Incumbent Erin Stewart is running for a fifth term as mayor of New Britain this November. First elected in 2013, Stewart will become the longest continuously serving mayor in New Britain’s history if she wins reelection this fall. Democrats including State Rep. Bobby Sanchez, activist Alicia Hernandez Strong, and community leader Veronica DeLandro, are all running to challenge her for the seat.
In 2019, Stewart won handily, with 6,013 votes compared to Democrat Chris Porcher’s 3,592 votes and Independent Devione Tanksley’s 187 votes. The Connecticut Examiner spoke with Stewart about the city’s response to the pandemic, as well as how she’d use a fifth term to improve education and city finances.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What from your tenure as mayor are you proudest of?
I think my management of city finances is at the top of the list. When I came into office, the city was facing a $30 million deficit. Today, we have a $22 million surplus. We had to tighten our belt when it came to spending and it took a long time, but we did it.
I was recently able to offer a two percent tax cut in the last budget to alleviate some of the tax burden on our residents. My goal for the next term is to maintain that tax cut by focusing on needs vs. wants and taking advantage of new revenue streams.
If New Britain is fortunate enough to have a recreational cannabis shop come to town, I’d definitely want to take that opportunity to implement a tax on the sale of recreational cannabis.
How do you feel that New Britain’s education system has fared over your tenure as mayor?
One of the most frustrating parts about being mayor is the lack of involvement that is had by the mayor with the education system. It’s created that way by state statute on purpose, and it’s to have boards of education be somewhat autonomous bodies, but it’s certainly a frustration of mine because I am seeing the test scores decline. I’m seeing good staff fleeing the district. I’m seeing struggles with parent and student engagement coming back from the pandemic. As much as I can provide my opinion on things, there are limited things that I can actually do within the powers set forth for the mayor, so it’s frustrating.
It’s certainly impacting the urban areas much worse as far as achievement gaps, so we’ve had to really double down on partnering with nonprofit youth service organizations to try and reach every family and child we can. The school district came up with so many different programs for re-engagement, and partnered a lot with our Parks & Rec department. It’s going to take a long time, but luckily the school district received almost $70 million in federal assistance for re-engagement, which should go far in helping the district get better.
The main way the mayor can impact the education system is by determining its budget, right? I’m curious if you think that looking back on it, the New Britain education system may have needed more funding than it was allocated.
You’re correct that for the mayor and city council, the most involvement they can have is to tell the school district how much money they get. They can’t tell them how to spend, but they can question how money is being spent.
No one can say that the school district wouldn’t be able to use more funds, but I feel that they have fallen short in proving to people that they can effectively manage the money they receive to get the most benefit out of it. There have been debates over this for years spanning far before my time as mayor, and cries for doubling if not tripling local taxes to put into the school budget. My job is to balance that with affordability and thinking about how much our taxpayers can afford to pay. We’re not a rich community, and a lot of people struggle to pay the bills, so when people talk about wanting additional funds for the school district, and talk about increasing taxes, the same families they’re trying to help through education might not be able to pay their bills anymore.
What role does state and federal funding play?
Supplemental funding from the state and federal government is important and I fight hard for it. I was a member of the board of education in 2012, and was part of the CCJEF lawsuit that argued that New Britain has the same problems as Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven, but the way the formula is calculated, those cities get much more support from the state than a city like New Britain.
We lost that case, but not a single legislator didn’t agree that New Britain really should get more money in the ECS formula.
After years of debate, we’ve slowly and steadily seen an increase in that funding every year for the last four or five years. This year, New Britain received a $5 million increase, which is promising.
Looking back on this last term with the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you wish you’d handled differently?
Dealing with COVID was one of those fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants experiences, and I don’t think anybody was prepared to deal with the things we’ve dealt with over the last year and a half.
Hindsight being 20/20, I wish we’d had better communication with residents and found more effective ways to reach our people in a more cohesive manner. We had to use so many different mediums to try to reach people, from Facebook and Twitter to Instagram and Snapchat, and then the local newspapers, statewide newspapers, online newspapers… it often became difficult to streamline everything and became very time consuming.
In hindsight, I would have tried to figure out a better way to get the message out to the masses effectively and quickly, like pushing out information about where vaccine clinics or testing sites are located.