There’s something to be said for having a professional moderator at candidate forums. Tuesday evening’s State Senators & State Representatives Primary Candidate Forum at the Hartford Public Library went off as smoothly as I have ever seen one go, with a large thanks owed to moderator Dennis House who posed interesting questions and enforced time limits — not an easy task. The candidates invited to this discussion will be on the August 10th Democratic primary election ballot: John Fonfara (incumbent) and Edwin Vargas (challenger) for State Senator — District 1; Kenneth Green (incumbent) and Matt Ritter (challenger) for State Representative — Assembly District 1; Kelvin Roldan (incumbent) and Angel Morales (challenger) for State Representative — Assembly District 4; Hector Robles (incumbent) and Alyssa Peterson (challenger) for State Representative — Assembly District 6; and Douglas McCrory (incumbent) and rJo Winch (challenger) for State Representative — Assembly District 7.
Here’s a quick breakdown of my gut response, which is followed by an excruciatingly detailed account of tonight’s event, for those who missed it and do not own televisions on which to have watched it (though I promise to leave out responses that were not too interesting or helpful to me). John Fonfara seems too comfortable in his position and his challenger, Edwin Vargas, seems an eloquent speaker, but not revolutionary. Kenneth Green needs to practice audience awareness by not dissing the city in which an event is housed, while also learning how to accept some responsibility. Douglas McCrory could use some work, with Green, on the area of not being unnecessarily angry sounding. There are times to get riled up, but raising one’s voice when not needed wears thin. At least McCrory tried to hone his message. Alyssa Peterson needs to show herself as a viable candidate, and not just as a warm body to replace Hector Robles. Yes, the allegations against Robles are serious, but one needs to show what her strengths are, not just what her opponent’s weaknesses are. In stark contrast to some, Matt Ritter seemed energetic, knowledgeable, and classy. He was one of the few candidates to not badmouth another person at the forum. rJo is, well, rJo. No surprises there. She wore red and spoke of herself in the third person. But, she did show repeated care for representing constituents. Angel Morales had trouble answering most questions in any direct way. Roldan was fairly straightforward. And Hector Robles? He could not be bothered to show up.
The final question asked of the candidates was why each should be elected (or reelected). Peterson said that she is “challenging someone [...] who was elected under false pretenses,” referring to how her opponent, Robles, allegedly hid from the public the “eight complaints” filed against him. She said that the “Hartford Police Department is carrying on another [criminal] investigation against Robles.” She said that “we need honest public servants.” Her attack ad passed around at the forum showed a copy of the East Hartford Police Department file from 2002 in which it was documented that Robles referred to a female as a “bitch,” told the responding officer to “stay the fuck out” while indicating that he was a Hartford cop. In a less volatile infosheet, Peterson criticizes Perez and then draws the parallel between herself and Segarra (i.e. Segarra replaced a corrupt mayor, and she would replace Robles).
In lieu of Robles’ presence, Roldan read a letter prepared in advance. In it, Robles explained his absence: “I am required to be on duty in my position as a Police Officer tonight.” The letter outlined various laws he was responsible in part for, including “increas[ing] penalties for illegal street racing,” “increas[ing] penalties for engaging police in pursuit,” and “strengthen[ing] Connecticut’s domestic violence laws to protect families and keep shelters open 24 hours a day for victims.” He states that he wants to focus on providing more resources for law enforcement and prosecution, prioritize quality of life issues (all he named were related to motorized vehicles exclusively, except noise), and require harsher penalties for repeat offenders. While some educational and economic issues were touched on, there is definitely a lopsided focus on topics related to punishment. Neither he nor his challenger provide messages of hope.
For the same question, McCrory responded “My district needs a leader,” to which his challenger, not so creatively replied, “My district needs a new leader.” Roldan, more softspoken and mild-mannered than some, basically listed his voting record. Morales let us know that he was born in the Fourth District and has lived in Hartford for 45 years. Green rambled on something about being only one of two African Americans in his position– information which I am not sure what we were supposed to do with. More helpful was his claim that he listens “to constituents in the district and out of the district.” His challenger, Ritter, told the audience that he was endorsed by Mayor Segarra and reiterated his main points, adding that we should focus on small businesses and “everyday people.” Fonfara said that Hartford was one of the (wait for it) “toughest cities in this country.” Sigh. His challenger, Vargas, said we should ask ourselves if we are better or worse off since the last election and that “it’s time for change.”
