Long before he worked for President Obama, before he investigated corruption in Afghanistan, before he become the city of Hartford’s “hizzoner,” Luke Bronin spent years in New Haven’s Whalley Avenue jail.
He wasn’t an inmate there. He was a Yale student, tutoring the inmates and teaching them poetry.
Bronin, who’s 38, remembered those days during a stop to New Haven the other day, when he spoke on WNHH FM’s “Dateline New Haven” program about his current “exploratory” campaign for the the 2018 Democratic nomination for governor.
He taught in the Whalley state pre-trial detention facility for years, he said. “One of the things that was clear to me then, which was a lesson I’ve taken with me: There were a lot of young men in that jail who had incredible potential, incredible talent. They were just as smart as people who were in my class at Yale. In Connecticut and across the country, there are some of the greatest minds the world will never know. A lot of kids who ended up there ... with a different experience growing up, with different mentorship, could have gone on and done very different things and been successful.”
Bronin told that story to support expanding efforts the state has made toward cirminal-justice reform, at giving inmates a second chance at successful lives. Bronin helped craft some of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s “Second Chance Society” reforms as his general counsel. If elected governor in his own right, Bronin said, he would seek to expand programs to help people reenter society after leaving prison — a group that includes an estimated 100 new people a month in New Haven.
Bronin’s nascent campaign in a crowded field of candidates and potential candidates has gained the attention of some New Haven Democratic insiders. He offered a panoply of New Haven-friendly positions. Legalized recreational marijuana. Fifteen dollar hourly minimum wage. Tolls back on the interstate highway, with much of the new money poured into transit. Central emphasis on rebuilding cities, as the engine for job creation.
Some other Democrats in the mix, such as Susan Bysiewicz, have similar positions. Another fellow Democratic contender, Joe Ganim, is positioning himself as the cities candidate.
Bronin studied at Phillips Exeter Academy. He went to Yale and Yale law. He was a Rhodes scholar, a deputy assistant secretary of the treasury for President Obama, general counsel to Gov. Malloy, and a member of an anti-corruption task force in Afghanistan while in the naval reserves.
And, of course, he is the mayor of Hartford. Has been for two years. With two years left in his term.
Which has left him answering one repeated question: Why ditch the Hartford mayor’s job so soon? Especially after he originally promised to serve his full term?
A “New Generation”
He answered that question in the WNHH interview. A transcript of the conversation follows.
Bronin: I believe very strongly that the state of Connecticut needs to have a strong capital city. Over the past two years, we’ve done some of the really hard work of facing an unprecedented fiscal crisis and doing it it openly, transparently, and boldly and getting far along the path towards stability.
The real goal is vibrancy and strength, and if we want to get there I don’t think there’s any question that I can do more for that mission as governor than I can as mayor. And I think that far from breaking that promise, it may be the best way to fulfill that promise.
WNHH: Wait a second. They elected you to be the mayor; they didn’t elect you to be the governor. I think some people are saying, ‘You said the job’s never done, but can’t you at least put the four years you promised them before you move on to the next thing?’”
Bronin: I think that this state is at a crossroads right now, and what happens in Connecticut in the next two or four years is going to decide what happens in the next 10 or 20 years. And I have strong feelings about what we need to do to get the state on the right track to be growing again. And if we don’t do that I don’t think it matters what we do at the local level.
That’s true of Hartford; that’s true of almost all of our communities and towns. I have strong convictions about what we need to do in the state. The other I’d say is that I feel very strong that at this moment in American history we all have an obligation to say where can we do the most. And I shudder at the thought of turning the state of Connecticut over to the party of Donald Trump.
WNHH: So do you feel that what’s important is that Luke Bronin is the guy who can make the Democrats win?
Bronin: Well, what’s important is letting a new generation of Democrats step up.
WNHH: Was Howard Dean right when he said, ‘Baby boomers like myself need to finally take ourselves off the stage and let younger people run”?
Bronin: You’ve got a lot of younger Democrats, including myself, who were inspired to public service by Barack Obama. I worked in the Obama Administration for the first four years. And I have strong beliefs about what really makes this country great, and who have already a depth of experience to make the changes necessary. And I think it’s time to pass the torch, as President Kennedy said, to the next generation.
