I returned to regionalism recently, talking about Mayor Bronin’s recent comments and his general lack of interest in pursuing regional solutions to move greater Hartford forward. I tried not to be critical of his passive approach to the problem, because I understand that, politics being what they are, merging Hartford and several other towns has always been a sinking ship in the capital region. It’s not a ship any politician wants to captain.
I’ve struggled for years when the regionalism question gets around to leadership. Who will get out in front of the community and get people headed in the right direction, the direction that will lead to a vital and growing capital region? There is no obvious answer.
Leadership is difficult. A community leader must help organize and enlighten the public so that over time, a consensus for change builds. Get too far in front, and the voters lose sight of where the leader is going. Stay in the pack, and no one listens. Follow the crowd is what works for politicians, and that is exactly why politicians rarely are community leaders. Mike Peters may have been the last mayor of Hartford who might have lead the community (not just Hartford) to a better place.
Luke Bronin took on the challenge early in his first term as mayor, and went on a brief, very brief, speaking tour, hoping to get support for Hartford from the surrounding towns. He quickly decided that his time was better spent on almost anything else.
Part of the problem with the Mayor’s aborted effort to promote regionalism was that he was from the city. Leadership of a group must come from inside the group, not outside. The residents of the towns surrounding Hartford consider anyone from Hartford, including the Mayor, to be an outsider. A visitor from Hartford is more likely to be viewed as a barbarian invader than a friend with whom we might build a cooperative future. Leadership for a merger between Hartford and several towns must come from the towns.
Greater Hartford no longer has any natural leaders. No politician is elected to represent greater Hartford. There no longer is a home-grown, 800-pound gorilla employer who speaks with a voice loud enough to get our attention, let alone a half dozen such employers, as was the case when UTC and the big-five insurance companies dominated the greater Hartford employment scene. All the big employers are headquartered elsewhere, and their CEOs aren’t focused on Hartford in anything like they were in the 60s and 70s. The last great community-oriented project led by the so-called Bishops was the organization of the effort to bring the Whalers to Connecticut. Yes, corporate Hartford has written some big checks to help get the city through some dark times, but check-writing, important as it is, isn’t leadership. Senior executives at Hartford’s major employers may understand that regional government would be great for greater Hartford, but they’ve shown no appetite for leading the effort.
Some people might think the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving is or could be a community leader, but it isn’t It is, intentionally, a “responsive grant maker,” a follower. With a few exceptions, the Foundation doesn’t create movements or organizations; it supports the activities of others. The Foundation likes to think of itself as a convener – it some cases it helps people and organizations in greater Hartford come together, and it wants to participate in decisions that are important to the community, but it doesn’t create and fund its own activities. In a sense, it is like current corporate Hartford – the Foundation writes checks but isn’t a leader. The Foundation might help fund efforts to develop regional government in greater Hartford, but it won’t and shouldn’t be a leader. I say that not as a criticism; the Foundation’s position in the community is the result of decades of careful thought and decision-making on the subject.
The last great citizen movement to effect major change in Hartford was, I believe, Riverfront Recapture. I’ve written before, and I continue to believe, that Riverfront Recapture is something of a model for a citizen group that could lead greater Hartford out of its governance mess. River Recapture was founded by citizens who saw a problem and who envisioned a different future. They found financial support in a variety of places, built a movement, and literally changed the riverfront in Hartford. The work is not done, but whatever else might be done in the future, Riverfront Recapture has unquestionably been a success.
There is a citizens group at work today on the future of greater Hartford. It’s called Hartford 400. Their objective is “to make the Connecticut Valley — its river, towns, and capital city — a more sustainable, prosperous, equitable, mobile, and vibrant place for the generations to come.” They hope to get the job done, or at least well on its way, by the 400th anniversary of the founding of Hartford by white folks in 1635. Rationalizing the governance of greater Hartford does not seem to be on their agenda.
Hartford 400 is the group behind the effort to reroute I-84 through tunnels on the north and south sides of the city, which would reunite the north and south sides of the city and would also create hundreds of developable acres in East Hartford. It’s a grand project that would do wonders for the future of greater Hartford, and the project would be complemented perfectly by a merger of at least Hartford and East Hartford. Hartford 400 also drove the iQuilt project, a successful effort to make downtown Hartford more walkable.
I’ve looked repeatedly at Hartford 400’s website (https://hartford400.org/about/), and I can’t figure out what people are responsible for organizing and operating the organization. It may be that they realize that if you’re going to suggest radical change in Hartford, it’s best to say your piece and duck.
In any case, it seems that Hartford 400 has more than enough on its plate already, and taking on a decades-long process to change governance in great Hartford isn’t likely ever to be on their radar. We need someone else to lead the effort.
So, my question is, “Where will be find the people to step forward to lead governance change in great Hartford?”