HARTFORD — Donning campaign buttons and distributing leaflets, Hartford’s mayoral candidates gathered on Monday to debate the most pressing issues facing the city, from crime and police to the economy and housing.
The event featured Republican candidate Mike McGarry and petitioning candidates Giselle Jacobs, Nick Lebron, J. Stan McCauley and Mark Stewart Greenstein. Absent from the debate was Democratic candidate Arunan Arulampalam, who declined to attend.
CT Examiner hosted the debate at Celebrations at Wolfie’s on Park Street, with sponsorship from Dressler Law.
Robert Storace, CT Examiner’s Capitol Reporter, moderated the event.
‘It’s our downtown’
Much of the discourse centered around economic development and how to fill the city’s empty storefronts. Candidates agreed that Hartford needed to reduce gun violence before focusing on growing its economy.
“I’ve gone out and asked folks, the developers in the downtown area, folks who want to continue to develop, the number one thing that they say — ‘Nick, stop the violence,’” Lebron said. “If you stop the violence, you can recover. You can open up new restaurants, you can open all these things. But if people are scared to come, it means nothing.”
According to the real estate company CBRE, the city’s vacancy rate was 28.2 percent for the third quarter of 2023, up from about 20 percent pre-pandemic.
McGarry said the city needs to become more visitor-centric and do a better job of selling itself to the general public. It should also create jobs in hospitality, he said, which don’t require a college degree.
“We’ve got history, we’ve got beauty, we’ve got food and fun. But we do not sell it,” he said, noting the city contained $1 billion in assets.
McCauley said Hartford must find new ways to fill office buildings now that remote work has become more prevalent, and do more to attract local residents.
“If you want downtown to thrive, make downtown attractive to the people who actually live in the city,” said McCauley. “It’s our downtown.”
Jacobs noted the city also needs to break the myth that children with incarcerated parents are more likely to end up in prison.
“We have quite a few success stories where those children are not only going to college, they’re graduating. They’re becoming business owners, husbands, wives, and they’re returning here to our community,” Jacobs said. “But those aren’t the stories that we see and hear about. Our community members need to have a living, walking, talking vision of what their lives could be, despite the fact of where they come from.”
Greenstein proposed paying local residents to spend three months in New York City and New Jersey, attempting to convince CEOs to open divisions of their corporations in Hartford. He estimated the cost at approximately $30,000 per person, saying it’s “relatively inexpensive.”
Several candidates noted the city also needs more money from the state’s Payment In Lieu Of Taxes — or PILOT — program. According to this program, Connecticut is supposed to compensate municipalities for properties that are not on the tax rolls, such as universities, hospitals and government buildings. But the program has never been fully funded.
McGarry said Hartford’s small housing market means that rents are rising as property assessment values rise. He also said the city has multiple vacant buildings which could be repurposed into housing, including the former Aetna training center at 85 Sigourney St.
“I can’t understand why the city hasn’t gone to that development, said this piece of land is valuable. There could be 300 or 400 units, nice units, at every level in that building. Why is it sitting there?” he said.
McGarry said Hartford needs to lower its tax rate, which currently stands at 68.95 mills. He also warned about what he called the “broken window syndrome,” an idea that suggests visible signs of decay and neglect in buildings and neighborhoods encourage crime and further decay.
“What does that say to our kids? What does that say to our neighbors? That we don’t care about the way our city looks, what the plan is. Then, other troubles start,” he said.
Greenstein said local construction firms should build upward to expand the amount of property on the market. He also proposed bringing back the Hartford-based hockey team, the Whalers, which stopped playing in the National Hockey League in 1997.
Both Lebron and Jacobs criticized the Hartford Land Bank, a nonprofit charged with rehabilitating vacant properties and selling them. Arulampalam is currently CEO of the Hartford Land Bank.
Lebron said the land bank was pushing aside other nonprofits that had been developing properties for years, like Habitat for Humanity.
