BL&D Interview: Mayor Luke Bronin
Recently, Ony and Jeff had an opportunity to sit down with Luke Bronin, newly appointed mayor of the City of Hartford, for a brief chat. It's been 157 days since he's assumed office, and while many of the issues that have plagued the city for decades remain - socio-economic disparity between the city and suburbs, high unemployment and crime - Bronin understands that these problems won't be remedied overnight. The current crisis that's taking place is one that's affecting not just Hartford but the entire state, and as he reiterates throughout our talk, believing in a steadfast, long-term approach with honest and transparent action will yield great results going forward.
Who were you before the politics? What was it like growing up?
First, most importantly, I’d say about me right now is that I’m a dad, you know? We had Mother’s Day yesterday, so I got to spend the rare day with nothing but family, and I got three little ones: 7, 5 and two and a half [years old]. And that to me is, both politics and aside from politics, that’s far and away the most important thing of who I am now.
But I’m someone who loves public policy. I believe that government can do a lot of good if it’s used well. And before elected office - before running for mayor - I was involved in trying to make government work in other ways. Working for the governor as his legal counsel, and got to work on a lot of issues that mattered a lot to me personally but I think mattered a lot to the state and to the city of Hartford. And before that down in D.C. at the Treasury Department. So I’ve been around policy, and been around politics for a while. So, how to use politics for good is sort of my passion.
What drew you into politics?
I don’t know. I don’t know. I love to read history [and] I love to read biography, and I think it can teach you a lot about the potential power of government to make a difference for better or worse. Trying to figure out how we can use government for the good has for a while been my passion.
Have you seen Hamilton yet?
I haven’t. No. [laughs] We haven’t been able to get tickets. One of these days, I hope we can go. We have to wait until the craze calms down a little bit. Maybe it’ll come to The Bushnell. But I hope to see it.
Would you call yourself a “history nerd” of sorts? When I was in high school - I went to Windsor High - I took AP History, and I enjoyed it. I love history, but I think it takes a unique mind to really understand the way in which you can kind of understand historical implications of that and kind of use the frameworks and processes to put out into the day to day world. Because a lot of things really haven’t changed that much.
That’s right. Aside from doing my job and playing with my kids, the thing that I would probably doing next with my time is reading history or reading biography.
Anyone that particular stands out to you?
I just finished a great biography of Lincoln by Carl Sandberg, the poet. It’s amazing to read this 800-page behemoth of a biography by one of the century’s greatest poets. It was a beautiful biography.
I remember I read ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ - an autobiography about Nelson Mandela.
Have you read it?
Oh my gosh, powerful. Like, I’m 26 years old and he spent 26 years in prison.
I mean, it’s unbelievable. The biography is so powerful, and I had a chance to go to Robin Island after reading that book. When you go to Robin Island - I don’t know if you were there too - but the tour was given by someone who’d been in prison along with him, and it leaves you speechless with an admiration for the greatness of somebody who can rise above that.
And for me, that’s when I got a true understanding of the ways you can use the government for good. And really seeing and believing in a system that works. Because I think a lot of systems are very efficient, but the end product -- the way you maneuver it - is the best you can get out of it. So I think that’s phenomenal. So would you consider Lincoln one of your biggest political inspirations?
Yeah, he’s certainly one of the political people I admire the most. There’s a long list.
Who else would you throw on that list?
FDR. Teddy Roosevelt. Outside of the political arena but someone who I found influence [from] obviously, Martin Luther King got to be anybody’s list of the giants. But in terms of people that really led and changed the course of the country for good, I think Lincoln and the two Roosevelts stand out on top.
So your first 100 days in office was April 9th. If you could give yourself a grade for the first 100 days, what would you grade yourself and why?
I don’t know that I’d give a grade [laughs]. I leave grades to other people to assign. But to me, I would say the biggest challenge that we face - and it’s not the battle that we chose to fight, it’s the battle we have to fight - is the battle to get Hartford on a sustainable path. We are in a full-blown budget crisis. I knew full and well that we had some big challenges ahead of us but until the team really had a chance to get under the hood, I did not have a full understanding of how big the physical crisis was.
So I think first and foremost what I tried to do over the first few months was tried to be open and transparent and honest and direct about the size of the problem we face, and about the fact that there’s no easy way out of it. And be willing to talk about and to recommend and to do some tough and painful things because it’s the only way we’re going to get the city on track in the long term.
I was reading an article in The Atlantic and it said that, “No political figure should ever aim to be an A+” because when you try that hard, you’ll fail.
I’d say it in a different way. I don’t know what the grade means, but what I would say is this: you have to be focused on a goal that’s not about tomorrow or next week. It’s about trying to move the city forward over a period of years. And we’ve got some pretty big challenges and some pretty big problems to overcome. And if you’re worried too much about how you’re being graded or you’re worrying too much about how you’re being perceived or you’re worried too much about what your approval rating might be, you’re not going to move the city forward when it has real challenges. It’s easy to be in a position where everything you’re doing is popular and everyone likes you if you don’t actually have problems to solve. But if you have real problems to solve and you’re willing to take them head on, you can’t do that and worry all that much about what approval rating you’re getting.