What Will You Do First?
McCrory and Winch were asked this question. Honestly, McCrory’s response was not simple to understand for those outside of the public education system. What I could catch from this was that literacy was important, and classrooms (some? all?) in a priority school district (he did not explain what this meant) should have no more than a 20:1 teacher-to-student ratio. For those not on school boards, deeply embedded in politics, employed in the school system, or very engaged parents, a quick explanation of what a priority school district is could go a long way. Winch’s response to the same question began with “economic development.” She said it should be mandatory that “correctional facilities really do correct” and that there be education provided in the prison system.
Roldan and Morales were asked how they perceive the position of state lawmaker. Roldan said that it was a way for him to give back to a place he has benefited from. Morales began strong, explaining that lawmakers affect everyone, not just those in the city, and that he would meet with constituents. But then he had to go and jab Roldan by saying “we need leaders, not career politicians.”
In a way, he is right that we do not need career politicians — those who get so cozy in their positions that they lose the genuine interest that drove them into the job in the first place. But at the same time, we need politicians who treat their positions as full time jobs, as serious responsibilities.
What Should Be Done with the Viaduct?
Morales and Roldan were asked about the I-84/Aetna Viaduct. Initially, Morales’ answer was so far out there that I think the moderator felt bad and reminded him that he had not answered it. This was after some rambling about developing a good relationship with officials. He then said “we need to fix our highways” and referred to the bridges. It was pretty clear he did not know what the viaduct is or the controversy around it. Later, someone told me that maybe the issue is too local of one. In a way, I see that, but in another way, the viaduct is one of the most traveled stretches of highway in Connecticut. Roldan came out the winner on this question, if for no other reason than having a direct answer. He expressed his concern with all the cars “flying over” residents and said that what should happen is “completely restructure [the viaduct] and lower [it] to ground level so people can see where they’re driving through.”
Green repeated nearly verbatim the question of how to fix Hartford’s poverty. He then said he would “offer property tax relief” and that public funds should be tied to “areas of unemployment,” before rattling off something about training programs and education.
Ritter agreed that education and transportation are key priorities but that there is a need for “regional-based, state-based” economic strategies. Later, he explained that there could be a regional tax on certain goods, like guns.
Though asked a different question, Peterson also had some ideas about what services could be regionalized: public health and infrastructure. Interestingly, she said that Parks could be combined with Public Works. Well, in Hartford, we have no Parks — it’s already been absorbed, sort of, into the Department of Health and Human Services. It’s not regionalized, but it’s not working out so hot either. She also suggested regionalizing the library.
“This is NOT a Hartford Issue”
State Senator candidates were asked why Hartford is important to the entire state. Fonfara, after going on about how no legislator thinks Hartford or any other major city is receiving too much funding, stated: “This is not a Hartford issue.” Vargas replied that “as the cities go, go the region.”
Vargas stated that while he does not have a strong position on the law forbidding the sale on alcohol in supermarkets and package stores, he prefers less government involvement in such matters: “People should be able to buy what they want, when they want.” Fonfara is opposed to changing the law, explaining that people can buy hooch six days a week.
Given the accusations against Robles (which did not begin today nor with Peterson’s campaign), I wish that the challenging candidate were stronger.
When asked about what should happen with absentee landlords, Peterson provided all the wrong answers. She began by saying that she is a landlord, but then missed the opportunity to show what she knows about being a good one, which we hope she is. Though understanding that there is a lot of “anger” and “frustration” about “illicit activities in abandoned buildings,” she seemed unclear on the many other shades of gray involved in landlord absenteeism; for example, something as simple as properties wanting repair or even a more frequent mowing were never discussed. And in her opinion, the landlord has no responsibility, or at least, that is how it sounded. She said that the City of Hartford needs to enforce (true) and that the police should enforce (also true), but that the landlord is not responsible for illicit activities that happen in the building. Whoa! If one knows about illegal activities in a building one owns, it is an ethical, if not legal, responsibility to deal with that!
Since the hole was not deep enough, she kept digging.
The question was asked why chain companies open around the edges of Hartford, but not inside it. After saying that Hartford does not have a lot [financially] to offer companies and that there is a need to increase residents downtown, she then went on to give an example that would end in blatant contradiction. She cited the Front Street Development, which is empty, and the need to attract the kind of residents to support such an endeavor. For grocery stores to come to the city, she said there needs to be a density of residents downtown. Then, in possibly the same breath, she said “build it and they will come.”
