Arunan Arulampalam, who emigrated with his parents to the U.S. as a toddler and set down roots in a struggling central Hartford neighborhood as a young husband and father, won the city’s three-way Democratic mayoral primary Tuesday.

The win makes Arulampalam the overwhelming favorite in November to be elected successor to Luke Bronin as mayor of Connecticut’s capital, a city of 121,000 where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 13-1 margin.

The 37-year-old Arulampalam, who oversees the redevelopment of vacant lots and abandoned houses as chief executive of the nonprofit Hartford Land Bank, defeated opponents whose political careers launched before his birth: state Sen. John W. Fonfara, 67, and former state Sen. Eric D. Coleman, 72.

He claimed victory at 10:02 p.m., stepping on stage with Gov. Ned Lamont, who once employed him as the deputy commissioner of consumer protection, and Bronin, the two-term mayor who endorsed him as his preferred successor.

Governor Ned Lamont congratulates Arunan Arulampalam on his win in the Hartford Democratic mayoral primary. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

“I am so glad to announce that we won with a broad base of support from every single part of this city,” Arulampalam told supporters at Dunkin’ Park, the downtown minor-league baseball park. “Our coalition is as diverse and vibrant as the city itself, and my city hall will be just as diverse and vibrant.”

Unofficial returns collected by the campaign showed him with about 40% of the 5,155 votes cast, and the Associated Press later called the race for Arulampalam. Neither Coleman, nor Fonfara made a concession call.

(Update: Results posted Wednesday by the city showed Arulampalam with 39.59% of the vote, Coleman with 30.53% and Fonfara with 29.87%. Turnout was 14%.)

“Hartford, you are an incredible city,” Arulampalam said. “You wake up every day and you work hard and fight for your neighborhoods, for your people, for your family, for this city. Sometimes you get knocked down, but you get right back up and dust yourself off and build stronger and better than ever.” 

Supporters cheer for Arunan Arulampalam at his watch party at Dunkin’ Park following his win in the Hartford Democratic mayoral primary. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

A state bailout negotiated by Bronin saved Hartford from bankruptcy seven years ago, but deep social and fiscal challenges remain: Half its property is tax-exempt, median household income is $36,278, and the poverty rate of 28% exceeds the homeownership rate of 24%.

Arulampalam began his campaign without a racial, geographic or elective base in a city that is 45% Latino or Hispanic, 36% Black and 14% non-Hispanic white. He was born in Zimbabwe to Sri Lankan parents, both ethnic Tamils who fled persecution.

But he won the endorsement of the Democratic town committee in July, with the Democratic chair, Marc DiBella, and the committee’s lawyer, former Councilman John Kennelly, supporting him.

Liza Arulampalam and a campaigner embrace following Arunan Arulampalam’s win in Hartford’s Democratic primary mayoral election. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

Arulampalam celebrated the win as the product of a citywide coalition, but the low turnout was evidence that none of the three candidates was able to grow the base of engaged voters in a community of concentrated poverty. 

“I think there’s disillusionment,” said Fonfara, who complained that Hartford is among the U.S. cities that have come to accept a high and surprisingly static poverty rate. “They don’t believe that city government is going to respond to their needs.”

No official turnout percentage was available Tuesday night, but officials said it was low by even the modest standards of an urban municipal primary — a measure of civic disengagement.

Arulampalam and his wife, the Rev. Liza Arulampalam, voted at 8:15 a.m. at the Learning Corridor, a school complex in an impoverished neighborhood between Trinity College and Hartford Hospital. More than two hours after the polls had opened, their votes were the 7th and 8th cast at the school.

Arunan Arulampalam and his family at the Learning Corridor Thursday morning after he and his wife cast their ballots. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

“I think that’s an issue across the Democratic Party and across urban regions of our country,” Arulampalam said at the polls. “My hope is that both today and then for years to come that I can build the kind of engagement that leads to results.”

The Arulampalams arrived with their five children, three of whom are adopted. They have a 2-year-old and four kids ages 8 to 10, including a set of twins. The older four children are enrolled in public schools.

By noon, only 1,362 of the 38,000 registered Democrats had turned out citywide. 

Together, the three candidates spent less on identifying and turning out supporters than did Bronin at the same point in his campaigns. And, in a city where the Latino population dominates, there was no candidate with a Spanish name on the ballot for the first time in at least two decades.

Arunan Arulampalam and his wife Liza play with their youngest son, Elil, after dropping his older siblings off at school on Thursday morning. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

As of a week ago, Arulampalam had spent $377,000, compared to $330,000 for Fonfara and $149,000 for Coleman. By comparison, Bronin spent $911,000 at the same point four years ago. 

Fonfara made late television buys after the end of the last reporting period. Arulampalam and Fonfara were the only mayoral candidates to advertise on the ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox affiliates in the Hartford-New Haven television market.

It is an extraordinarily expensive way to reach a relatively small number of voters, but Fonfara and Arulampalam said they had little choice given the high number of voters who did not answer their phones or open their doors.

While Fonfara did not formally concede, he acknowledged before 10 p.m. that he could not overcome Arulampalam’s lead. Fonfara was first elected to the General Assembly in 1986, representing the South End in the House and then Senate.

Hartford Democratic mayoral hopeful and state Sen. John Fonfara thanks poll workers at his campaign headquarters on Franklin Avenue after polls closed on Thursday, Sept. 12. Erica E. Phillips / CT Mirror

His role as co-chair of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee helped him to an early and commanding fundraising lead.

Being mayor would have offered a “hands on” opportunity to effect the kind of changes he wants to see in the city, Fonfara said. Nevertheless, he said, “I will continue to fight for the things I have been fighting for.”

Staff writer Erica E. Phillips contributed to this story.

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.