About half the seats were filled at the start of Wednesday’s forum; by the end, only a few dozen people remained, and many of those were candidates’ families, or, candidates running with the Republican and Working Families parties. Two of the ten Democrats running for City Council did not attend. It was a rare event that finished early in spite of many questions from the audience.
The forum provided Democrats with the opportunity to distinguish themselves from the other candidates; few bothered to do so. Instead, candidates were quick to agree with each other, rarely adding anything meaningful to previous comments; a few candidates gave rambling responses to most questions, stumping the audience as to the point being made.
The eight candidates were divided into three groups. Each person in a group would stand at the microphones and respond to the questions asked of everyone in that grouping. It was a more successful way of wrangling that many candidates, and most of them respected time limitations. After the pre-formulated questions, audience members were permitted to directly ask questions. Usually, the audience is given index cards on which to write and submit questions. The latter part of the program gave a better sense of the issues that residents are concerned with, even if the manner by which they were asked was not always eloquent.
The first group — Ken Kennedy (incumbent), rJo Winch (incumbent), and Ashley J. Johnson — were asked about the ideal balance between mayor and council. Given that this is balance is outlined in the charter and there will not be another charter revision for some time, the question seemed pointless.
Kennedy said that while he does favor district elections, this is not the system we have. He said that people sitting on council “must be willing to exercise authority,” and explained how during most of the time Hartford has had the strong mayor system, Perez (he didn’t name names) was running the show. Kennedy said that since Segarra has been serving as mayor, the council has acted more independently. Winch’s response did not vary wildly from Kennedy’s. She added that the council is “working in conjunction with the mayor” to run the city and that “communication, communication, communication is the key.” The council’s role, Winch said, is to serve residents. Johnson told the small crowd that he can get along with anyone and that “we have to use our authority in a positive way.”
The second question, while worded strangely, was more useful to voters; candidates were asked which policies would guide their decision-making in budget cuts.
Winch and Kennedy provided similar responses, describing what the council actually did recently. Winch described how some departments were consolidated. Kennedy reiterated this, adding that Hartford residents are “overtaxed” but “you can’t destroy services while reducing the mill rate.” Johnson said that he has experience in budgeting for his household and in doing so learned that “you can’t spend more than you bring in.” Without adding any specifics, he said, “you always cut from the top and not from the bottom because the people at the bottom” are the ones who make things work.
The second group — Raul DeJesus and Kyle K. Anderson — were asked different questions.
Candidates were asked about — yawn — their priority quality of life issues. DeJesus focused entirely on police in his response, saying that Hartford has enough officers, but too many are doing desk jobs that anyone could be doing. DeJesus spoke about how far removed the Hartford Police Department on Jennings Road is from the city and how “buses don’t even run there.” He said “we have to make better use of our substations.” Anderson explained that quality of life issues vary depending on where someone lives. In some places, the concern is crime. In others, it’s potholes. Economic disparities, he said, affect quality of life, and this is something that needs to be dealt with.
Their second question was about what would be done about unemployment. Anderson said he did not want to duplicate existing job training programs. Instead, he suggested we look into what exists and find ways of strengthening what we have. He talked about how the industries Hartford has been known for are changing, thus, “diversifying our workforce” is a need. We mentioned green technologies as a way to expand jobs. DeJesus’ response was unclear. He spoke about something Segarra is looking into regarding expanding terminals, and somehow this may lead to more West Indian produce, which is linked to jobs. This could have been explained better, particularly what role DeJesus saw himself playing in all this, and where these jobs would be located.
The last group was comprised of David MacDonald, Alex Aponte (incumbent), and Shawn Wooden. They were asked about requiring Hartford residency for all City employees. The question was not worded well, and MacDonald, the first to respond, was interrupted several times as the moderator attempted to rephrase the question. MacDonald began by saying “My understanding is we couldn’t” require residency for all City employees; as the question was reformulated to ask if he would try to affect change on the State level so that lower- and mid-level City employees could be legally required, he hesitated about what he would do, but said he supports incentives. Aponte said, “department heads have to reside in the city,” saying that those with six-figure salaries will be out of touch if not living here. As for entry-level and mid-level jobs, he would not want to see that requirement, saying that surrounding towns might adopt a similar measure, and we would lose residents who follow jobs into places like East Hartford. Wooden said “it’s not realistic” to think “we have enough authority” to affect change in the State Legislature. Wooden favored incentives for police officers to live within city limits.
Their final question was a throwaway about if they would favor limiting pension costs. They all said yes, with nothing worth noting beyond that.
Candidates had time to offer “rebuttals” to any previous questions they were not asked.
Kennedy remarked that the changes the council made to the pension “weren’t insignificant,” but a problem is how police overtime affects pensions.
Winch said that Hartford “needs a campaign to hire Hartford” and that it shouldn’t be optional to hire residents; it should be mandatory. This received a lot of audience applause. The audience was also pleased with DeJesus’ stance that “education is the solution to 99.9% of our problems in the city.” He asserted that companies do not want to come here because “our population is not educated.”
