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Shawn Wooden's Vision

Ambitious And Well-Connected, He Wants To Be Mayor Of Hartford

Rick Green

February 15, 2011

Like other Project Concern graduates, Shawn Wooden has the engaging qualities sometimes found in city kids who were bused to school in the Hartford suburbs decades ago.

The man who wants to be Hartford's next mayor long ago learned to live comfortably in a variety of alternate worlds: black and white, city and suburb, corporate and working class.

It's worth watching this ambitious, connected 41-year-old African American lawyer who wants to lead Hartford out of the damp dungeon where it currently sits. More than anything, Wooden believes Hartford must be restored as the economic heart of the state.

One of four announced candidates for mayor, the son of a TV repairman on North Main Street now works downtown at the powerhouse firm of Day Pitney LLP, specializing in mergers and acquisitions.

"This is not some calculated effort. This moment found me,'' Wooden said when we met for a bowl of soup downtown. He told me he doesn't need the mayor's job he's already got a demanding law career and a busy life raising two sons with his wife, a physician and researcher at the University of Connecticut. But like the rest of Connecticut, "Hartford is at a crossroads,'' he said. "I'm here because I love this city."

Wooden has also never held elected office.

"I'm not doing this to get elected,'' Wooden corrected me. "I'm doing it to govern. This is not a deal-my-way into the mayor's office.''

Wooden grew up in Hartford, attended school through Project Concern in Manchester, went to college at Trinity and now lives on posh Scarborough Street. A young activist who sharpened his political skills working as a top aide to former Mayor Carrie Saxon Perry right out of college, Wooden now projects the moderate tones of one of his heroes, Barack Obama.

A lawyer with close ties to some of the city's long-time political insiders, Wooden fashions himself as a steady outsider ready to govern a city sorely in need of decisive leadership. What I remember about Wooden during the turbulent Perry years is that he was the friendly kid you could always talk with when city hall and the business community were at odds.

It's still early in a race that is about who wins the Democratic primary, which right now features current mayor Pedro Segarra, former teachers' union leader Edwin Vargas and local television entrepreneur J. Stan McCauley. In a recent fundraising report, Wooden flashed some muscle, swamping all rivals with $52,000 in donations.

Playing the role of a cautious frontrunner with a low profile, Wooden was careful to avoid taking specific positions when we talked except about public education. Thirty years after his parents pushed to get him into Project Concern because of inferior city schools, Wooden and his wife faced the same decision before enrolling their own children in Farmington schools through the regional Open Choice program.

"We have decades upon decades of failure in this school system,'' he said, noting that the latest reforms "still don't touch enough kids."

Wooden says Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski has had "a lot of good ideas that were poorly executed. It has undermined the sustainability of the reforms." In particular, he said he was concerned about the lack of parent involvement and poor relations with the teachers' union.

Lately, Wooden said he's "been asking CEOs 'what can Hartford do better?' They care about education. They care about public safety."

"I would like to see Hartford as a regional center of commerce again,'' he said, telling me he would emphasize schools, public safety and economic development by working with the city's leading employers. "I'm going to work damn hard to get more people on the same page.''

The youthful Wooden, who describes himself as a "center-left, fiscal conservative,'' wears a lot of hats: former AFL-CIO official, community organizer, corporate law partner, West End yuppie, North Hartford native son. His close relationship with two of the state's most powerful politicians, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and U.S. Rep. John Larson, won't hurt his chances.

"I see myself as a bridge between many worlds I'd like to be a bridge to the young professionals in the city who have not been part of the recent politics,'' Wooden said. "There aren't many people who fit that bill."

For the first time since Mike Peters, there might be someone who could get the entire region excited about Hartford's potential again. Stay tuned.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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