If Luke A. Bronin wins the Democratic mayoral primary in Hartford next month, The Hartford Courant is unlikely to stumble with a headline like the one that appeared in The Washington Post in 1999: “White Man Gets Mayoral Nomination in Baltimore.”
The Post quickly apologized for so clumsily referring to the race when Martin O’Malley won the Democratic primary in Baltimore, a city where black voters are the majority. But the headline, awkward as it was, reflected a newsworthy element of O’Malley’s win.
Race and ethnicity are, not surprisingly, a subtle undercurrent in the Democratic contest for mayor in Hartford, which pits a white challenger against a Puerto Rican incumbent in a city with the largest percentage of Latinos in the northeastern United States: 43.4 percent of its 125,000 residents.
Bronin, 36, an Ivy League lawyer raised in Rye, N.Y., and Greenwich, is challenging 56-year-old Pedro E. Segarra, also a lawyer, in a city where the U.S. Census pegs non-Hispanic whites at just 15.8 percent of the population, and the last white mayor left office in 2001.
The two Democrats face each other Wednesday in their first one-on-one debate since Segarra stormed out of the Democratic Town Committee’s nominating convention last month, knowing Bronin had the votes to win. (The debate at The Courant will be live-streamed at noon on courant.com and foxct.com and broadcast Sunday at 5 a.m. on FoxCT.)
As was the case with O’Malley’s win in 1999 and Detroit’s election two years ago of Mike Duggan, the Motor City’s first white mayor in 40 years, a confluence of factors have made a competitor of Bronin, a former official in the Obama administration who later served as general counsel to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
One is a conclusion, for a variety of reasons, that Segarra is vulnerable. Two other Democrats, former Probate Judge Robert Killian Jr. and John Gale, challenged Segarra, only to drop out and endorse Bronin as the best chance to topple the incumbent.
A second is the absence of a challenger to emerge from the black community, which comprises 38.7 percent of the population. Bronin’s support in the black community includes Noel McGregor, a former Democratic chairman, and Shawn Wooden, the president of the City Council.
Neither Bronin nor Segarra talk openly about race, but other Hartford politicians acknowledge that racial affinity is a standard feature of urban politics, and Hartford is no exception.
Adam Cloud, an African American who is the city treasurer, said the city’s Democratic Party still follows a racial formula in assembling its six-member council slates: two blacks, two whites and two Latinos.
“Race is still a strong, powerful factor in terms of how people experience the world and see the world,” said Wooden, who is not seeking re-election to the council.
The election of Hartford’s first black mayor, Thirman L. Milner, in 1981 produced a sense that blacks, then one-third of the city, had arrived politically. Ebony published an article, “Hartford, City of Black Political Clout.”
It took 20 years for Latinos to reach the same milestone, electing Eddie A. Perez in 2001 as the city’s first Hispanic mayor after a difficult decade of population loss. A scandal involving favors from a city contractor forced his resignation in 2010. Segarra, the council leader, finished his term and was elected to a four-year term in 2011.
The prospect of a Segarra loss represents a retreat to some Latinos, especially an older generation that can recall the 1980s, when there was only one Hispanic on the council for most of the decade and none among the city’s legislative delegation until 1989.
Julio Concepcion, a council candidate running on Bronin’s slate, said his godfather, Eugenio Caro, who was elected to the council in the 1980s, sees the mayoralty as permanently lost should Bronin prevail. But Concepcion, 32, who came of age after Latinos established themselves politically, said his contemporaries do not share that fear.
Concepcion said there is no animosity, racial or otherwise, in the desire for a new mayor: “Everybody believes Pedro is a nice guy. He just has issues as a manager.”
Wooden, who recently endorsed Bronin, said the fear of a loss of political clout is inevitable any time a racial group sees the potential defeat of a community leader. It is the flip side of racial and ethnic pride, he said.
“I absolutely understand the pride the community feels in terms of having a Latino mayor, just as I understand it was a big moment, the election of Thirman Milner as the first African American mayor of Hartford,” Wooden said.