“It really could be a good program. However, we have to look at the leadership. When in four years, you’ve turned two houses into profit while making a quarter of a million dollars — I say, let’s take that salary for development and invest it right into the community,” he said.
Jacobs said residents should have more say in the decisions made by the land bank.
“The people should be the ones that make the decision on what gets created, what properties go where and if their money stays within the municipality. … Research states that when land banks are under the municipalities, then we have some accountability,” Jacobs said. “By creating a separate entity for the Hartford Land Bank, the only ones who get rich are the executive director, possibly the board members and those rich developers.”
‘In 50 years, nothing has changed’ in policing
Candidates also weighed in on police accountability and crime within the city.
McGarry said the underlying problem is an understaffed department. The department aims to have 350 officers but currently has around 275, he estimated.
“Right now, the police are all overworked. Will they make mistakes? How many mistakes would you make if you worked 100 hours a week?” he said. “The police have a real tough job. And until we get more police, don’t expect perfection.”
Jacobs said Hartford needs to hire more police officers from the community and require that officers pay for consequences of misconduct out of their own pockets. She pointed to the lawsuit Cintron v. Bonham, a 1973 consent decree that established a “code of police conduct” around how police officers handled complaints against the force. The decree, which was created in response to a lawsuit by Black and brown residents who claimed police were systematically discriminating against them, was dissolved earlier this year.
“In 50 years, nothing has changed,” Jacobs said.
Lebron said the city needed to eliminate racist hiring practices, such as lie detector tests, and to offer bonuses and incentives to police officers who have served Hartford for years, as a way of incentivizing retention. He also proposed having a chief violence prevention officer in the city.
“Eighty-five percent of the people in the city are people of color. Now let’s take that same figure. When you go to Avon, 85 percent of those folks happen to be white people. Now let’s think about that if we were to say 85 percent of their police force were people of color. Can you imagine the outrage that would happen there?” he asked.
Meanwhile, Greenstein suggested the formation of a civilian force that could work as “undercover detectives” to deter crime. He also recommended harsher penalties for low-level crimes like shoplifting.
McCauley said residents must hold the police chief accountable.
“This, like many other things in the city, is a leadership issue,” McCauley said. “These are political decisions. They’re not right. They’re not wrong. They’re political. When you won’t take back your government, the decisions that you want will be implemented. We need a police chief who understands Hartford, who’s willing to work with Hartford residents, who’s intentional on hiring a police force that represents the city that they have been charged to protect and serve.”
The ‘educational lottery’
Most of the candidates said the recent Sheff vs. O’Neill settlement — which, among other things, requires the state to expand access for open choice and magnet school programs for Hartford students — is an abject failure.
McCauley said the city has the potential to make the Hartford Public Schools the best district in the country, but his children would remain in a [Capitol Region Education Council] school until city schools improved.
“It is clear … that Sheff [versus] O’Neill was a failure. Period,” McCauley said. “Hartford Public Schools has suffered irreparable harm as a result of Sheff v. O’Neill.”
He argued that the decision took the best students out of traditional public schools and put them into a system that wasn’t necessarily the best choice for them, and that the settlement was an attempt at an “integration program.”
Lebron said the problem with the current system was that it served only a handful of students and created what he called “a system of the haves and the have nots.”
“Every year, 50 percent of our people in the city, and parents of scholars sit and pray and cross their fingers that they win the educational lottery,” he said.
While working with the Community Schools program, Lebron said he opened a barbershop and food pantries at the local schools.
Jacobs said the city needed to bring back neighborhood schools, and that parents needed to be given more power in making decisions about their children’s transportation.
“Our children don’t know their neighbor’s children, let alone the kids around the block. And then you wonder why crime is at the rate that it’s at,” she said.
Greenstein put forward a case for a school voucher program, proposing payments of $20,000 per child that parents could use at any school they chose.
