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Mayoral Candidate Forum Spotlights Pressing Issues like Robocars and Raspberries

By Kerri Provost

June 09, 2011

There are some gaps in this blog post. You should check out what Live in Hartford writes about this same forum in order to fill in those blanks.

For those who are unaware, eHow is a website that specializes in providing advice that should be obvious, but since it exists, I suppose the instructions are needed. In an article about dealing with bratty kids the advice given is to set boundaries, follow through, pay attention to the child, reward for good behavior, and if junior doesn’t adjust her attitude, seek professional help. Sound advice that any rational person could write, yet in everyday observation of the world around me, can see that there is a lack of thinking parents. Likewise, there is advice provided for those who wish to campaign for mayor. These bits of wisdom include:

Only release information to the public about the current mayoral administration if it is factual.


Don’t verbally bash your opponent. It takes away from your positive campaign.Obvious, right?

Not to everyone.

I would even modify the advice to read Don’t put forth factually incorrect statements and Don’t make egregious, negative statements that you can not back up with fact. It might have been worthwhile to print and hand out this advice to the mayoral candidates before Wednesday night’s forum hosted by the Hartford Public Library. We’ll return to that in a moment.

Tonight’s program followed the usual structure: candidates make opening statements, they are asked prepared questions, they are asked questions created by the audience, and then they make closing statements. At past forums, moderators had to virtually threaten bodily harm to get candidates to shut up when their time limit was up. This time around, no one went far over their allotted time, which could mean a few things. The candidates might be more polite and respectful of each other than in the past; candidates were better prepared; or, the questions were so dull that there was little to say about them. Draw your own conclusions.

There were few surprises, other than the appearance of Reverend Patrice Smith, a Democrat who has been running a silent campaign; she has run in the past.

Jeanette B, DeJesus, the moderator, opened by saying that “Hartford is a great city and it deserves great leadership.” As the evening dragged on, it became apparent that not all candidates agreed with her about the first half of the statement. Mike McGarry, the Republican pseudo-candidate, said of Hartford: “If we don’t have the jobs […] what do we have? Very little.” Shawn Wooden, who in the style of Eddie Perez brought his cheering squad along, appealed to fear, by stating that “the Hartford that exists today is a far cry from the Hartford that my parents saw” and cited the seventeen homicides. He followed that with, “I’m running for mayor because City Hall has failed us,” and said “I find these conditions unacceptable.” Did Wooden’s negativity end there? Oh no, it did not. Later, when asked what he would do, as mayor, to bring business to Hartford, said: “On economic development, if we’re all going to be honest here today…Hartford has been adrift for the last 30 years.” Smith also chimed in with the same attitude, saying “there’s a lot of prejudice in this city.” Even McCauley joined in: “We have to do something significant about the crime that is running wild.” Not negative enough? How about adding some inaccurate statements then? McCauley closed by asserting that “Hartford isn’t managed at all.” Those working for the City who are married to their jobs might be surprised to hear this.

As noted in the preview of this forum, it was predictable that candidates would be scrambling to show themselves as viable options. After a lot of this verbal scowling, Mayor Segarra noted that if people wanted to “incite the crowds,” then all they had to do was point at the problems. The challengers mainly appealed to emotions, which is both predictable and annoying. Other residents must also find this to be condescending when it happens.

While Smith’s passion is appreciated — she keeps it real — her nebulous facts are not. I expect more from a religious figure. In a major dismissal of economic development, she claimed that the Connecticut Science Center cost “billions and billions” of dollars to construct, but it provides no jobs. Having been inside of that building a few times, I can verify that people are employed there. According to Chief Operating Officer, David Panagore, the entire six pillars cost around $1 billion, and the Connecticut Science Center had some private funding. These types of false statistics are frustrating because they detract from what had been a reasonable point that Smith was making — “What about the business owners that we already have in Hartford?” That we could be doing more for existing business owners instead of constantly trying to seduce large businesses into relocating here is an argument Smith could have made without veering off into the wrong.

It seems that to bother in Hartford politics, one must be a Democrat and male. Smith was notable as the only woman running for mayor. During her opening statement, she said “women need to stand up for women” and “if you ain’t seen me on the streets then you gotta watch me on the streets.” Here, as in the past, she has spoken about how she walks from Park Street to Albany Avenue. Responding to the question of why she thinks she is qualified for this position, she said, “I was born and raised in Hartford, CT.” Shortly after a tangent about prejudice, she said, “I know all the Puerto Ricans.” At one point, she said “I don’t see nobody coming to rallies,” which sounded directed at the other candidates, and was in reference to the anti-violence rallies that occur around the city. Passion and cred are not enough to make one qualified to be mayor; a person also needs focus, a plan, and to not alienate a chunk of the population through the preaching.

Another candidate who is no serious contender is McGarry, mainly because he is serving as a placeholder for the Republican party. His lack of seriousness was sort of refreshing, as it enabled him to be outwardly zany at times. After a rambling rant about how trains will be so yesterday by the time the “New Haven Busway” (that’s what the question said, even though that incorrectly merges two separate bus and train projects) is done, so we will have wasted all that money when what we should have been investing in was “robocars,” he moved on to other topics, like how “no one wants to own a decent car in Hartford” and how to get the prostitutes out of the garden at 5:30 in the morning. People who don’t get out enough may not know this, but McGarry is obsessive about gardening, and this is one of his most endearing qualities. He is a key figure in the community gardens and provides useful information about growing potatoes. He’s also quite the cook. After bragging about his garden and the pots of flowers around the city, McGarry told a story about residents taking back Hartford from the criminals. In this tale, three women in his neighborhood went around telling the prostitutes (and we hope they told this to the johns as well) to “get the hell out.” If anyone doubts that Asylum Hill has improved, he put forth the challenge for them to “come to Niles Street [community garden] in a couple of weeks and I’ll give you some raspberries.” As someone who believes more residents need to be active in this way, this earned McGarry points, though not enough to balance out the deep deficits caused by some truly bizarre economic theories.

