HARTFORD – As the overwhelming favorite to be Hartford’s next mayor, Democrat Arunan Arulampalam – whose campaign has stressed fiscal responsibility, safe spaces for children and rebuilding the middle class – has his work cut out for him.
Arulampalam, who has no prior experience as an elected citywide officeholder, would be leading a city that is just six years out from a state-financed bailout and facing high crime and poverty rates.
The 38-year-old CEO of Hartford Land Bank won the city’s three-way Democratic mayoral primary last week and will face off against Republican Mike McGarry and four petitioning candidates in November. But while Arulampalam says he’s not taking anything for granted, he’s the favorite to win it all in Hartford, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 13-1 margin.
Arulampalam came to Hartford Land Bank – which redevelops the city’s vacant and blighted properties – from Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration, where he served as deputy commissioner of the state’s Department of Consumer Protection. Lamont endorsed Arulampalam for mayor when there was still a large pool of Democrats seeking the nomination. Prior to that, Arulampalam was a lawyer in downtown Hartford for Updike, Kelly & Spellacy, P.C.
A cornerstone of Arulampalam’s campaign is and remains the youth. The father of five and a resident of the city’s Frog Hollow neighborhood, Arulampalam told CT Examiner at his Russ Street campaign office that giving young people places to gather and providing them with opportunity are goals of his campaign.
“I certainly think that [having five children of his own] colors my vision and allows me to see more clearly,” he said. “There are a lot of challenges that our kids are facing right now in the city. I think that for all of us who want to build a stronger future in our city, and for all of us who care about public safety issues, and who care about the lack of jobs and the lack of a middle class in the city, that our children are really an important starting point.”
“When we talk about building the foundation for a city 20 years from now that is strong, thriving and growing, that’s got to start with our kids.” Arulampalam continued. And if we get just one thing right, it’s got to be our kids.”
Arulampalam said he would fight to create more safe spaces for young people – keeping schools open at night and during the summer, for example.
“We need to create those safe spaces where parents know their kids are somewhere safe at night and during the summers, especially,” he said. “And creating safe spaces where kids can be kids. Kids are enriched when they have adults impacting their life in positive ways. We also need to really ramp up our sports and recreation and music and arts programs for kids within the city.”
Arulampalam, who was born in Zimbabwe to Sri Lankan parents who emigrated to Hartford when he was a toddler, reiterated his goal to also create an Office of Violence Prevention located within City Hall.
The office, Arulampalam said, would coordinate with entities like nonprofits, schools and the police department. He said the aim is to provide resources and opportunities to young people before they head down a road of crime.
“It’s about, essentially, identifying those who are most at risk of committing acts of violence,” Arulampalam said. “You create resources to allow for really productive pathways that lead to job training and lead to better options for those kids.”
Arulampalam has the support of current Democratic Mayor Luke Bronin, who decided last year that he would not be seeking a third four-year term.
When Bronin took office in January 2016, Hartford faced a severe budget crisis and was on the verge of bankruptcy. The state bailed out the city in 2017.
Arulampalam told CT Examiner he believes strong leadership can prevent Hartford from being in that position again.
“After many years of not borrowing debt and some really painful shared cuts, I think there’s a reason to be hopeful for the future of the city,” he said. “Cities tend to lose their financial footing with 1,000 small cuts. It is the sensibility of somebody who has lived in the city, and paid property taxes in the city, and who is invested in the future of the city to continue to maintain a strong fiscal footing in everything that we do, as we make these investments in building the city of the future. The only way out of our fiscal hole is to massively grow our potential tax base by building a middle class in the city again.”
Many credit Bronin for getting Hartford back on strong fiscal footing, though there are still hurdles that need to be faced. They include, Arulampalam said, dealing with the fact that half of the city’s properties are tax exempt.
Arulampalam acknowledges that having so many tax-exempt properties is a problem he wants to address.
“I will, early on, have a citywide review of all taxable properties to ensure that it’s all being used for the tax-exempt purpose of whatever nonprofit owns it,” he said. “I think also we’ve got to continue to push to get the state to pay for some portion of their fair share of state-owned properties. It’s just never fully funded PILOT [Payment In Lieu Of Taxes]. The deal that I would propose to the governor and to our state legislative leaders is that whatever the state contributed toward the PILOT, that the city would then plow right into property tax relief and have a real tax cut for our middle class.”
Arulampalam said he’d also create the Office of Business Advisor which would work to cut through the red tape and bureaucracy businesses often face.
“It would create a one-stop shop that would allow businesses, small businesses, to [better] navigate with our help, City Hall,” he said.
Arulampalam also said that investing in the city’s diverse neighborhoods is vital for Hartford’s growth.
“I want to see the kind of economic development and housing that leads to wealth creation within our neighborhoods. Instead of relying on folks outside of the city, working to build the kind of wealth and economic development within the city,” Arulampalam said.
That, he said, requires discussions with city stakeholders like business leaders, city activists and nonprofits.
“I think it’s so important to continue our investment downtown and also be able to stretch that into our neighborhoods which, I think, is the second step of Hartford’s comeback,” Arulampalam said. “That is the investment in commercial corridors in each of our neighborhoods. And then, investment in housing, decent quality affordable housing for all Hartford residents, and housing that leads to homeownership.”
Arulampalam said he’d also address homelessness and food insecurity.
“The homeless population in Hartford comes from all over the Hartford region,” Arulampalam said. “You need to be compassionate and to also have a centralization of resources that allows them [the homeless] to get in a situation where they can get out of homelessness.”
Arulampalam said he favors additional mental health resources for individuals, particularly the youth.
“This generation is dealing with, I think, potentially unprecedented trauma and a whole series of mental health issues,” he said. “And you add on top of that the mental health demands that we know poverty puts on children that live in a neighborhood with blighted properties, and where there is violence. The level of trauma that a child growing up right now in Hartford is facing is unimaginable to so many people. It is irresponsible for us to do nothing about that level of trauma.”
In addition to Bronin and Lamont, Arulampalam also has the support of Sen Chris Murphy. Sen. Richard Blumenthal has yet to endorse a candidate in the Hartford mayoral race.