Conversations with the Candidates: Impressions

“Why isn’t the mayor here?”

That was the first question asked by an audience member, before the official time for questions began — before anything really began — at the Business for Downtown Hartford’s “Candid Conversations” event. The Facebook invite for it notes that Mayor Segarra would be missing due to a scheduling conflict, but when pressed, those in the know verbally shrugged. There was speculation that the mayor was attending a campaign fundraiser.

Robert Killian

The event was not exactly a debate or forum. The format was intended to be one where the audience spoke about what they wanted in the next mayor, then the candidates would respond. What happened: after a round of introductions by the candidates, there were rapid fire questions from the audience, following by five minute responses from each of the candidates. There was a second round of that, then a question would be asked and responded to immediately by the candidates. The last round consisted of the moderator, Robert Painter, asking questions that had been previously submitted but had not yet been asked, with each candidate responding immediately.

Who Asks?

With the event created by an advocacy group for the central business district, more business types may have been expected. That was part of the story, but included in the mix were people affiliated with non-profits and just anyone else who wanted a chance to ask candidates questions.

Some have felt a lack of racial and ethnic diversity among the candidates; three are Caucasian, two are Hispanic. Not as much has been made of the lack of gender diversity. All of the candidates who have announced are men. Five of five.

In the loosely structured event, most of the voices heard were male, with men asking 64% of the official questions. That does not count the number of times men interrupted candidates’ answers by asking follow up questions sans microphone or straight up challenging them. Only one woman interrupted.

What People Wanted to Know

Joel Cruz, Jr.

During the formal portion of the program, Painter did not need to make good on his promise to “cut you off if you ramble on and on” but that did not mean all questions made complete sense for this particular setting.

Joel Cruz, Jr. graciously responded to a resident’s question about a bus stop at Albany and Woodland. It is not an item the mayor would be responsible for. Cruz gently responded: “That’s a conversation with CT Transit, okay love?”

Robert Killian’s approach was completely in another direction, sometimes wagging his finger toward the audience when he spoke, appearing to scold residents as he said that the top problem is Hartford is that “we engage in what psychiatrists call ‘magical thinking.'”

What was he responding to? That was unclear. The previous stream of questions included:

  • dealing with the grand list
  • reducing City expenses
  • “What is the City planning to sell next year to fill the [budget] gap?”
  • reducing corruption in City Hall
  • promoting small business
  • regionalism
  • business entity tax [That’s a State, not City, issue]
  • social security
  • working with the State on tax issues
  • financing for the stadium
  • role of the mayor with the Board of Education
  • how the Board of Education can be more stable and not waste money
  • blighted buildings and neighborhoods
  • specific ideas about improving neighborhoods
  • What city do you want Hartford to look like?
  • living wage ordinance
  • Registrar of Voters [asked by a non-resident]
  • improvements for pedestrians
  • reaching out to communities not in this room [audience was not all one race]
  • improving the Office of Licenses and Inspections
  • homeowners’ and tenants’ tax rates
  • increasing the homeowner rate
  • does the City of Hartford have a redevelopment plan?
  • mayor’s salary too high for a city with such poverty. Will you reduce that salary as mayor?
  • lots of money is being spent on the school system but with few results. Will you tell parents to do their jobs by teaching their own children?
  • pot holes
  • reduce police costs
  • can we use vacant City-owned buildings to house the homeless?
  • why are we seeing police standing next to construction sites, texting?
  • candidates are being silent on the stadium
  • high speed internet?
  • should Department heads be required to live in the city?
  • what about the other part of the Downtown North redevelopment project? How will we ensure developers follow through?

Several of these topics were asked about multiple times. Some questions were asked by candidates’ relatives. One candidate’s daughter was in charge of getting one of two microphones to audience members; there was no sign of favoritism there, but it can not be overlooked how small Hartford appears when this sort of thing happens.

The Candidates

Luke Bronin

The introductions they gave for themselves offered little in the way of new information. Killian spoke metaphorically — one hopes — about raising the level of the water and floating all the boats; this was a push to elevate the neighborhoods in addition to the central business district. Gale stuck with his family biography, a tactic he has relied on since he began campaigning. He did say that the city needs someone with experience, but declined to say how he has served in office previously. Cruz mentioned his military service and said Hartford needs to “concentrate on the people that are already in our neighborhoods.” Bronin echoed Killian’s thoughts on the neighborhood in a less cryptic fashion. Saying he likes Segarra personally, Bronin added that with the strong mayor system,  “it’s not a ceremonial position anymore.”

