Election Season: Debate in the South

left-to-right: Luke Bronin, Joel Cruz, Jr., John Gale, Giselle Jacobs, Robert Killian, Mayor Segarra, Lew Brown

Cognitive dissonance: when a candidate goes to a debate for south neighborhoods — set in one of them — and proceeds to claim that this part of the city gets advantages that the north end does not.

That came from Giselle Jacobs, the one female at the table.

After strolling in eleven minutes after the formal portion of the event officially began, she missed no opportunity all evening to highlight her north side cred — something she has, but something that matters less when on the other end of the city.

Park Street, she claimed, is lit up at night, while streets in the north are not.

As Jacobs alienated herself from the audience, few candidates performed in a way that showed they had any more knowledge of the part of town they were sitting in for 3.5 hours on Thursday night. Aside from Luke Bronin conveying his experience of taking part in a neighborhood clean up on Park Street that featured a City-owned property trapping litter behind a fence, there was not so much as a reference, an opportunity missed by Joel Cruz, the only candidate who lives in the south section of the city.

This lack of direction can’t be blamed entirely on the politicians. The debate was disorganized, with ground rules seemingly made up as the evening progressed. The moderator — Lew Brown — needed help moderating, as he repeatedly skipped over candidates during answer portions of the program. During closing remarks, somehow, Robert Killian was permitted to speak twice. During audience Q&A, the mic never made it around the entire room, and the very first question asked was by Phil Knecht of Wethersfield, and it was not a question but a statement of support for Mayor Segarra. There was more of this — the making statements instead of asking questions — something that is hard to hold against those who feel that access to some or all of the candidates is difficult to obtain.

But between the verbal questions and those screened from what was written on pieces of paper, nothing aside from the location of the venue, made this feel like a debate focused on the neighborhoods. While it was permitted for candidates to answer a question on incarceration after a near-identical one had already been asked, a number of more localized questions went unasked. We know that some question sheets were submitted that asked candidates about poor attendance at Neighborhood Revitalization Zone Committee meetings. Another asked how the candidate, as mayor, would work to make SAMA a more legitimate neighborhood-centered version of the BID, pressuring them, even, to clean Park Street and other corridors on a regular basis. Another unasked question: name at least on restaurant in each of the neighborhoods represented by the organizing NRZs.

Do the candidates really know the neighborhoods? After all that, it’s hard to say.

Introductions

Some of the audience in Mather at Trinity College

As with most debates, the candidates were given a few minutes to provide opening remarks. Most used their time to rehash their biographical information in what appears to be a long game of “I’m More Hartford Than You” (IMHTY).

Killian fell back on telling the audience to read his “paper,” because that’s where his information is, but that was after giving his own IMHTY narrative in which he claimed to know residents better than any of the other candidates. Killian owns property on Kenyon Street and Bloomfield Avenue, both of which are worlds away from Zion Street or New Britain Avenue.

John Gale went with his rehearsed narrative about how long he and his family have been in Hartford, almost connecting by citing his involvement in the West End Civic Association, but adding he has been involved in it for about thirty years. Besides providing his geographic whereabouts, his intro piece offered no concrete information about what he plans to do for the city of Hartford. Nothing about vision.

Jacobs also went the IMHTY route, adding that she became a mother when she was 15, was paying rent at 16, and joined the military at 20. She said, “I know what it’s like to be homeless, I know what it’s like to be jobless […] and still have hope.” Had she stayed in that zone instead of adopting an abrasive tone and playing the tired “north vs. south” bit, she might have resonated more.

Luke Bronin, Joel Cruz, Jr., and Mayor Segarra were the only candidates who managed to say something about vision when asked to do that.

Bronin focused on challenging Segarra, saying that we “can’t do true community policing if you don’t have enough police to be part of the community,” This was a missed opportunity to remind the audience what we have on hand for available police on a given day.

Cruz promised to “advocate for clean, safe, healthy apartments,” showing audience awareness, but never fully grabbing that opportunity to speak about specific problem buildings in the represented neighborhoods.

Being the incumbent, it would have been astounding if Segarra wasted his intro on biography. He stuck to highlighting what he believes his administration has already done for Hartford.

There were “severe challenges,” he said, when coming into office. Segarra said he has been accused of moving “too quickly, too fastly.”

He said $1.3M has been spent on rehabbing homes during his administration. He claimed to have balanced the budget every year and to have improved the mood of the city.

A Few Questions, Not Many Answers

As the program segued to live questions from the audience, the moderator rambled on about how all politics is local. There was a point being made in there somewhere.

