Sara Bronin: Luke's Secret Weapon?


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Sara Bronin at UCONN Law school forum
Bill Sarno
In the many photographs and videos appearing in Connecticut media that captured a triumphant Luke Bronin after Hartford’s recent Democratic primary for mayor, his wife Sara was usually close by, looking proud and focused.
Go back a month to coverage of the mayoral debate held at a city newspaper and Sara Bronin is in the front row. The Bronins also have been visible at events such as the Puerto Rican Festival or campaigning in city neighborhoods wherein some situations her home-grown fluency in  Spanish has helped.
During the last weekend in the primary campaign, Luke Bronin posted a picture of himself with Sara on his campaign Twitter account, identifying his wife as his “secret (bilingual) weapon.”
While being in the local political scene may be  relatively new to Sara Bronin, since she arrived in Hartford a decade ago to teach law, she has been in the picture in terms of the energy and leadership has applied to various influential organizations, serving on the board of the the Connecticut Trust for the Environment and the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, as past president of the Connecticut Hispanic Bar Association and, more recently, as the chairman of Hartford’s Planning and Zoning Commission.
Moreover, in a few months she may likely step into and probably redefine the role of the city’s s “first lady”. This depends on her husband’s political fortunes, but regardless she is expected to remain an important figure in the city government and community activities.
At the same time, this high-achieving sixth-generation Mexican American has not been widely recognized as “one of ours” in the city’s large and diverse Latino population.  To some extent, this relative obscurity may stem from her pro-Latino efforts, such as spearheading the movement to gain more judgeships for Hispanics, have not been visible in ways that would earn her a lot of so-called ‘street creds’.
But among those who have worked with Sara Bronin there is no doubt that this is a Latina who is very much in touch with her Latino roots and cognizant of the diverse needs of this community.
“She cares about Hispanic issues, across the board,” confirms Erick Diaz, a former president of the Connecticut Hispanic Bar Association, who has seen Bronin in action when she lead that statewide organization in 2011.
One example: When Puerto Rico cancelled all its pre-July 2010 birth certificates and required re-application five years ago; this could have caused problems for Puerto Ricans when they needed to verify their birth date, such as at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Bronin, as a leader of the CHBA made sure information about how to minimize this hassle was distributed to that community.
“Here was a Mexican-American taking up a cause that applied to Puerto Ricans,” Diaz said.   Sarah Bronin’s interest in Latino advancement in some ways reflects her upbringing in Houston, Texas, a city which she said has great diversity.
Before Sara Bronin became the first Latina to earn tenure at the University of Connecticut Law School and the director of the law school’s Center for Energy and Environment Law, and ​before she became chairman of Hartford’s Planning and Zoning, she was Sara Cecilia Galvan, the daughter of Eleuterio and Mary Elizabeth Galvan, both fourth-generation Mexican-Americans.
And before this young Latina left the University of Texas with Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Architecture degrees and a Phi Beta Kappa key, studied economic and social history at England’s historic Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, with her husband graduated from Yale Law School, she grew up in a traditional Texas Mexican household with an extended family that included her grandparents and where everyone pitched in at the family’s Mexican restaurant in Houston.
“The restaurant business is tough,” Bronin said, and for her grandparents’ Romana’s Mexican Restaurant to survive, family involvement was critical. She recalled that during her high school days, she would come home, immediately tackle her homework, and “then I reported to my grandfather’s restaurant to run the cash register.”
The work ethic and devotion to what needs to be done that emerged in Houston has continued, notably on the city’s planning commission, for which she contributes 20-30 hours per week. “This is an unpaid position,” she adds.
Lately, much of her commission workload has been directed at the rewriting of the city’s zoning regulations, a “dramatic sweep” that last took place in 1968.
In October 2014, Mayor Pedro Segarra appointed Bronin to the city Planning and Zoning Commission. She made in clear to her husband’s future primary opponent that for her to achieve the most for the city she had to be chairman. Within a few months, she was handed that gavel.
Among her major contributions has been the establishment of effective lines of communication with the city’s 14 Neighborhood Revitalization Zones. She also has encouraged potential developers to reach out to the NRZs for their input.
Bronin has met with each of these committees at least once and visited places where zoning is an issue. She also has walked the streets in the city’s ethnic neighborhoods to get a clearer sense of what was needed.
“Sara looks at what is best for the city as a whole, and also cares for the neighborhood differences that make Hartford special,” said Melvyn Colon, who joined Bronin on the planning commission last year and is executive director of the Southside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance, the joint effort of Hartford Hospital, Trinity College and the Connecticut Children’s Hospital to redevelop the city’s heavily Hispanic Frog Hollow section.
“Sara has made everyone sensitive and perceptive of the differences between neighborhoods,” Colon said.
