With fewer opponents on stage, the three candidates vying to be the Democratic Party’s Hartford mayoral nominee looked to differentiate themselves during a forum Wednesday night just three weeks before the primary.
Sen. John Fonfara, retired senator and judge Eric Coleman, and Hartford Landbank CEO Arunan Arulampalam used the extra time to lay out their plans to grow jobs, improve education and curb gun violence in the city.
“I don’t believe that city hall, city government is on the right path in terms of addressing the issues that need to be addressed,” Fonfara said.
The roughly 90-minute forum, held at the Faith Congregational Church, was cosponsored by the Clay-Arsenal Neighborhood Revitalization Zone, San Juan Center, Hartford Votes/Hartford Vota Coalition and BSL Education Center.
It was only for candidates in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary, meaning the event did not include Republican Mike McGarry or petitioning candidates J. Stan McCauley and Giselle Jacobs.
Wednesday’s event also did not include Nick Lebron, who failed to qualify for the primary but will be on the general election ballot in November. All of the candidates are looking to replace Mayor Luke Bronin, who is not seeking a third term in office.
The forum did not impose time limits on the candidates’ responses. That, coupled with less competition, gave the three candidates more of an opportunity to try and show how their plans differ.
Coleman said he would increase pay for teachers as a way to recruit and retain them. He added he’d try to encourage them to live in the city with an additional 3% in pay and a market rate mortgage assist program for teachers who do.
Coleman also said he supports the school district’s efforts to recruit teachers from Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, but he’d expand that to include more outreach to historically Black colleges and universities.
Arulampalam, who won the party’s endorsement earlier this summer, said he’d put a priority on engaging teachers, spending time in schools to see what help staff think is needed.
“What’s really clear is that so many of our teachers feel under supported right now and they feel like their concerns aren’t being listened to, they aren’t being met,” he said.
Fonfara agreed compensation is needed, but said the focus has to be creating a school system that teachers want to be in. He said that starts with a focus on early childhood education, getting them ready to enter schools.
He said the city has 1,100 unused preschool slots, and he would prioritize getting more young children into those programs.
Fonfara said he would also devote more resources to improve reading proficiency by the time students reach third grade.
Fonfara also said education and activities for kids are keys to curbing gun violence.
“Is there any wonder that some — a small percentage, but some end gang life and with a gun,” he said, referring to the need to make sure students learn skills that can help them get better jobs.
He also said he wanted programs that supported fathers who re-engage with their children.
Coleman said the problem requires a long-term solution, but he’d focus on the short-term and invite the state police to increase the police presence in the city.
He also said he would build partnerships between neighborhood associations, the Hartford police and federal law enforcement agencies to monitor and stop drugs and guns from coming into the city.
“I think guns and drugs are at the root of whatever’s taking place,” he said.
Arulampalam said he’d create a youth council that engages students in each school for suggestions on how to keep children and teens away from gang violence.
“I think a bunch of older folks from different generations who are still trying to figure out what a 16-year means when they say ‘bet’ are not going to figure out what’s going to move that person to not walk down that road,” he said.
Arulampalam also said he’d create an office of violence prevention within the city to coordinate efforts between competing nonprofits, the schools and police.
Moderator Bilal Sekou, a professor at the University of Hartford, tailored his question on economic development to ask each candidate how they’d prepare Hartford residents for higher paying jobs.
Arulampalam said he’d put an emphasis on bringing back vocation classes, including shop class and auto repair, to show students they can work in various industries that are looking for younger workers.
He said he’d also create an apprenticeship school and introduce classes on computer programming, or coding.
Coleman said expand workforce development. He’d also put an emphasis on remedial classes and, for those who need it, substance abuse counseling to make sure residents are ready for the workforce.
Coleman also said he’d try to take advantage of Brainard Airport’s pilot training school to offer students the chance to learn about aviation.
Fonfara said it starts with improving education so that students feel better about their chances after graduation.
He also said he’d focus on vocational classes, touting his efforts as a lawmaker to bring manufacturing classes to Hartford and getting Eversource to do more to recruit Black and Latino residents to be line workers.
Each of the candidates said they wanted to bring more economic development into neighborhoods beside Downtown.
Arulampalam said he’d create small business corridors and try to help city residents get the funding they need to start a business.
Coleman said part of his plan would be to improve housing and infrastructure, especially addressing the flooding issues in the North End.
Fonfara, meanwhile, said businesses want to be in places where residents have higher household incomes, so he’d focus on lowering poverty as a way to encourage more development.
The candidates were also asked about their plans to increase affordable housing, a topic that was the sole focus of a debate last week.