So you’re in a situation where you feel - and I don’t want to speak for you - but it sounds like you’re in a position where your main goal is to just move the city forward in a way that can be manageable and sustainable for years to come.
Yeah, absolutely. I would say my goal and vision for the city is we’ve gotta be a city that is the economic and cultural heart of this region of a million people. And we have to be a city where everybody who lives in the city - doesn’t matter what neighborhood they live in - feels like they’ve got a share in Hartford’s rise. That’s my vision. Everything I want to do is about that. We can’t achieve that if we’re constantly in crisis [and] constantly in physical crisis. So we’ve got to get onto a different path if we’re going to achieve that vision for our city.
"No mayor can take arts out of Hartford. No mayor, no city counsel [and] no city government can take arts out of Hartford, and any artist who thinks the city government can take arts out of any place is limiting themselves and limiting their own vision about what the arts can do."
Talk a little more about being the cultural hub of the region. What ways do you envision Hartford being that region for arts and culture for the Greater Hartford area?
I think we are. I think we are obviously home to some of the big and well-established institutions such as The Atheneum and The Bushnell and a great producing stage like The Hartford Stage and Theaterworks. But there is also a wealth of smaller, organic arts and cultural organizations that add a huge amount of richness to the city.
And what role do you think the city plays in fostering and growing those organizations?
There’s what role in an ideal world the city would play and there’s what role can the city play. Obviously one of the biggest challenges is when you’re facing a full-blown budget crisis is that you have to pull back from supporting things that you would want very much to support. In an ideal world, the city would be pumping money into supporting arts and culture of every kind, just like we’d be pumping money into growing youth employment even faster. Just like we’d be pumping money into after school programs. Just like we’d be pumping money into all kinds of things that I think would make us a better city.
When you don’t have that money, you’ve got to figure out how you can deliver the basic services that we as a city need to deliver, and at the same time try to build a coalition and bring together others who can help fill the gap and fill the void. So when it comes to arts and culture, we’re not going to have the luxury - as much as I wish we did - of directing a whole bunch of city resources. But what we can do is work with organizations that are out there, whether it’s the Greater Hartford Arts Council, etc, get everyone around the same table and try to figure out how we can bring some more private resources to bare and also coordinate better amongst ourselves.
The other thing that I think [is] the power of the arts is arts and culture always should flourish any time you have creative people determined to find beauty in the world [laughs]. So a part of this is we need to some extent, that comes independent of government. That comes anytime you have a collection of creative, engaged sometimes iconoclastic people, and I think we do have that. That’s one of the great things in the city. We’ve got a community that has an enormous amount of talent [and] that has an enormous amount of artistic drive, so as much as anything, it’s about trying to unleash that and promote it.
You’ve heard of the Hxxxford Movement and you touched on that there has to be a coalition of artists and creatives. So they’re there and they wanna see and beautify the city that they love so much. I think a lot of reasons why there’s so much convergence of that energy is because they feel that they’re almost pitted against the city. Like the city doesn’t have their best interest in mind in terms of them creating and being powerful in the ways that they see their power. Can you talk about the ways you want to help foster an organization like an arts organization, or just an artist in Hartford that wants to beautify the city?
First of all, there are a number of organizations out there. You’re never going to find an organization that’s going to speak to every artist. So I think the idea of finding one organization that is the arts organization of Hartford is probably not even the right approach. Right now, there’s all kinds of arts, all kinds of organizations that represent different artists. We want them all at the table [and] we want them all doing as much as they can to promote their vision of our city as the center of arts and culture.
As I said before, because of our budget crisis, we’re not going to be in the position to fund in the way that we’d like to directly fund. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t advocate. That doesn’t mean that we can’t advocate with private funders. That doesn’t mean we can’t advocate with other levels of government. That doesn’t mean we can’t advocate with potential audiences just talking about the fact that Hartford is a vibrant center and that there’s so much to explore and discover that far too many people who live in this region have not explored and discovered. And everywhere I go, I talk about that. Every chance I get, no matter what audience I’m talking to whether they’re from Hartford or around Hartford, we talk about the fact that there’s so much more to discover about Hartford than people recognize.
But I’d say this, no mayor can take arts out of Hartford. No mayor, no city counsel [and] no city government can take arts out of Hartford, and any artist who thinks the city government can take arts out of any place is limiting themselves and limiting their own vision about what the arts can do.
That’s a good point. As you said Hartford has so much talent, and there’s so many creative young people who want to beautify the city, so I do feel like it’s been a great way for them to come together and build on that. What’s your biggest motivation behind every day coming to work and saying, “I want to make this city a better place”?