While the moderator gave the audience permission to applaud, there was not much of that during the event.

Many of the candidates’ responses were rehashed, or even verbatim replays, of conversations Real Hartford had with candidates back in March.

Gale suggested that L&I could be improved through the better use of technology. He gave a good portion of his allotted time — some of which had already been cut into by audience members challenging him — to speaking about how high speed internet would improve Hartford. Gale added that Hartford has to “develop new taxable property” but provided no specifics on that. After some volleying with audience members, he gave his phone number and suggested they call him later.

Cruz advised the audience to not rely on one mayor to fix all the problems. He said this would be about bringing in a team. Right now, L&I gives the Department of Development Services 18-20 properties per month, he said. Of those, two or three are getting developed. It was not clear what Cruz was getting at, but the numbers provided some perspective.

One place Cruz would cut the spending would be on services Hartford duplicates poorly. He suggested that funding go to existing organizations with expertise. He did not name names on which services this applies to.

Bronin echoed Cruz on reducing expenses by elimination duplication. He promoted ways to share resources regionally without stepping on the toes of other towns and cities. With spending, Bronin said, “we’re sometimes just plain wasteful.” Here, he cited how a second communications director had been hired in recent months. Additionally, Bronin suggested that there be a push to for Hartford to get a greater share of PILOT dollars. “None of this will happen overnight,” he said, but insisted we should not be having this same conversation in four, eight, or twelve years from now.

Bronin again raised the idea of removing Brainard Airport so that the area can be redeveloped. Killian spent a solid portion of his allotted time telling Bronin why his idea doesn’t work, how there are State and Federal reasons for why it would not work, and how the small airport helps Hartford’s economy. Killian was supportive of Bronin’s push to remove the power plant in the South Meadows.

When Gale used Bridgeport as an example of a city with a smaller budget than Hartford, Killian responded that Hartford isn’t Bridgeport or Fairfield.

While some audience members felt that Killian was correctly diagnosing Hartford’s problems, he did not offer any solutions — something that Gale later pointed out and received a harsh rebuttal from Killian about.

One of the more intriguing ideas of the evening, perhaps because it was something less esoteric than PILOT and the mill rate, was the idea raised by resident Anne Goshdigian that Hartford consider solving two issues at once: vacant, blighted properties and homelessness. She cited what Utah has been doing. Cruz took to the idea, saying that there are approximately 100 homeless veterans in Hartford; he suggested that City-owned vacant properties be fixed up by those who would then become their residents. Bronin was also on board, using the opportunity to mention work he had previously done with the State on an initiative to end veterans’ homelessness. Gale’s response? “Utah is never a great example for Connecticut.”

John Gale

When asked which city is doing something “awesome,” Gale rattled off a list that included Austin. Cruz was next. ” I really love my city,” Cruz said. “We’re not Boston. We’re not New York.” Bronin was careful to say that New Haven has an interesting initiative that promotes home ownership, adding that our major employers should be encouraging home ownership within Hartford. Killian’s answer, between the lines, was Hartford: “We take care of people” and “we don’t get adequate thanks for it.” Here, he was referring to all of the social services that Hartford provides. According to Killian, 24% of conservatorships in the state are in Hartford. He also said that in Connecticut, Hartford also has the highest percentage of developmentally disabled and drug/alcohol dependent individuals. “We play an important role and we play it well,” he said.

Impressions

Bronin: best at conveying ideas in a way that can be immediately grasped. With experience working for the State, understands how the City and State work together and let audience know he knows. Referred to audience members, who had not actually introduced themselves when asking questions, by name. Got applause for responding to question about racial diversity with “I wish this field were more diverse too [but] it’s about being one community.”

Cruz: came off as being passionate and respectful. Sometimes his way of expression seemed fuzzy, as if he would have benefited from more time to explain himself on issues that we know he understands and can speak on. Brought into the conversation what he has learned from serving on City Council. Could have done more to differentiate himself, as he is currently the only candidate who does not have a law background.

Gale: Interesting ideas, but still very stuck on promoting himself as the candidate whose family has been in Hartford the longest. For transplants to Hartford — and even to Connecticut — this can be a turnoff. Needed to give specifics about what experiences he has had that would transfer to being someone who can lead City government.

Killian: strongest when talking about his own experience turning around the culture of Probate Court and when speaking about the city’s strengths. In general, came off as angry and confrontational, quicker to slap down his opponents than to provide a clear sense of his own ideas for change.