WNHH: You went [to Hartford City Hall] for two years. You said, ‘Hey, we’re going bankrupt.’ So the state gave you $40 million. How is that a recipe for fixing the state?
Bronin: Well that’s not actually accurate. What we did, first of all — and we could spend hours talking about why the city was in this mess and we talked a little bit about it with the lack of taxable property — but the other problem was that my predecessor had pushed out debt payments, so we had debt payments that rose from $10 million when I took over to $60 million in 2021. Without borrowing another dollar.
WNHH: You talked about suburbs, and they hate that. You guys didn’t pay your debt and all of a sudden we’re supposed to pay the bill for that.
Bronin: You’re right that they do hate it, but the reality is that we’re all in the same boat, and so we didn’t just solve this in one way. You know this is a gap that was rising to $70, $80 million a couple years from now, and so we made significant changes.
WNHH: Right the money came with strings. You had to have the labor concessions ...
Bronin:That also is not accurate. Let me answer it. So we first of all made significant changes in our labor obligations and did it around the negotiating table. We also made some dramatic changes and cuts to city government, which were painful to do, but we reduced almost $20 million of expenditures that first year. And that wasn’t cutting fat; that was making some very, very hard choices. Our nonpublic safety personnel are down almost 25 percent over the last few years. It was really tough. We also engaged our largest taxpayers and our three biggest insurance companies for them to be a part of it.
We have not gotten $40 million. We got the authority to work with the state on a debt restructuring that would make it possible not just to close the gap this year but to project stable budgets for the foreseeable future.
There is no $40 million amount that the legislature approved or that we got. What they did is they set up an accountability board that has a certain amount of money, $28 million, to administer statewide. And they also put $20 million on the debt service side, to participate in the debt restructuring. But what’s important here is that the roots of this problem can be traced to the fact that the state has not built a structure that can succeed. You cannot have a stable city with half of its property being non-taxable.
WNHH: But New Haven has half of its property nontaxed. We’ve cut city government. We restructured some debt; we didn’t need a bailout from the state. Why did you guys need it?
Bronin: Your tax base is almost twice Hartford’s. It’s not just about the percentage [of nontaxable property]. It’s also about what’s the value of the part that is taxable. So you have a tax base of about $7 billion, taxable tax base. The city of Hartford has a tax base of $4 billion. Your property tax rate is at 38 [mills]; ours was at 74, and obviously we couldn’t raise that. But this is the most important thing: There were multiple [public-private] partnerships required to get us on that path to stability. The reason we were able to do it, for the first time in a long time, is that we were able to demonstrate a discipline of leadership that people could have confidence in, and a transparency about the problem that people could trust.
Click on the above audio file or the Facebook Live video below to hear the full “Dateline New Haven” interview with Luke Bronin on WNHH FM, in which he also discussed, among other topics, the need for more vo-tech education and raining programs for coding and other high-tech jobs, as well as public-private job-creation partnerships..
WNHH interviews with other gubernatorial candidates:
Click on or download the above audio file or Facebook Live video below to listen to the full interview with Joe Ganim. Click here to read an article about the interview.
Click on or download the above audio file or the Facebook Live video below for an interview with Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Dita Bhargava on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven.”Click on or download the above audio file or on the Facebook Live video to below to hear an interview with GOP gubernatorial candidate Mike Handler on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven” program. Click here for a story about that interview.Click on or download the above audio file or the Facebook Live video below to hear an interview with GOP gubernatorial candidate Prasad Srinivasan on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven.” Click here to read a story about that interview.Click on the above audio file or the Facebook Live video below to hear a WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven” interview with GOP gubernatorial candidate Steve Obsitnik. Click here to read a story about that interview.Click on or download the above audio file to hear a previous WNHH FM “Dateline New Haven” interview with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Joe Ganim. Click here for a story about that interview.Click on or download the above audio file to a an interview with GOP gubernatorial candidate Mark Boughton on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven” program; and click here to read a story about that interview.Click on or download the above audio file to hear an interview with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Drew; and click here to read a story about the interview.