McCauley could have stolen the show. He is creative and has this pleasant, mild-mannered tone that is especially welcome when other candidates come across as too brusque. A highlight was in his response to the question of what to do with blight. He called blighted buildings “a perfect opportunity […] for prisoner reentry program.” In his plan, they would rehab two houses– one would be for a city employee. In his closing remarks, McCauley said, “Ladies and gentlemen, you are the government. [...] “You know what’s best for you.” He said that average people are missing from government and that people in the government need to “understand who they work for.” When responding to a question about economic development, McCauley said, “Hartford has tremendous talent […] we need to tap into that talent.” Overall, he would have made a better case for himself had he stuck with pragmatic and innovative responses such as these.

If you have not caught on yet, this list is ranked in order from least-to-most promising.

Wooden received far more applause than seemed earned at times, but that is what happens when one arranges for an entourage. As annoying as this type of thing is, his crew was not remotely as obnoxious as the one that would show up when Perez would speak at these forums. I still cringe thinking about that. There would be the cheering mid-sentence. Then, his crew would heckle while others would speak. Thankfully, Wooden’s fanclub just clapped loudly and then quit with that at a reasonable time.

Wooden did little to distinguish himself, aside from challenge the whole “choice” process being used by the schools. In the forum preview, I wrote about how it seemed like he was in favor of Adamowski’s reforms. Now, it sounds like he holds a different point of view entirely. Since he was not mincing words at the forum, he might consider changing the language on his website to more clearly state his views on education. At the forum, he spoke about his family’s frustration with the lottery system, and he stated that all neighborhood schools should be good schools. He relayed the story of someone whose neighborhood school was shut down so that it could be refurbished, basically, and then reopened; those paying attention can predict the outcome: when the school was reopened, this person’s child could not even get into what was previously the neighborhood school. He was the only candidate to even go into challenging these oft-praised reforms and could have made more of that. Compared to Smith, McGarry, and McCauley, Wooden comes across as a more organized thinker.

Vargas — though meandering on occasion — is better verbally than on paper. It doesn’t hurt that he has presence. By presence, here, I mean that I actually see him around the city aside from at activities directly related to campaigning. This can not be said of all the candidates. In past campaigns, Vargas has made an appeal to the people, and he continues to do so, by stating “we deserve a city government that works for all of us.” “I’m involved in the day-to-day life in our community,” he said, before noting that a murder recently occurred near his home. In this way, he shows that he is not isolated from crime, that it’s not just this abstract concept.

Responding to the question about blight, Vargas said “tearing down these buildings and leaving an empty plot is not a solution.”

Later, when he was asked about crime, Vargas responded instead about job development and engaging the youth. I waited for him to make the obvious connection — that youth who have constructive things to fill their time with are less likely to get involved in crime — but it never arrived. Because Vargas was not engaged in stream of consciousness rambling, it seemed as if this omission was more due to time constraints or the assumption that the audience could connect the dots. It needs to be said that several candidates did not exactly answer the questions straightforward; some of this was because of disorganization on part of the candidates, and some of this was because certain questions were worded so poorly.

Segarra comes up the winner for web presence and actual presence. We should expect this and demand this of any mayor in office. If an incumbent is making campaign promises left and right, I would be concerned about his inability to point to successes. It’s good to look toward the future, but I want to know what someone has been doing so far. He better be doing more than just decorating his office.

While others highlighted how many years they lived in Hartford, Segarra essentially provided a resume. Evidence is something that I respond well to, I can’t help it. Provide for me a solid list of what you have been doing, and I’ll be more interested in that than any attempt to pull at my heartstrings (or fear-strings, wherever those are located).

When asked about blight, Segarra responded that “as recently as this morning I met with a group of NRZs” to discuss the issue. While the H.B. Davis building was demolished after Segarra took over as mayor, and other major blighted buildings have been given some attention by him, he tried to shed light on how dealing with blight is not simple. He said that two questions keep coming up: “What is your solution and how’re you going to pay for it?” He responded to this, saying, “I’m in the process right now of pulling resources together.” In talks about blight, the focus is often on what to do once the problem has developed, but not much thought seems to be given to where blight comes from. Segarra noted that “failed housing policy” is a cause of blight.

To draw more business to Hartford, Segarra said that we need to offer tax credits and have affordable housing.To deal with crime, Segarra said he was just speaking today with the governor about ways to tackle the issue. Remember when we had a mayor and a governor who did not even want to deal with each other?

Strangely echoing a remark that McGarry made about residents taking some initiative to deal with crime, Segarra basically stated that the mayor’s job is not to fix everything; rather, “part of the mayor’s role is to encourage people […] to be part of the solution.” Rather than infantilize Hartford residents as some are wont to do, Segarra ended on a note of empowerment.

Like true facts and a relevant resume, respecting the constituents is a way to impress them.

For those who missed Wednesday night’s general forum, there are still several opportunities to send your blood pressure into orbit. In July, August, and September there will be mayoral candidate forums specific to the topics of quality of life, education, and economic development and finance, respectively. There will also be pounds of campaign literature for review; I’ve already begun my collection.

Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford. To view other stories on this topic, search RealHartford at http://www.realhartford.org/.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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