There have been debates, somewhere, in the history of the city, when the moderator would interrupt the candidate to ask that he or she answer the question if the politician strayed off topic. This was not one of them.

Taxes

Segarra said he will “fight for more State monies,” something he says he has been doing but did not manage to get much of this year. He says he filled the gap by trying to attract others to the city to get revenue — a thinly veiled reference to the Downtown North development/coffee franchise stadium. He added that in all of this, “essential services have not been cut.”

Killian accused Segarra of using “voodoo economics,” and said “we’ve had disastrous” effects on essential services like the police department.  Bronin jumped on Segarra for wasteful spending, saying too much money is dumped into hiring consultants whose plans end up sitting on a shelf; for that, he cited the second grocery store debacle.

Cruz and Gale agreed that property owners have been paying more in taxes. “You’re going to see an increase, that’s the truth,” Cruz said.

Jacobs went in a different direction: “Jobs. That’s how we lower the taxes. Was that the question?”

She spoke about owning a two-family home on Capen Street and how landlords should be required to live in the city.

Casino

Moving on, another member of the audience asked “yes or no” would the candidate support a casino in Hartford.

Killian: No.

Jacobs: Yes.

Gale: No. He added that looking at Atlantic City, he does not believe that the actual city there benefited from it.

Cruz: “No, there are things we should be focusing on more.”

Bronin: “There’s not going to be a casino in Hartford,” he said, following that if one were to be developed in the region, Hartford should be the outpost that provides the restaurants, hotels, and entertainment. Segarra agreed.

Education

When Milly Arciniegas asked what would be done to make more equitable, higher performing schools, the responses were vague. Problems are easy to identify, but problem solving is where everyone sounded stuck.

Jacobs spoke about her ten-year old attending Clark, saying he comes home from school without books. She never provided a game plan for changing that situation.

Gale, in previous settings, explained his idea about equality in the neighborhoods better than last night.

Cruz was the first to say we need to revisit the Sheff mandate. Building more schools instead of fixing the struggling ones, he said, is not the answer. Bronin agreed, calling Sheff a “noble effort” with a lot of “unintended consequences.” He called for more regional and State support for the schools. Segarra said he is “at the table” negotiating Sheff. Killian, again taking an abrasive tone, said we needed to look at Horton vs. Meskill, as that’s where the issue began.

What was missing in all of those responses was a clear path, solid steps that could be taken toward something more equitable.

Reunification and Preventing Recidivism

On the theme of equality, two audience members, at separate times, asked what would be done in terms of housing and jobs for convicted felons who have served their time. Cruz criticized how few minorities are in the police force, a point that was not connected to the question. In the last seconds of his allotted time, he suggested that small businesses be given a tax break for hiring “returning citizens.”

Bronin touted his work on the Second Chance bill and said “we should all be advocating” for it. He added that Hartford should create a youth service corps, a more organized way to provide jobs for young people.

Gale said “Hartford needs to give a second look to those kids,” referring to people who have a felony on their record. Gale said the police and fire departments in Hartford currently do not hire those with felonies, and this should change to allow in those who had committed certain types of crimes.

Jacobs never really answered the question.

Segarra and Killian spoke to the number of people Hartford takes into the city, with Killian — again with the aggression — saying “any candidate […] who tells you he’s going to create jobs is telling a fib.”

Development and Debt

Once more, the stadium development was asked about. Almost nothing different was said that hasn’t been said many times before. Segarra said something about “getting rid of pessimism” and that “I don’t want anyone to get in the way of the project,” a statement confirming that questions and critical thinking are seen as a problem by this administration. Jacobs said “it’s gonna happen, so let’s make it work for all of us,” adding that management jobs should not go only to non-residents, and concession jobs should not be filled only by residents.

A question about the City’s debt provoked Segarra to mock many residents who hold the perspective that taxes should not increase, more people should be employed, but a stadium is not the answer–  a response that makes one wonder if the mayor is serious about re-election. When Killian, referring to the stadium, referenced a previous debate and clarified that he told the mayor “don’t build dumb things,” Segarra waited until later to express what sounded like hurt feelings about one of his ideas being called “dumb.” Aside from personal jabs, nothing new came out of this.

Jacobs, new to campaigning, said “I can’t answer that question about why the City is selling off assets […] because I haven’t been part of the process.”

Communication

Another question asked many times in other settings, about improving communication, prompted canned responses from some. Gale, keeping with his assertion that there is no reason for why the City of Hartford has only tiptoed into the digital age, prompted Segarra to tell everyone that the website has improved.