“You got three kids in one school? It’s $60,000 that you command. And with that command, you … have the power to change the school. That school wants $60,000. They can build a whole new lab. Bring your neighbor with two more kids to that new school. That’s $100,000. That’s a brand new teacher,” he said. “I am an educator. This is the number one priority, because crime and jobs also depend on better Hartford schools.”
He added that education should focus on math, reading and writing, and avoid teaching students about climate change and to “think of America as evil across the globe.” He also expressed opposition to allowing transgender athletes to compete on women’s sports teams.
McGarry noted that the district, which currently serves over 16,000 children, had an absentee rate of 40
percent. There needs to be a “radical change,” he said, but did not know what to do.
He and McCauley complemented CREC, which runs magnet schools in the Hartford area.
“Let’s be honest, if you have a chance at sending a kid to a West Hartford school, or an Avon school, or a Glastonbury school versus a Hartford School, what would you do? That’s just the way it is,” he said.
Candidates presented unique ideas during the debate as well, including McCauley’s call for a “Bilingual City Challenge.”
With Spanish being the second most prevalent language in Hartford, McCauley pledged to learn Spanish and encouraged other English speakers to do the same. He also encouraged Spanish speakers to learn English, asking that people view this “as a challenge, not a stigma.”
“Hartford is an international city — 76 ethnic groups in this city. We should be exploiting our tourism and all those things and just embrace the richness that Hartford is,” McCauley said.
Jacobs said she wanted to offer paid apprenticeship programs to high school students year-round, similar to what she experienced while simultaneously attending Hartford High School and learning office skills at Pratt and Whitney.
“I often speak with the West Indian population. I have roots going back to St. Kitts as well as Jamaica. And over there, the high school students actually graduate high school with a license and a trade and, as a result, are able to go into that field right out of high school,” Jacobs said. “Whether or not they have a job or not, they have an opportunity to make money as a result of the trade that they learn.”
Lebron said the city should hire more Hartford residents and train them for jobs normally filled by foreign workers.
“Hartford has the highest unemployment rate in the state. Conversely, as a municipality, we have the most job openings in the state compared to other municipalities. So to me, there’s a direct conflict there that we need to hold a mirror to ourselves, and before we make anyone accountable to hire people, we need to hire ourselves,” he said.
At one point during the debate, candidates also asked each other questions.
McCauley turned to Greenstein, asking him why, as a West Hartford resident, he was running for mayor of Hartford.
Greenstein replied that his parents had moved him and his siblings out of Hartford because the school system was getting worse, and reiterated his idea of having a school voucher program.
“I would love to be moving back to a thriving city,” Greenstein said.
Two candidates asked Lebron, who is currently a member of the City Council, about his priorities while on the council. Jacobs asked why none of the people elected to the council had addressed budget mismanagement and come out to “empower the people” to make change.
Lebron replied that the pandemic had constrained his ability to reach out to people and that he was limited in what he could do as one council member.
“What happens at the council is that you can make recommendations as much as you want, but if you’re making recommendations by yourself and you look around, you’re just talking to yourself,” he said.
Candidates also criticized Arulampalam for being absent.
“If I had to guess why he’s not here, it is because he cares less about the constituents that he’s about to serve, should he win,” McCauley said. “This is a sign of extreme arrogance that borderlines on hubris, and an insult to the citizens of Hartford to not come to a debate when invited, and it becomes clear that the general public is invited.”
Cristian Corza, Arulampalam’s campaign manager, said Arulampalam was attending a “pre-scheduled meet and greet” that evening with business owners in North Hartford.
“Arunan has participated in more than 20 debates, town halls and forums throughout this election, sponsored by various media or nonprofit groups,” Corza told CT Examiner, adding that the debate was “hastily organized by petitioning candidates … at a party supply store owned by one of their relatives.”
Celebrations at Wolfie’s is owned by Lebron’s sister. Lebron told the Hartford Courant that his sister was not getting paid for use of the space.