Johnson, adding his two cents about quality of life issues, said “people want a safe place and a clean place to come home to,” alluding to crime and litter. Anderson used his time to put forth his “CPR” plan: community, pride, and revitalization. He wants to see Hartford restored “to its prominence” and believes that there needs to be “someone on council to take initiative.”
Wooden gave his biographical speech, adding only that Hartford has “become a place of dysfunction” and that education is the best tool to lift people out of poverty. MacDonald began to differentiate himself from Wooden by saying that he believes in and loves the city. But then he talked about his tenure with the Board of Education, which some in the audience would later make known is not necessarily an asset.
Aponte remarked that “simple solutions for complex problems are simplistic and not solutions at all.”
“Competence and qualification” he said, were important qualities for those on the City Council to have.
The question-and-answer period featured three Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice members asking about what the City Council would do regarding the incinerator. Only Kennedy and Anderson answered the part of the question that demanded an answer for what should be done with this source of toxic pollution. Kennedy explained that it would be tricky, due to contractual issues with CRRA, but that the equipment used is “way out of date,” and needs to be addressed. He said that green energy could actually save us money in the budget, but making this shift could not be done by the City of Hartford alone; they would need to partner with the utility companies. Anderson said that if the equipment is aging and costing more to restore than to replace, then he would want to look at a replacement for it in committee. He also promoted the idea of installing “windmills” on top of the former landfill and looking into solar power options. Johnson said “green is in right now and is creating jobs.”
When the question was asked by Martha Kelly, she asked how they would support an effort that involved both shutting down the incinerator and putting people, particularly those with felony records, to work. Winch invited her (and the group) to come in for a meeting, saying that she supports job creation. Aponte noted that both trash and ex-offenders from all over the state get dumped in Hartford; he said that the State needs to “pay us to deal with their problems.”
Another audience member asked how each candidate would deal with prisoner re-entry. Both Johnson and DeJesus said that they work in fields that deal with this process. Johnson said that the State does not adequately fund re-entry programs. DeJesus suggested that convicts be required to get educated while in prison: “instead of doing 500 push ups, you should be reading 500 books.”
Aponte noted that New Haven has an excellent prisoner re-entry program that Hartford is thinking of using as a model. MacDonald said more can be done to coordinate existing services, and that the City needs to work with the State so that people, upon release from prison, are not just “given bus tickets to Hartford.” He supports the State’s “ban the box” measure. Winch reminded the audience that she introduced the “Ban the Box” ordinance at the City level; this ordinance was passed in 2010.
Some questions were totally esoteric.
One person asked “what are you planning to do to bring us all together,” which, as someone else pointed out, is the equivalent of asking how someone is going to create world peace. Wooden provided no actual answer, though he recounted his story of giving up his mayoral bid to prevent what some believed would result in divisive campaigning. MacDonald acknowledged that “there’s a certain sense that some communities get more than others,” and this inequity would need to be dealt with. He said he would represent all areas of Hartford, as well as “empower neighborhoods” to solve their own problems as much as they can. Winch received a lot of applause for saying, “we need representative government. [...] can’t have one single gender running the city.” She elaborated on the various demographics that need equal representation.
Johnson said that bringing “young people together” is necessary because “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Kennedy built on Johnson’s answer, talking about the need for rebuilding the recreation department that was dismantled in the 90s. He told the audience about how recreation brings youth from all over the city together. He also named some of the assets that are already bringing people together, like the free jazz concerts and the West Indian parade.
Anderson said that people need to “galvanize” behind an event or cause and seemed to think that health issues would be universal enough, naming prostate cancer and breast cancer as ones that people across all demographics would care about.
Another hard-to-pin-down question was related somehow to social services. Some candidates offered nothing of substance in their responses.
Winch said that she supports male leadership programs and is asking fathers to take their children to school on the first day. She said, “we’ve got to reexamine our village.” Johnson said that he is a “pastor in the North End of Hartford” and that he believes “we have to educate our people.” He said “you can’t always throw money at a problem,” and that “we need to teach our men to be men.” Anderson spoke about how Doc Hurley served as a mentor to him — the mention of Hurley received applause — and how Anderson himself helped start the Greater Hartford Male Youth Leadership Program.
Someone in the audience used the opportunity to ask MacDonald, with the Board of Education, why he authorized the $400 per month allowance for gas for the new superintendent. He explained that the reimbursement was more cost effective than leasing a vehicle. Winch said that “people with six figures should not have an expense account,” to much applause. There was something of an antagonistic back and forth between MacDonald and the audience about where Kishimoto lives and when she moved to Hartford.
A few times microphones were quickly taken away from audience members who wanted to ask multi-part questions, though the Democratic Registrar of Voters was permitted several minutes of rambling and kvetching that few could make sense of. This was directed at the candidates, despite the fact that Mike McGarry — the Republican running, sort of, not really, for mayor — in the audience, was the one to previously make a remark about how long it took for candidates to learn if they received enough signatures or not. He also used to opportunity at the microphone to tell candidates to speak with the media. Poorly played on both counts. Elected officials and candidates for other positions should not be using events for general voters to air their own grievances or promote organizations with which they are affiliated.
The Democratic primary is on September 13th. There will not be one for the other political parties. There will be another forum after the primary which will allow participation by candidates in all political parties.