Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin’s decision to explore a gubernatorial bid may have pushed him to the forefront of the race to succeed Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, but Republicans are already eager to tie Bronin to his widely unpopular former boss.
“There’s no question this is Malloy’s candidate,” said JR Romano, chairman of the state Republican Party.
The Republican Governors Association also immediately pounced on the Bronin-Malloy connection.
“A committed protégé and former staffer for Dan Malloy, Bronin has followed the failed governor’s playbook in Hartford, pursuing a reckless tax-and-spend agenda,” the group said.
Malloy has held off on endorsing anyone to be his successor. He endorsed Bronin for mayor in 2015, but only after Bronin was successful against then-Mayor Pedro Segarra in a Democratic primary.
“All the Democrats I consider good and viable candidates and he certainly is a good and viable candidate,” the governor told reporters last week when asked about the 38-year-old Bronin, who spent two years as his general counsel.
The gubernatorial race has largely been overshadowed by the state’s continuing fiscal crisis. No candidate has emerged as a clear front-runner for either party.
“You have a broad field with no one really standing out … and with that, it’s open to any serious contender,” said Ronald Schurin, a professor of political science at UConn.
“Politics is about seizing opportunity,” said Liz Kurantowicz, a Republican political consultant. “For somebody who wants to run for higher office, as it seems Mayor Bronin does, you have to strike while the iron is hot.”
With former federal prosecutor Chris Mattei last week declaring his candidacy for attorney general instead of governor, Bronin joins a core group of candidates, including four other Democrats who have formed exploratory committees and Middletown Mayor Dan Drew, who has formally declared a run for governor.
And, just a day after Bronin revealed his plans to form an exploratory committee, New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart said she is considering a run for governor, saying she is “increasingly concerned with the field of candidates that are out there.’’
Jonathan Wharton, a political science professor at Southern Connecticut State University and chairman of the New Haven Republican town committee, said Bronin, a Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law School graduate, has a “stellar resume” and “connections, purse strings and the ability to convey messaging” that rivals any of the other Democratic candidates.
“My concerns would be, can he be a credible candidate after serving half a term as mayor and what ways would he have to separate himself from Malloy?” Wharton said. “No question he was a Malloyist; he certainly has made that known.”
Big-city mayors have been successful in winning the Democratic nomination in the past: New Haven’s John DeStefano in 2006 and Stamford’s Malloy in 2010. Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim sought the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1994 during his first stint as the city’s mayor.
Business leaders have said building strong cities is key to getting Connecticut out of its persistent economic funk and making the state more attractive to millennials.
"Our younger generation of workers are leaving Connecticut for states that have thriving urban centers with easy access to live, work and play," Andrea Comer, a vice president with the Connecticut Business and Industry Association wrote recently. "That fact has prompted relocation of businesses, decline in post-secondary enrollment, and a desperate need for talent.”
Comer was writing about Stanley Black & Decker’s decision to open an advanced manufacturing training and research center in downtown Hartford.
"Strong urban cores, and in particular a vibrant capital city, are essential to Connecticut's ability to thrive," Stanley CEO Jim Loree said in announcing the new center.
But Gary Rose, a political science professor at Sacred Heart University, said voters in many corners of the state have a negative perception of Hartford.
“When Dan Malloy ran, he had a story to tell about his successes and all the good things that were happening down in Stamford,” he said. “With Luke Bronin, you have to wonder, what’s the Hartford story? The verge of bankruptcy? Trying to create regional support to bail his city out? It doesn’t seem like there’s a real compelling story there about Hartford.”
Labor leaders have been critical of Bronin’s attempts to gain budget savings through union concessions, and he may have trouble winning over public employee unions.
“He’s got miles to go before he gets into a general election against a Republican candidate,” said Kurantowicz, the Republican political consultant. “I don’t know that he’s necessarily the guy that the government unions are going to run to.”
In an email to supporters announcing his plans to form an exploratory committee, Bronin touted his work to improve Hartford’s fiscal situation and the importance of “vibrant, culturally rich cities [that] can be the economic engines that help us keep our suburbs and small towns strong.” He also pledged to stand up to President Donald Trump.
“In Hartford and in Connecticut, we’ve stood up to protect women’s access to health care, advocated for compassionate immigration policies, stood strongly and proudly in support of our LGBTQ+ community, worked to build a second chance society and made environmental sustainability a priority,” Bronin wrote.
One potential Democratic candidate waiting in the wings is former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, who has been fielding calls to run. She was a front-runner for governor in 2010 before switching to the race for attorney general, an office, it was later determined, she wasn’t qualified to hold.
Bronin is expected to face criticism for comments he made during his 2015 mayoral campaign when he promised to serve a full four-year term if elected.
Steve Harris, a retired Hartford firefighter and former city council member who supported Bronin’s mayoral campaign, said he wouldn’t hold it against Bronin if he left the mayor’s office for the governor’s mansion.
“I’d be kind of disappointed, but by the same token I also understand we need folks, not only Hartford but cities in general, need someone at the state Capitol that understands the trials, tribulations and struggles that cities go through,” Harris said. “I’d love to see him stay but … I also recognize that we need friends in that governor’s office.”
Schruin said a promise to serve out a full term hasn’t stopped other politicians from getting elected to higher office. And while Bronin may not have statewide name recognition, he noted that Phil Murphy, the Democrat who was elected governor of New Jersey last month, was largely unknown to voters at the start of his campaign.