What Isn’t the Matter With Hartford?

Hartford, Conn.

The Hartford Courant has had a presence in Connecticut’s capital city for 250 years. Last month the paper’s owners announced that its newsroom would close for good. The Courant will continue to publish, but its reporters and editors will no longer work the phones in its downtown offices. Some journalists may consider the shift to remote work a relief. Hartford is the state’s most dangerous city and, by some measures, among the most dangerous cities in the country.

Once famous as the “insurance capital of the world,” Hartford has been in decline for 30 years. In the 1990s, Hartford’s population hemorrhage made national news. Today it is smaller still, less than 70% of what it was in 1950. Hartford’s poverty rate is one of the highest in the nation. The city is falling apart.

Even before the pandemic, WalletHub.com ranked Hartford 46th among state capitals in affordability, economic well-being, education, health and quality of life. The past nine months are unlikely to have improved that ranking. The city spends more than $400 million annually on education ($17,260 per student) yet nearly 30% of its students don’t graduate high school on time. Only 18% of students in grades 3 through 8 test at age-appropriate levels in math, and 25% do so in reading.

Hartford has been governed almost exclusively by Democrats since 1948. The city’s sole Republican mayor during that time,

Antonina Uccello,

left office in 1971. Earlier this year Mayor

Luke Bronin,

41, embraced the progressive mantra to “defund the police” and reduced the city’s public-safety budget by $2 million, or 6%. The spike in gun violence that followed required Mr. Bronin to ask

Gov. Ned Lamont,

also a Democrat, to send in the Connecticut State Police. There were more than 200 shootings in the city through the first 11 months of the year—making it Hartford’s most violent year in at least a decade. What does Mr. Bronin think is responsible? A Connecticut Public Radio report put it bluntly: “The mayor blames the explosion of gun violence in his city on COVID-19.”

Mr. Bronin was elected in 2015 and re-elected in 2019. As a former senior official in the Obama Treasury Department, he seemed—on paper, at least—like the right man for the job of turning around a city plagued by deep and persistent fiscal problems. Hartford suffers from excessive debt levels, large amounts of tax-exempt government property, runaway pension costs, structural budget deficits, and a property-tax rate that is the highest in the state.

Instead of putting a plan in place to correct decades of fiscal mismanagement, Mr. Bronin headed to the suburbs to pitch a zany left-wing idea. Progressives call it “regionalism.” Sane people call it a tax grab.

Hartford was critical to the entire region’s success, Mr. Bronin argued, so the surrounding suburbs should share their tax revenue with the city and absorb some of its costs. This, he argued, was essential to ensuring Hartford’s fiscal stability. “You can’t be a suburb of nowhere,” he told residents of West Hartford, a separate municipality. Not surprisingly, West Hartford and other adjacent towns sent Mr. Bronin packing.

In an attempt to shake a state bailout from

Gov. Dannel Malloy,

Mr. Lamont’s Democratic predecessor, Mr. Bronin drew up plans for Hartford’s bankruptcy in 2017. The threat proved effective. Mr. Malloy knew that a bankrupt capital city would be a black eye for Connecticut, as Harrisburg had been for Pennsylvania in 2011, so he agreed to let Connecticut taxpayers pick up all of Hartford’s general obligation debt, about $534 million, over the next three decades.

With Hartford’s financial problems “solved,” Mr. Bronin abandoned all pretense of reform and is focused exclusively on promoting regionalism, the justification for which has lately shifted from cost savings to racial and economic equity. DesegregateCT, a new nonprofit founded by Sara Bronin—an architect, law professor and the mayor’s wife—claims that “outdated” zoning laws make the state’s small towns unaffordable and, therefore, responsible for concentrations of urban poverty. The horrible economic policies of the politicians—and public-employee unions—who run Connecticut’s cities evidently has nothing to do with the condition they are in.

Instead of taking zoning control away from well-managed towns across the state, Mr. Lamont should work with mayors to fix their cities’ fundamental structural problems. Bailouts may hide those problems for a while, but they’ll return eventually.

Families in Hartford and cities across Connecticut have been waiting decades for true reform. Private charities have helped fill the gaps left by weak political leaders, but fixing Connecticut’s broken cities will require difficult decisions. Short-term bailouts won’t cut it. Neither will false claims about the efficacy of regionalism or other progressive pipe dreams.

Connecticut desperately needs leaders who are willing to confront special-interest groups and reform the pensions that are crushing city budgets. Cities like Hartford need to lower taxes and reduce regulations to attract business and create jobs. Mayors need to clean up troubled neighborhoods and address crime, invest in charter and magnet schools, and allow education funding to follow the child, giving parents the ability to choose where their kids go to school, rather than trapping them in underperforming districts.

None of this is easy. None of it is fast. And none of it is politically expedient or likely to be supported by powerful public-sector unions—which probably explains why, at least in Connecticut, none of it happens.

Mr. Stefanowski was the 2018 Republican nominee for governor of Connecticut.

Correction: Sara Bronin’s first name was misspelled in an earlier version.

The best of 2020 from Kim Strassel, Kyle Peterson, Mary O’Grady, Dan Henninger and Paul Gigot. Photo: Getty Images

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