Bronin also has been an active leader in the city’s pursuit of community investment grants, bringing money into the city that can be used for affordable housing and for preservation. She says with pride, “Hartford is the highest recipient of these grants.”
As president of CHBA in 2010, Bronin guided this organization into playing an active role and re-engaging with the broader Hispanic community, Diaz said.  This included having the bar association reach out to every Hispanic agency and non-profit in the state, demonstrating an eagerness to meet with their leaders and to let them know they can contact the association for legal help.
With Bronin as president, the bar association became a leading advocate in the effort to have more Hispanics be appointed to the state’s judiciary. “She did the most to help create awareness of the need to diversify the bench, to make it reflect the diversity of the population,” Diaz said.
In addition, the association encouraged Hispanic attorneys to seek judgeships and set up a programs to assist the attorneys with the daunting application process.
“Under Governor Malloy, we’ve seen the fruits of this work,” Bronin said. Several Latinos have been elevated to state judgeships and in 2013 there was the landmark appointment of Carmen Elisa Espinosa to the state Supreme Court. Born in Puerto Rico and raised in New Britain, Espinosa became the state’s first Hispanic justice.
Sarah Bronin first sensed that Hartford had great potential when during her time at law school in New Haven she visited the capital city and found it “quite charming,” she recalled.
She also recognized that Hartford possessed many features which are worth preserving, even if they have to be buffed up a bit to regain their luster. Case in point is the Civil War-era brownstone downtown which the Bronins rehabilitated and now live with their three children, ages six, four and one.
Sara Bronin said some elements in Hartford reminded her of the Houston area where she grew up and which a largely immigrant population has transformed into a “great neighborhood” rich in cultural diversity. “I see some of that energy here in Hartford,” Bronin said. She also says that it will take “energetic leadership” to a city that she feels has a brighter future to the next level.
One place where this energy and leadership is likely to emanate is from Bronin herself.  Diaz says this role fits Bronin well. “I was in the Army and can tell who is a good leader and Sara is a natural when it comes to leading,” said the Puerto Rico-born attorney.
A similar assessment comes from planning commissioner Colon. “She does not let things fall through the cracks,” he added.
In many ways, Sara Bronin’s public contributions are helping fulfill the “dream of contributing to society through policy work and politics,” a characteristic she ascribed to her future husband early in their relationship and mentioned in their 2007 New York Times wedding announcement. The Bronins were married when she was 28 and he was 27.
In the Times wedding report, Luke Bronin said the following about his bride:  “She’s tough, she’s feisty, she’s also fun.”
Asked about how she relaxes, Bronin said she enjoys writing and points to a book case at the rear of her law school office. Among the volumes are those she has written, and as is her focused nature, their subects include zoning, land use and renewable energy.
Sara Bronin’s professional objective, stated on social media, is to “balance academia, legal/architectural practice and public service in furtherance of her goal of facilitating economically and environmentally sustainable cities.” In support of this endeavor she a principal in an architectural and consulting firm, has written books and articles on historic preservation and renewable energy and plays an active role in preservation, environmental and legal organizations.
Speaking Spanish is a natural for Sara Bronin. Before she was born, The Galvans had lived in Brownsville, the state’s southern-most city where the Spanish-speaking population and influence is so dominant one of her great-grandparents never needed to learn English.
The language situation was different when they moved to Houston. Still, as part of a Mexican-American household and with her mother a middle school Spanish teacher, she had little choice but to become fluent in her family’s native language.
At the University of Texas, Sara ‌minored in Spanish while earning Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Architecture degrees with liberal arts minors. She also delved into campus politics and served as chairman of the Student Senate.
Next stop was Oxford in England where the future Sara Bronin found time to be part of her college’s rowing team, seated as coxswain. This latter role, if nothing else, provided an early demonstration of her  ability to energize and effectively steer groups, such as the planning commission and bar association.
As a member of the planning and zoning team, Colon comments, “I am thankful she is at the helm.”
After Oxford, she attended law school at Yale, where she was a member of the Latino Law Students Association. A memento of this time is on display at her office at the UConn Law School. It is a certificate stating that Sara C. Galvan is a 2004 CHBA scholarship recipient.
In recent years, Sara Bronin, she has helped raise funds for this scholarship program so that other law students, who in many cases are Hispanic like herself, could receive a similar boost.
There is one Sara Bronin trait that is well known to associates such as Diaz and Colon. “She is inexhaustible,” said Colon, who like Diaz mentioned receiving emails 1 or 2 a.m. from Bronin, and asked, “Where does she get her energy from?”
The answer apparently is not from sleep. Asked how she can manage a multi-faceted schedule of teaching, working as an attorney, architect, urban consultant and be there early in the morning when her three young children awake, Bronin answered straight faced, “I don’t sleep.”