Cruz, who is a councilperson currently, spoke about how he had a negative experience in the tax office. It was not until someone figured out his position with the City that he received better treatment. The whole point Cruz was making was that he should not have to wear his position on his sleeve to be treated with respect. Segarra, taking a tone one might use with a younger sibling or a student, asked why Cruz did not file a complaint. Segarra wondered why this was the first he was hearing about Cruz’s experience, an experience that many others have had.

Again, in the audience awareness/cognitive dissonance category, Killian said the NRZs should consolidate so that officials can visit every month. He did not say which ones should do this, but all should place bets on how a merger of WECA and Upper Albany would go.

Housing and Blight

Once more, candidates were asked a question about housing — something that almost verbatim was asked one month ago. Jacobs, who was not at that other conversation, spoke about her experience being homeless and living in South Park Inn before moving up and eventually owning property on Capen. She had no answer, but spoke about the helpful role played by the government in her experience as a previously homeless veteran.  Segarra, who was also not at the event in May, spoke about the work being done by Rebuilding Together and Habitat for Humanity.

Someone, via written question, asked why the City of Hartford ignores blight but is suing the residents of 68 Scarborough. Gale, Jacobs, and Bronin straight up said the City of Hartford should not be suing this group. For Cruz, this was implied, as he said he was bothered that the City was so quick to point a finger at Scarborough before tackling its many City-owned blighted properties. Killian said “read my paper” and that while he favors mediation over litigation, needs “comfort that every large house in Hartford not end up a rooming house.” Segarra claimed that the City did not single out Scarborough, but that many residents complained. Blaming the housing crisis, Segarra said that he doesn’t “want people to leave this room believing we don’t enforce blight.”

Infrastructure

Another written question asked how infrastructure will be improved for residents, in terms of things like complete streets.

“I’m not sure what a complete street is,” Killian replied. He added that Farmington Avenue [not in a south neighborhood] has some traffic calming devices, but that the City needs to accommodate the many individuals who use cars to come into downtown. He did not believe the reality was that people would be giving up their cars.

Bronin defined complete streets. Having some sense of where he was, he spoke about the need to improve bus routes, but also to sync traffic lights. “Synchronized traffic lights are not rocket science. It’s traffic engineering,” he said.

Cruz and Gale, as they have before, spoke about bike rentals. Gale cited the SC2 challenge proposal he helped create and which has received criticism among some movers and shakers for being unfocused and recycling others’ ideas.

Jacobs, on topic but off the mark, made the comment about Park Street being well lit at night.

Closing Remarks

Both Killian and Segarra ended on a negative tone, slamming the media — partially deserved, but not necessarily a sound strategy. Segarra talked about improvements in crime and graduation rates, but snidely remarked to “do your homework,” a comment that could have been directed at other candidates, the media, or the audience.

Jacobs used the opportunity to announce that she would be starting a show on public access. “We have to get back to what we once was,” she said.

Gale, before striking a confrontational tone, clarified to Segarra that he is “not running against the city of Hartford,” but that he is “running against our mayor.”

Cruz spoke about integrity and accountability, saying that if you run a department and that department makes a mistake, it’s your mistake too.

Bronin closed it out by being the first and only candidate to refer to the handout provided by the MARG, Southwest-Behind the Rocks, South End, and South Green NRZs. The priority list names blight; trash disposal and litter remediation; public safety; increased revenue and decreased tax burdens, especially with “special attention to support retention of small businesses: Franklin Avenue, Wethersfield Avenue, Maple Avenue, and New  Britain Avenue”; education; cleanliness and maintenance of parks; family economic self sufficiency; and neighborhood investment.

“That document is a cry,” Bronin said, “to get back to basics.”

Heaven Skate Park in Downtown

Segarra’s recent campaign newsletter, Bronin said, boasted of progress on every street corner. “Progress is not visible on every corner in our city,” Bronin said, missing another opportunity to win the audience by naming specific street corners that need attention.

Not Showing Up

Ted Cannon, who lives on Girard, was not in attendance. The moderator said that all candidates had been invited. No explanation was provided for why the only Republican did not show.

What the What? of the Night

It’s not the almost never actually talking about neighborhood priorities or issues.

It was the revelation by Joel Cruz that he heard that Heaven Skate Park will no longer be available due to the stadium/DoNo development. He said he has been trying to talk to the COO, Darrell Hill, about this.

No other candidate spoke about the skate park. Segarra, who followed Cruz, did not clarify that information one way or another.

Friends of Heaven Skate Park have said this was the first they were hearing of it from anyone in the City of Hartford.

In October, rumors were circulating that this could happen, and Thom Deller, Director of Development Services, reassured the public that the skate park would not be touched.