I love the city. I believe it’s a beautiful city and I think that’s it physically beautiful. It’s beautiful in its diversity. It’s beautiful in the wealth of different types of talents and creative individuals and entrepreneurs and others who drive the city every day. But I really think this city is at a crossroads. The reason I ran for this job is that I think the city is a moment of real opportunity but enormous challenge. And we’re facing a crisis at the same moment the state is facing a crisis, and that makes it all the harder because there’s no cavalry that’s going to come riding over the hill. So we have to do what we have to do to make sure that we can get our city on a stable footing.
We can build on a strong foundation and if we have a strong foundation, then what we build on top of it will have a chance of lasting. But we have to make sure that we’re not constantly peering over the cliff. My motivation is at the end of the four years - I’ve always said that I’m perfectly comfortable being a one-term mayor if at the end of four years, we can say that we really moved the city forward and got it on the path that will allow the city to grow and thrive and not constantly face the kind of crisis that we’re facing right now.
We still have three and a half years to go. How do you want to start shaping the ways that you’re moving now to be the mayor that you want to be? For example, I want to be fluent in French one day but I have to start taking my classes now in order to be there in the next couple of years. What steps are you taking?
Any mayor wants to be focused on the priorities that you choose. The things that I want to be focused on every day and that I try to stay focused on every day are things like making our streets and neighborhoods safer and cleaner. Strengthening youth employment and opportunities to engage young people who may be disengaged from school or unable to find a job. Those are the things that matter most: job growth and economic development particularly in our avenues and neighborhoods [and] not just downtown.
Those are the areas to me [that] I’d like to spend every minute of every day on. I try to spend time everyday on all those things, but I have to spend time everyday on addressing the fact that we have a massive budget crisis. Speaking back to where we are right now and where we need to be, we’re not going to be anywhere if we don’t take that budget crisis head on. What it starts with with me is what I said before: just being honest and transparent about just how big that problem really is, and not being afraid of saying we need to do some tough things and not being afraid of doing tough things.
If you can paint a picture of the current fiscal situation in Hartford, what -
We’re like a cartoon character that ran over the cliff and is still running and hasn’t realized that there’s no land beneath us right now.
Wow. [Laughs] Holy shit. That’s very interesting. You’ve talked about cutting some bone and marrow straight through in terms of cutting city services and stuff like that. What concerns you more going forward: is it revenue or it is spending?
Obviously, both are a concern. The problem is when your spending is bigger than your revenue. But our problem beyond that right now is that our tax rate is so high that I don’t think we can raise the mill rate above 74.29 -
If you’d have to increase revenue, you have to look to do other things, right?
Well, in the near term, aside from property taxes and state money, there are no big sources of revenue. You can grow your way into greater revenue but it takes years. And so obviously we’re doing that. Our development services team is working on that every single day, but that takes years. And the two things are linked because it’s very hard to promote growth when you have a 74.29 mill rate. So you got a chicken and an egg problem.
We have to get to a place where we’re not constantly raising taxes; where investors in the city - small, medium and big business owners are constantly concerned that their tax rates are going to get jacked up above 74.29, which is already by far the highest in the state. So we don’t have the ability to get more revenue next year or the year after without making it impossible to grow in the years ahead. We don’t have that much fat in city government, [so] we have to make cuts because we can’t raise the mill rate where it is without killing our growth prospect.
You spoke about how you didn’t understand the full severity of the situation in Hartford until you came into it. Outside of that, was there anything stepping into the position that you thought would be different or you struggled with, or you said, ‘Oh this is interesting’?
No, I don’t think so. Nothing that surprising. I love the job. One of the things I loved about the jobs I had before and one of the things I love about this job is getting to the tangled knot of a problem and trying to figure out how to either untangle it or cut through the knot. And there are problems and challenges like that every day. But I think that’s the role of a mayor particularly in this form of government that we have here is to want to have to deal with those tough problems. If you don’t want to deal with those tough problems, then you shouldn’t be in this job.
We’ve spoken a lot of arts and culture and music in the community. I hear you’re a musician.
Once upon a time [laughs]. I’m not much of a musician lately.
You should bring your talents to one of the KNOW GOOD Markets these days. The open invitation is there. It’s up to you.
Once in a while, I break it out. I’ve played with Professors of Sweet Sweet Music a few times and sung a little bit on St. Patricks Day, but one of those days, I’ll break it out. I just got on Spotify for the first time even though it’s like years old. I’ve just discovered it and it’s revolutionized my life that I’m listening to a lot more music again. It might inspire to start playing some more.
What are you listening to nowadays?
I listen to all kinds of things. I like a lot of more classic country, but I listen to all kinds of things.
Do your kids ever influence you and go, ‘C’mon dad, not this again!’
[Laughs] They’re too young to be embarrassed by it. I’m sure they’ll get there.