If Segarra shies from overt appeals to racial pride and solidarity, he is quick to portray Bronin as an outsider, a member of a generation newly drawn to urban living. Bronin lives downtown with his wife, Sara, an architect and UConn law professor, and their three children in a renovated brownstone on the south side of Bushnell Park.
They attended Oxford together as Rhodes scholars, graduated in the same law class at Yale and married in 2007, a union featured in the “Vows” column of the New York Times.
“I don’t think this issue is about race,” said Segarra, who moved to Hartford from New York City as a teen. “I think what this race is about is a Puerto Rican who has happened to be here for 40-plus years and someone else who is fairly recent to our city, who doesn’t have the level of connection to the community.”
Rep. Edwin Vargas, D-Hartford, who opposed Segarra in a mayoral primary four years ago, called Bronin “a likeable fellow and a smart guy,” but he is supporting Segarra as a local who deserves another chance.
“I do believe Pedro is a Hartford guy. And I do believe that, warts and all, there is an old saying, ‘Better the devil you know.’ That’s the attitude of a lot of people I ‘ve talked to,” Vargas said. “A Greenwich Democrat coming in from outside the city, I’m not quite comfortable with that.”
Bronin came to Hartford to work as a lawyer and, later, a chief of staff to the property and casualty president at The Hartford Financial Service Group. He served as an Obama administration treasury official from 2009 until 2013, a tenure broken by his service in Afghanistan as a Naval reservist assigned to an anti-corruption task force.
He was hired by Malloy in January 2013 and left two years later to explore a run for mayor.
“This is about people who have paid their dues and shown they can lead. There is nothing in his record that shows he can lead a city with the challenges we have,” Segarra said.
Bronin said he jumped into the race because he sees a city flailing under Segarra.
“I think I’m positioned to compete because residents all over Hartford are yearning for stronger leadership,” Bronin said. “They believe in Hartford and believe Hartford can be doing better, and it is going to take a change in leadership to get there. I felt that. I felt that for a while. I share that feeling, and I share those views.”
Cloud, who says he would have been happier had an African American candidate been ready to challenge, said he is backing Bronin because the city “needs a sea change.” McGregor said the city must look beyond racial and ethnic politics.
Segarra insists that Hartford is on the right track under his leadership with a stable tax rate and a minor-league baseball park and other economic development under way. The mayor discounted losing the town committee endorsement, calling the organization a nest of self-interest.
“I should have spent some time re-energizing the town committee and re-populating it with progressives,” Segarra said. “That, politically, may have been a mistake.”
But Segarra has been embarrassed by aides over expenses and the use of city cars. The mayor had dinner with top staff on New Year’s Eve at Max Downtown in 2012, with the $700 bill paid by his chief of staff with a city purchasing card. Segarra later banned use of the purchasing cards for entertainment.
More recently, the city has reeled from a spike in homicides and shootings, prompting complaints that the city still suffers from high youth unemployment that often leads to trouble.
Bronin, who faulted Segarra for failing to address the violence, hosted his own community meeting Tuesday night in the basement of a black church, Shiloh Baptist. Bronin shared the microphone with all comers, including a number of residents who seemed furious at anyone in a position of authority.
“If you are not comfortable taking the risk of being out in public and hearing what members of the community have to say about the state of the city or the city’s leadership, I think you’re in the wrong job. You’re looking for the wrong job,” Bronin said.
Segarra called the meeting a political gimmick and refused to attend, although one of the speakers to whom Bronin handed a microphone was Joel Cruz Jr., a petitioning candidate for mayor who expects to be on the ballot in November. Another audience member created a stir without speaking: Bronin’s old boss, the governor. Dora Schriro, the state commissioner of public safety, also attended.
Malloy, who is officially neutral in the mayoral race, said his attendance was not intended as an expression of tacit support for Bronin, whom Malloy had previously publicly praised for his work developing the administration’s criminal justice reforms.
“That would be a misinterpretation,” Malloy said. “I live in Hartford. My wife lives in Hartford. Our youngest son is a resident here. This is a community meeting in Hartford.”