On Tuesday, March 29, in another well-attended Lunch and Lead event in the Margaret E. And Henry R. Roberts Center for Leadership, an eager audience welcomed Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin as the guest speaker. Thanking the audience for the opportunity to visit, Bronin jumped right into answering a host of questions that students had submitted, spanning what prompted him to run for mayor, the process itself, some of the wins and challenges the position has brought so far, and his roadmap for the future.
Bronin was very open and honest about his tenure as mayor and his answers were genuine, relatable, and insightful. He opened up by saying that becoming the mayor of Hartford wasn’t in his initial plan, but he always had a strong interest in public policy, government, and history. He felt privileged to be able to get the chance to work in this realm before running for office. His impressive career included working four years at the federal level in the Obama administration in the United States Treasury Department, two years as chief legal counsel to the governor, and a brief but impactful stint as part of the Navy reserves deployed to Afghanistan for just under a year.
“I love the complex tangle of law, policy, politics, and trying to figure out how to untangle tough questions,” said Bronin. “And Hartford is home. My wife and I moved here in 2006. We have three little kids and love the city but felt like it was missing some opportunities and making some mistakes.”
He explained the opportunity to run for mayor came at a time in his life to take a risk. He made the decision to run for election in 2015 against an incumbent mayor, Pedro Segarra, that had been there for five years. Bronin said, “It was a little bit of a long shot but worked out and I am very grateful for that.”
Bronin shared with the group the process of becoming mayor and the various moving parts of running a campaign. He explained how despite his prior experience of running a political campaign, things shifted when he became the candidate. “One of the things that can be super stressful about running other peoples’ campaigns is that you feel like you are taking their future on your shoulders and putting their hopes at risk,” said Bronin. “When you are running for yourself, if you mess up you mess up for yourself, or do alright, there is something liberating about it.”
One challenge Bronin had faced is that he is not originally from Hartford, which had made some skeptical of his motives. From the outset set of his campaign, he has made a dedicated effort to combat this by getting out and interacting face to face with people in the city, including knocking on hundreds of doors, which he said has made a big difference. “People want to get to know you face to face,” said Bronin. He added, “Hartford is big enough that you have challenges similar to cities many times its size, but also has the intimacy of a smaller town.”
When asked what his most rewarding experience as mayor he said, “The battle that I didn’t really choose.” When Bronin became mayor in January of 2016 he candidly shared that Hartford had been making unwise financial decisions for a long time. Bronin said, “They were kicking the can down the road which was causing some problems. I did not fully appreciate how big the financial problems were. We were in bad shape, almost bankrupt.”
He found himself looking at a sea of red ink deficits that were mounting. Historically, the city had continued to raise taxes, borrowed a lot of money, and used one-time revenue to offset the deficit. While this may have band-aided the situation, it set the city on very dangerous and unsustainable ground. Bronin immediately recognized that was not a long-term solution, rolled up his sleeves, and went to work. Miraculously, the city was able to stabilize itself financially.
“I am most proud of my team for getting the city on a strong footing for the future,” said Bronin. “We didn't want a future built on sand. For many months we were ready and preparing to declare bankruptcy. By doing things like getting the state to partner with us to assume some of the debt, renegotiate contracts with unions, and having bigger companies agree to contribute, we were able to avoid bankruptcy in a responsible way.”
He added that the current budget set to be released in a few weeks will be the first one that introduces a reduction in property taxes in about 20 years. Bronin said, “We have a long way to go and a lot of work, but that stands out as one of the things that has made the biggest difference, even though not the thing I was most passionate about going in. Trying to tackle that crisis honestly and transparently and without gimmicks and doing it right.”
Bronin said without hesitation that the difficult path of navigating the city of Hartford out of the financial mess was rivaled by the last few years of the COVID pandemic. The city had started to experience a great deal of energy, momentum, and investment coming in with initiatives like the Yard Goats baseball team, the Hartford Athletic Soccer team, and the addition of new residential areas. Much of this ground to a halt when COVID entered the picture, and the city is still trying to regain the momentum that had been so positive.
Pausing, Bronin said, “That said, the real answer of what the most difficult of being mayor is tackling those challenges that are so deeply rooted that will take years to fix, specifically, gun violence.” Like many cities across the country, this is a reality that Hartford faces every day. “The most difficult part of my job is calling up a mother or a father of someone that has died, or sitting and grieving with them,” said Bronin “and trying to do everything you can to do everything you can trying to stop it and not being as successful.” He cites COVID as inhibiting progress in this area as well. The city had been making progress against gun violence, but the mental anguish, the job loss, the stress, and the court system not operating at full potential were all bi-products of COVID that contributed to the city seeing an uptick in this particular area again.
The mayor also shared his roadmap and vision for the popular ongoing initiative; the Hartford 400. Founded in 1635, the city of Hartford will turn 400 in 2035 and there are a variety of projects that are slated to be completed. It would involve a coalition of the region's major organizations coming together to accomplish action plans across a variety of realms including environmental, economic, social, transportation, and cultural. More easily broken down, Bronin shared the Hartford 400 is built around the pillars of green, grow, move, and play. One of the major initiatives he is looking to accomplish as part of this is focusing on the regional infrastructure, including major updates to the highway system. Originally, Hartford was built as a port city, and yet over time it had become disconnected from the river by the major highways. This is just one of a long list of transformative projects the city wants to tackle over these next 13 years.
Mapping out so many different projects, areas of strength, and even more that need improvement, Bronin remains nothing but upbeat and positive about the future of the city of Hartford. He approaches his duties and responsibilities to the people with the utmost care and puts a great deal of importance on the kind of leader he wants to be and how this plays out in his day-to day-decisions.
“A lot of leaders underestimate people's ability to accept and absorb difficult things. A lot of leaders are afraid of doing difficult things because they are afraid of the pushback or the conflict,” Bronin said. “What I have found is the best thing you can do is be honest with people; treat them with respect and admit when something is a complicated problem but also lay out the options. It doesn’t mean they would be happier with the outcome but people appreciate you laying it out.”
He gave a timely example of the re-evaluation of property values that is taking place currently in the state, and the reality that this is a particularly challenging time to do it. Currently, residential values are rising, but business buildings are declining. Subsequently, more of the tax burden would shift to homeowners during a time when other costs like gas and groceries are going up, adding additional financial burdens and stress.
Bronin shared that because of these factors some people want to delay the re-evaluation. “My belief is that would be a mistake for a lot of reasons, so we are pushing forward with it,” said Bronin. He is holding town halls explaining his thought process to his constituents. Although he acknowledges this is a less than ideal situation, it is necessary to process where he needs to be candid and transparent.
“If there is one thing that I can leave you with,” said Bronin, “is that people have a much bigger ability to understand, accept, and rally behind difficult things than a lot of leaders give people credit for. If you are ever in a position of leading anything of any kind, have enough respect for those you are leading, to be honest, lay things out, and don’t be afraid of difficult decisions.”