I am fortunate to not be in this district and feel forced to choose between these two candidates. Hopefully the other political parties will provide more options.
What Will You Do to Help Tourism?
Roldan: “better market what we have”
Winch: “bring all the organizations to Hartford to show them” what we’ve got. People need to invite and advocate for their organizations to hold conferences here.
Vargas: “part of the issue is where people feel safe” in the city.
Vargas also referred to something as “girls’ basketball.” For real?! If they are over the age of 18, they are called women.
Green: market the state, not just city, as destination. Oh, and “tie in tourism with job development” while we’re at it.
Fonfara: something something “attraction to Hartford should be to the city as a whole” something something work with a democratic governor (Fonfara has a crystal ball?) and address economic and racial segregation.
They’re politicians. You try to catch every word.
Anger, Fury, and Passing the Blame
House asked the incumbent candidates why they believe they should be re-elected based on the economic state of the city.
The answers were so telling.
Green, in a tone that sounded oddly angry, seemed to attack the very city that was hosting the forum and which he is, in part, supposedly representing. He passed all responsibility for financial problems on to the City Council.
McCrory took on a similar tone, but his message had more substance. He said that the “City of Hartford receives most funding of any city in Connecticut,” and then refocused his response to state that residents should have dibs on jobs created in Hartford. He said that we need more revenue streams and for the City to be more cautious with money.
Roldan said that he understands how the City has made painful cuts to positions and that he would work with all involved on budgets. Since he answered last, it seems like he was clearly trying to brand himself as a compassionate Democrat set on building relationships instead of pointing fingers.
Despite the Myrtle Street eyesore and the city-splitting viaduct, there are some forms of development in Hartford that were not born out of bad taste or mind-numbing stupidity. I would like to think that my home is one example of why historical preservation (not demolition) is important. Ritter said that he would provide a tax credit for those who buy a home listed as an historic property. He also spoke of his ability to preserve the MLK School — it now must be rehabbed rather than torn down.
What Do You Do With an At-Risk Child?
Neither Green nor McCrory had what I would consider real satisfactory answers to the question. Green said that parents and adults need to be more responsible for children. Yes, but how? McCrory said, “I’m an educator by trade. I give myself to children,” and then explained how he and his family choose to remain in the city as role models of a functional family. That’s great, but does not speak to how he would act as a lawmaker. Roldan provided a specific example by saying that he would reintroduce the Promise Zone legislation. Fonfara noted how he works to maintain funding for organizations like Mi Casa which, he says, “services Latino children.” Fonfara dedicated too much time to claiming that instead of asking for more, he just tries to maintain funding. Several of his comments throughout the evening made it sound like he compromises too much with representatives for the suburbs.
The challengers were asked to explain why the incumbent each is running against should be fired.
Morales (opposing Roldan) said “we need to take report cards [...] my opponent has forsaken his district.”
Peterson, as mentioned, went on about how Robles has had complaints made against him in his career with the Hartford Police Department.
Winch had a two-pronged attack. First, she implied that McCrory ignores his constituents by not returning their phone calls. Then, she basically called him a hypocrite by saying that elected officials who claim the Hartford Public Schools are good enough need to send their own children to them.
Vargas criticized Fonfara, nearly venturing into poetry: “he’s still absent. He’s become like an empty suit [...] that passion has been extinguished.”
Ritter, of all, had the best answer. He alluded to wisdom passed on to him by his Grandmother, who advised him to never speak ill of an opponent should he get into politics. So, he refused the question. Classy! It was nice to see a candidate not get caught up in one of the worst traditions of politics. Instead, he provided the audience with a few things that he would like to do if elected, like reform Sheff vs. O’Neill.
For what it’s worth, Ritter, Roldan, and Winch did not make me cringe. Yes, I did just include Winch in that. Vargas seemed great until the “girls basketball” slip. That’s small enough to be forgiven, I suppose. Morales needs to sharpen his message, but was not horrifying. He also needs to do a web search for the Aetna/I-84 Viaduct. Green and McCrory both had a tone that did not sit well with me, though Green’s literature was much more positive than how he came across in person. Fonfara and Green have both held the same position for too long. Peterson made her point about Robles and now needs to figure out what she stands for and make that what voters think about. Robles needs for voters to believe that he values his position as State Representative as much as he values the HPD.
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/.