Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra speaks with great pride on what he accomplished during his tenure as the capitol city’s mayor. He also expresses optimism about his and the city’s future as he prepares to relinquish an office that was his home for 5 1/2 years.
“I can walk out of here with my head up high,” Segarra said during a recent interview at City Hall. “We were able to do quite a lot,” he said.
Looking back now, the Puerto Rico-born mayor also candidly admits that perhaps that trying to do too much for his city and probably not enough politically for himself led to the Democratic political machine’s decision to abandon him, the incumbent, in favor of the governor’s former legal counsel Luke Bronin.
“I am not a very good politician,” Segarra admitted, adding that he tried to change the “mold of traditional politics in Hartford,” but he obviously was not successful.
Segarra ended his re-election bid after he lost to the organization-backed Bronin in the Democratic primary. Consequently, with the arrival of the new year, the West End resident will no longer be on-call 24/7 as the person for whom the buck stops here, and the city’s many Latino residents will have to wait to see how their concerns are addressed by a new administration.
Segarra’s advice to the city’s burgeoning Latino community, where some residents view his loss as a betrayal of their loyalty to the Democratic Party and a setback for their efforts to acquire political influence commensurate with their population, is essentially a challenge.
Latinos, especially young people, have to become more active in local politics, Segarra said, even though some people may not be eager to become involved. Moreover, the mayor said, the Latino community, which now comprises about half of Hartford’s population, should analyze its leaders and “expect more of them,” as well as “do something to change the city’s machine politics.”
While Segarra, who gained national prominence as a leading Hispanic officeholder, may not have been able to significantly reshape Hartford’s political landscape, he could point to many other changes in the state’s capital city that had taken place or were launched during his administration.
Some of the changes are highly visible, such as the construction of new housing and a baseball stadium, expansions of the city’s two major hospitals, the emergence of the new Coltsville National Park, and the ubiquitous bright green and gray CTfastrak buses shuttling people to and from the surrounding towns.
Touring his city, the mayor today says he can visit one of the reinvigorated local parks and even ride the carousel that sits in its renovated building at Bushnell Park, or he might dine at one of the restaurants he says are “No. 1 in the state.”
Other changes are more subtle, such as what the Democratic mayor describes as a more positive mood, an improved high school graduation rate and a thriving arts and entertainment scene, or the impact on the city’s accent and pulse of the ongoing influx of immigrants, especially from Latin America.
However, there also are elements of city life, such as unemployment, low incomes and rundown housing that have been more resistant to change. But Segarra is also hopeful that programs are under way that will help overcome the poverty that has been the curse of cities like Hartford for decades. He views the designation as a federal Promise Zone for much of the North End, zipcode 06120, where the poverty rate is nearly 50 percent and employment is around 25 percent, as an opportunity to do something about many of these problems.
The 56-year-old Segarra, who is an attorney and also holds a master’s degree in social work, has spent much of his adult life active in Hartford’s government. He served as corporation counsel from 1991 to 1995, city council president from 2006 until 2010 when he inherited the mayor’s job after legal problems undid his predecessor, Eddie Perez.
In his new role as ‘former mayor’, Segarra expects to remain active and to champion causes such as debt relief for Puerto Rico. He has no interest in retiring. “I will always be involved,” he said. He does not see himself returning to the city council but hints that he is “working on a couple of things.”
Segarra is proud to say he is the “only elected mayor of a major American (U.S.) city” who is Puerto Rican and his future plans include helping Democrats in places with growing Hispanic populations, such as Florida.
More immediately, Segarra plans to spend some time with family, to re-energize and then resume his legal career and social work. He said he has a “lot of possibilities” and he might do some “teaching, judging or lawyering.”
Segarra’s tenure as mayor has not been free of controversy that raised questions about his administrative skills. These include problems with the Dillon Stadium rehab project, the election fiasco in 2014, and the missing insurance premiums, among others. There also have been issues regarding leadership of various city departments, a former chief of staff and his response to an uptick of homicides earlier this year.
Looking back at some of the problems he encountered, Segarra suggests, “Maybe we took on too many things at once … and so many things happened,”
Segarra was the second mayor to serve under a charter change which strengthened the position. “Sometimes we want things a lot, but then when they happen we do not want these things, Segarra philosophized. “People say they want a strong mayor,” he explained, “and then say to you ‘who do you think you are?'”
As Segarra sat in his City Hall office, looking back at his administration, it is not ball fields and housing that topped his list of accomplishments.
“Number one,” the mayor said, “is we made Hartford a more positive place.” He also cited the excitement downtown on “basketball nights” when the University of Connecticut teams are playing at the XL Center, during the Comicom pop culture gathering or during Riverfest activities.
Segarra also said he came into office during a difficult time and helped restore “public trust to government.” As city council president, he inherited the mayor’s job after Perez, the city’s first Puerto Rican mayor, was convicted of public corruption, a conviction that was appealed and later reversed, pending a high court review.
A third area of success cited by Segarra pertains to dealing with the fiscal challenge the city faced during the “worst recession since the Great Depression.” It was a very difficult time, he said, but during this period there was “unprecedented development.” With the city not in a position to raise taxes, Segarra said, Hartford had to deal with rising costs and demands for services with fewer employees. “We mostly were not able to replace retirees.” Still, he noted, “we are doing better in some areas with less staffing.”
Looking forward, Segarra is especially enthusiastic about the Promise Zone designation from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development which will make the city a preferred partner for federal funding for new programs in housing, education and public safety.
In addition, the mayor said the city has “gotten the state’s ear” and this “partnership” is bringing 1,000 new housing units and a UConn campus to the city.
Segarra noted that American cities are making a comeback. In Hartford’s case, the reliance on a diminishing manufacturing sector led to a loss of more than 50,000 residents from the late 1970s onward and contributed to a decline in local retailing.
Now, the mayor is enthusiastic about the city’s potential to be a center of advanced medical manufacturing and points to UConn and Hartford Hospital as becoming major players in genetic medicine.
“A lot of things are starting to come together,” the mayor observes.
Segarra does not say much about his successor. “I want to be respectful,” he said. However, he acknowledges that he has talked to Bronin a couple of time about the transition process.
However, on New Year’s Eve, when the new mayor is inaugurated, Pedro Segara plans to “be elsewhere with family.”