Hartford mayoral debate
L to R: State Sen. John Fonfara, retired judge Eric Coleman and Hartford Land Bank CEO Arunan Arulampalam face off in the last debate before the Sept. 12 primary. Credit: Dan Haar / Courtesy of CT Insider and WFSB

The three Hartford mayoral candidates seeking the Democratic nomination made one last appeal to voters Thursday ahead of next week’s primary.

State Sen. John Fonfara, retired judge and lawmaker Eric Coleman, and Arunan Arulampalam made their case during a debate sponsored by WFSB and CT Insider, touching on a broad range of topics including safety, housing, and economic growth.

The debate also featured more tension than other recent events, with Arulampalam defending his record as Hartford Land Bank CEO after Coleman questioned his commitment to Hartford.

“I’m for Hartford and I don’t want anyone to compromise the best interests of the city of Hartford,” Coleman said after the debate.

Arulampalam repeatedly talked about his love for the city and said after the debate that he’s confident voters see that.

“I think everybody who sees me out in the community, who meets me, knows that I’m here for the city of Hartford,” he said.

The three candidates are seeking the Democratic nomination, a huge boost in a heavily-Democrat city, to replace outgoing Mayor Luke Bronin. Bronin is not seeking a third term.

The nominee will still have to fend off a crowded field, with Republican Mike McGarry and petitioning candidates Nike Lebron, J. Stan McCauley, and Giselle Jacobs also in the race. Lebron failed to qualify for the Democratic primary but still got enough signatures to get on the November ballot.

Thursday’s debate happened just one day after Hartford police officer Robert Garten died from injuries he sustained when a driver, fleeing a traffic stop, struck the cruiser in which Garten was riding.

The first two questions of the debate focused on what the candidates would do to make the city safer.

Hartford Land Bank CEO Arunan Arulampalam
Hartford Land Bank CEO Arunan Arulampalam Credit: Mike Savino / CTNewsJunkie

Fonfara said he would raise police officers’ salaries, saying many leave for higher paying departments.

His main focus, though, would be on lifting the city out of poverty, blaming a lack of jobs as the reason behind many of the city’s problems. 

“Poverty is a key driver of so many of the symptoms facing the city of Hartford, and crime is not the least of it,” he said. 

Coleman said he wants to increase staffing at the police department, with some staff used in “non-traditional ways” like de-escalation. He also would bring back officers’ walking beats. 

Coleman said the biggest problem is drugs, and he’d ask for help from the state police, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to crack down. 

Arulampalam, meanwhile, said he’d create an office of violence prevention and a youth advisory council. 

The office of violence prevention would focus on coordinating efforts to stop violence, while the advisory council would seek input from adolescents on how the city can keep kids and teenagers from turning to violence. 

Candidates were also asked how they’d help residents access affordable, quality housing, a question that led to the tension between Coleman and Arulampalam.

State Sen. John Fonfara
State Sen. John Fonfara Credit: Dan Haar / Courtesy of CT Insider and WFSB

The Land Bank lists 30 properties on its website it has taken ownership of since 2021, nine of which have been sold. Coleman said some of those properties were sold to buyers that don’t live in Hartford. 

Coleman, along with petitioning candidate Nick Lebron, have also criticized Arulampalam, the Democrat-endorsed candidate, in recent days for fundraising in Torrington recently. 

“I think the people who reside in Hartford have the right to self-determination,” he said after the debate. 

Arulampalam said Coleman misrepresented the Land Bank’s record, noting another 14 have sales pending. He also said the majority of sales involve Hartford residents, especially since he took over as CEO.

“I think we are really having an impact on housing and homeownership in the city,” he said after the debate, saying the Land Bank is returning properties to residents. He also said two pending sales involve vacant lots buyers want to turn into urban farms. 

During the debate, Arulampalam said he’d go after abusive or negligent landlords, pointing to a lawsuit he helped spearhead while a deputy commissioner with the Department of Consumer Protection. The state used the lawsuit to take profits from a slumlord.

Retired judge Eric Coleman
Retired judge Eric Coleman Credit: Mike Savino / CTNewsJunkie

Coleman said he’d have the city create or rehabilitate units after using eminent domain to take ownership of neglected buildings, something New Britain started doing.

Fonfara said the city has enough housing, but that some need to be repaired. He’d have the city address blight and rehabilitate existing units to address housing supply. 

Candidates were also asked about their plans to improve job opportunities for residents. 

Fonfara said throughout the night that his priority would be to reduce poverty. 

“We are poorer today than we were 10 years ago, and we’ll be poorer 10 years from now,” he said, adding he didn’t think any mayor in recent history tried to address the problem. 

He said he’d create an office of workforce development and invest in education, with an emphasis on early childhood education, literacy and job training. 

Coleman said he, too, would create an office of workforce development. If elected mayor, he said that office would be in charge of remedial education and offer substance abuse counseling, among other services. 

Arulampalam said the city needs to address barriers students face in school and create more job opportunities for residents. 

Towards the end of the debate, the candidates were asked if they’d support the Democratic nominee should they lose the primary. 

Arulampalam and Fonfara both said they would. Coleman, whose campaign has been gathering signatures to possibly run as a petitioning candidate in November, would not commit. 

“I can’t answer yes or no, I’m sorry,” he said. “But it’s to be determined.”