Gov. Ned Lamont and Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin on a walking tour of redevelopment site north of downtown, near the minor-league baseball park, in July. Mark Pazniokas / CT Mirror

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, who led Connecticut’s capital city from the verge of bankruptcy to fiscal stability by winning passage of a state-financed bailout in 2017 and rallying business leaders, announced Tuesday he will not seek reelection in November 2023.

Bronin, 43, a Democrat who explored a run for governor before endorsing Gov. Ned Lamont in 2018, is expected to be among the politicians who will assess a bid for governor in 2026, when Lamont is unlikely to seek a third term.

“I don’t have any plans right now,” Bronin said in an interview.

A run in 2026 would be a test in part of how suburban voters view Bronin’s stewardship of Hartford and the degree to which its recovery is a consequence of state and federal largesse or newfound fiscal discipline at city hall.

“When I came in, I think that a lot of people had lost confidence in Hartford city government. And one of the things that I hope we’ve done is just reestablish confidence in city government,” Bronin said.

With an open seat, the field of Democratic contenders for mayor is expected to develop quickly.

Eric Coleman, 71, a retired Superior Court judge and former state senator, is scheduled to announce his candidacy Wednesday. Arunan Arulampalam, 37, the chief executive of the Hartford Land Bank, also is preparing to run, with an announcement likely in January.

In seven years as mayor, Bronin established himself as a voice for Hartford and other distressed cities at the state Capitol, working in tandem with another young politician who became an important ally, Rep. Matt Ritter, D-Hartford.

“It’s been a pretty special relationship, and it’s a big loss for a city,” said Ritter, who became House majority leader in 2017 and speaker in 2021. “I probably talked to him, if not every day, then every other day.”

Aside from trying to reestablish the credibility of city government, Bronin has campaigned to make the case for the interdependence of Hartford, a city of 120,000, and its suburbs.

“When I took office, I stated our mission as to try to make sure that Hartford was the vibrant heart of this region of more than a million people and to make sure that everybody has a share in Hartford’s rise,” Bronin said.

Gov. Ned Lamont said Bronin calmed a business community rattled by the prospect of bankruptcy and the years of uncertainty that could follow.

“A lot of businesses were thinking about relocating,” Lamont said. “And here we are, six years later, talking about hundreds and soon to be thousands of units of housing being built in this city. More people moving into the city. More young people moving into the city. The business community feeling a lot more confident about the future of our capital city.”

Bronin was integral to those changes, said Lamont, who was effusive in his praise.

“Man, I think you could have Luke Bronin mayor for life,” Lamont said. “That would be not a bad thing. But eight years is a pretty long time in life, and he’s put his heart and soul into the job, an amazing partner for me, one of the first people I call up on Hartford or beyond just because he has very good insights.”

The state has invested deeply in Hartford through the Capital Region Development Authority, which has contributed to the financing of economic development projects that have converted empty downtown commercial properties into housing and produced new housing on empty lots north of downtown, most notably near the Dunkin’ Donuts baseball park.

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin addresses the media at a press conference at The Open Hearth homeless shelter after medical personnel from Hartford HealthCare tested clients and staff for COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic. Cloe Poisson / CTMirror.org

Bob Stefanowski, the Republican nominee for governor in 2018 and 2022, stoked suburban distrust of cities and especially Hartford, writing a Wall Street Journal opinion piece last year that was headlined, “What Isn’t the Matter With Hartford?”

Stefanowski acknowledged the city’s burden of hosting the state’s government and region’s hospitals and universities, all exempt from property taxes. But he mocked Bronin’s view of regionalism as an attempt by the city to shun responsibility for its own affairs.

“Poverty and need are often concentrated in our urban communities,” Bronin said. “Every Connecticut city is going to face a structural challenge, but I would stack up our teams and the rigor and discipline with which we budget and the care with which we govern against any city or town in the state of Connecticut.”

Bronin was elected in 2015 and sworn in at 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2016, as part of the First Night celebration in Bushnell Park by the Capitol, where Bronin had served as the general counsel to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy for two years.

The night’s festivities soon gave way to a stark reality: Hartford was drowning in more than $500 million in debt that would force the city into bankruptcy without a fiscal reset from a state that faced its own challenges.

“For the first couple of years, the most important battles we had to fight were not the ones we wanted to fight but the ones we needed to fight: The city was insolvent,” Bronin said. “The city was bankrupt financially, if not legally.”

In his first budget message in 2016, Bronin promised transparency and warned that the budget was balanced with deep cuts to staff and services, one-shot revenues that could not be replicated, and the uncertain prospect of employee concessions.

“We are willing to do whatever is necessary to put the city of Hartford on a path to fiscal sustainability and growth, and we will not shy away from difficult decisions. However, there is a limit to how much we can cut without falling short of our basic obligations to our residents,” he wrote in July 2016. “With this difficult budget, I believe that we have reached that limit.”

He blamed previous administrations for borrowing heavily, restructuring debt to create short-term savings at higher long-term costs and committing the city to pensions it could not afford. 

But he also asserted that the finances of Hartford, with half its property exempt from taxes, were not sustainable. With a smaller tax base than its suburb of West Hartford and far greater needs, Bronin said a day of reckoning was coming.

It arrived in 2017.

A potential liability in his campaign to unseat Mayor Pedro Segarra in 2015, Bronin’s status as a relative newcomer to city politics proved an asset as he lobbied suburbanites and lawmakers to support lifting Hartford’s debt. 

“I do think it was helpful,” Ritter said. “He wasn’t part of what happened. Literally.”

Bronin grew up in Rye, N.Y., and Greenwich and has bachelor’s and law degrees from Yale. He moved to Hartford in 2006 to take a job with The Hartford but left in 2010, serving for nine months in Afghanistan as a Navy officer and then as a Treasury Department official in Washington during the Obama administration. He returned to Connecticut in January 2013 to become Malloy’s legal counsel.

The 2017 bailout erased Hartford’s debt and established conditions for recovery, including a moratorium on borrowing. In the current fiscal year, the city was able to lower its tax rate by 7.2%, from 74.29 to 68.95 mills.

“After we put our long-term fiscal sustainability plan in place, we have stuck to it and outperformed it every year,” Bronin said. We have kept cost growth below almost any suburb in the state of Connecticut. We haven’t borrowed a single dollar.”

Structural challenges remain for cities in Connecticut.

“There are challenges, and no one’s denying that, but I think people can really point to changes in Hartford,” Ritter said. “Our finances are in a better position than they’ve ever been. A lot of it has been paid for by the state. There’s no question.”

Ritter said the Hartford crisis prompted a continuing reassessment of PILOT, the payments in lieu of taxes the state makes to offset the loss of revenue from tax-exempt properties. Even with improvements, PILOT does not fully compensate cities for the lost revenue.

The state also is more aggressive in oversight.

“We also set up a system whereby we can help troubleshoot the problems before they occur,” Ritter said. “And so a lot has changed since 2017. But I think the state has a better relationship with its big cities. It has done more for the big cities.”

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Mark PazniokasCapitol Bureau Chief

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.