ritter exclaimed, “Putting a tag on someone’s foot? That’s not a plan!”
Looking for a “winner?” It’s hard to say if there was one. As seems to be the theme with political forums in Hartford, there was a contingent of women heckling and saying ‘Amen,’ at random. The audience did not seem to know what to make of Deutsch, since his answers were radically different than most of the other candidates—no booing, but no explosive hurrahs either. Unless major scandals break before the election, it would not come as a surprise if each incumbent was re-elected.