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Hartford’s Democratic Unwritten Rule

Jeff Cohen @ WNPR

July 9, 2010

Now that Pedro Segarra is Hartford's mayor, the city's Democrats have begun the process of picking a successor to the seat he left vacant on the city council.  And as WNPR's Jeff Cohen reports, city political leaders are again dealing with the question of just how far they should go to achieve a racial and ethnic balance of power.

There's an unwritten rule in Hartford Democratic politics -- of the six endorsed Democrats on the city council, two will be white, two will be black, and two will be Latino.  

“It's been that way for 30 years.”

That's Democratic city councilman Matt Ritter .  He's white, and he was only able to run for his seat in 2007 because its occupant, another white councilman, decided not to.

“It's not written anywhere.  It's just how it has worked.”

Democrats say the effort to balance their slate goes back to the late 1960s.  By the early 1990s, the unwritten rule solidified into the 2-2-2 split between the city's three main racial and ethnic groups. 

“Hartford is kind of  like Afghanistan.”

That's former city Councilman Steve Harris, who just got back into city politics as a member of the Democratic town committee.

“You know, we've got tribal leaders, or what people think are tribal leaders, and everybody's got their sections and things have to be just so.”

"Hartford is pretty much divided along racial and ethnic lines. We keep trying to get farther and farther away from each other.  I mean, we put on a good face, we smile, we're civil.  But there's no real interaction."

Harris says it hasn't always been that way, and that personal, one-on-one interaction between people of different backgrounds is what the city needs.  Not an engineered city council. So he's not necessarily looking for a Latino replacement on city council for Mayor Pedro Segarra.

“My thought is, let's look at these interviews and let's get the best person we can get.”

But not everyone sees it that way.  Some like state Representative Minnie Gonzalez are saying only Latinos need apply for the council seat. And only Latinos should decide who will fill it.

“I received phone calls from Latinos but I also received phone calls from non-Latinos requesting support for that seat. And I was very clear.  I say, you know, 'I'm sorry, but no, because this is a Latino seat.'”

Gonzalez says the point isn't to divide the city.  The point is ensure equal representation, and to maintain civility.

“Let's say that they will go with the six best people, and we decide, well, you know, the six best people are the Latinos.  What do you think that the African Americans and the Anglos are going to say – wait a minute.  Where is our representation?  And the same thing goes with us.  Where is our representation?”

Hartford's new mayor, like it's old mayor, is Latino.  And Segarra says he, too, once benefited from the Democratic efforts to keep racial and ethnic balance in city government.  He was once appointed corporation counsel by an African American mayor.  And he says that part of the reason for that appointment was because he is Latino.

Now it's Segarra who is mayor.  And he has to choose the city's next top lawyer.  Its last corporation counsel was an African American man appointed by a Latino mayor .  Will its next top lawyer necessarily be African American, too?

“Let me put it this way.  I will never try to have a racial, ethnic or balance at the expense of getting incompetent or unqualified people.”

Segarra says he's in the process of considering replacements.

Reprinted with permission of Jeff Cohen, author of the blog Capital Region Report. To view other stories on this topic, search Capital Region Report at http://capitalregionreport.wordpress.com/.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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