Political newcomer battling two veteran state senators


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Aug 10, 2023

Political newcomer battling two veteran state senators

Arunan Arulampalam is taking an unusual path. Many of Arulampalam’s fellow attorneys live in the affluent suburbs outside Hartford and raise their families in communities with lauded public schools

Arunan Arulampalam is taking an unusual path.

Many of Arulampalam’s fellow attorneys live in the affluent suburbs outside Hartford and raise their families in communities with lauded public schools and low crime.

But Arulampalam and his wife, Liza, are raising five children under the age of 10, including four who attend Hartford public schools. They live in the city’s hardscrabble Frog Hollow section, where crime and poverty are far higher than in the suburbs.

The reason? Because they love Hartford.

And now Arulampalam, at age 37, wants to be the city’s next mayor.

Arulampalam is not a household name in the Greater Hartford region, but he is well known to Hartford insiders and political power brokers. He won the endorsement from the city’s Democratic convention and is being supported by Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin and influential city Democratic leader Marc DiBella.

He defeated two longtime state legislators — Sen. John Fonfara and former Sen. Eric Coleman — for the party endorsement. Such a victory is rare for a political newcomer, but Arulampalam won the convention in decisive fashion with 46 votes, compared to 21 for Fonfara and 10 for Coleman. He will face them in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary.

Some political insiders are wondering exactly how a first-time candidate did it.

“I think people want a mayor who is the embodiment of their city and their concerns and somebody they can feel and touch,” he told The Courant. “I’ve always tried to be as present as I can — meeting people where they are and trying to understand what people are concerned about. I think the town committee members saw that. They’ve been voting for two of my competitors for about as long as I’ve been alive, and they were given clear choices. The city of Hartford wants a vision for our future but also speaks to a unified Hartford that doesn’t seek to divide us based on geography and pit communities against each other.”

A Hartford resident for about a decade, he lives in Frog Hollow within walking distance of Park Street and Broad Street — an area of higher crime in a city that recently had eight homicides in 10 days.

Gary Rose, a longtime political science professor at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, said that Arulampalam will gain support by having his children in a nearby public magnet school.

“That could resonate with people that he’s one of us,” Rose said in an interview. “We have a number of these people who claim to be part of the people, but at the same time they send their kids to these exclusive prep schools and private schools. That story will get out because that will reach teachers’ unions and that will reach voters who care about people staying within the community. That’s a message that will resonate very well with voters. So much of voting is visceral. It’s not so policy-oriented as some people think. So much of it is how you feel about a person and whether you respect the person.”

A longtime political watcher who has written multiple books over the past 30 years, Rose said that Arulampalam benefits from the political dynamic in 2023 that is favorable to outsiders and newcomers.

“Not holding public office today is perfectly fine,” Rose said. “A lot of voters like outsiders today. I see it as a plus.”

Aside from any policies, Rose compared Arulampalam’s appeal to Vivek Ramaswamy, the outspoken Republican presidential candidate and Yale Law School graduate who has performed well in polls despite never having held public office. Ramaswamy is still far behind former President Donald J. Trump in the polls, but he burst onto the national stage with a debate performance that pleased many Republicans while alienating Democrats. Many surveys have shown Ramawsamy, a first-time candidate, ahead of longtime politicians who have held major positions as governors, including Chris Christie of New Jersey, Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, Doug Burgum of North Dakota and former Vice President Mike Pence.

From Zimbabwe to Hartford

Born in Zimbabwe in 1985, Arulampalam came to the United States with his parents, who left Sri Lanka as refugees during the civil war. At 37, he is far younger than his two opponents, 67-year-old Fonfara and 72-year-old Coleman.

“We were lucky enough when we came to the U.S. that I had a great uncle, my grandmother’s brother, who had already settled in the U.S. and left Sri Lanka before the war,” he said. “He had a home and welcomed all the Sri Lankan refugees in our family — and a whole bunch of people we didn’t know before then — into his home. I grew up in this incredible home that was full of refugees. Everybody in that house went on to do incredible things.”

After growing up in California and later graduating from law school at Quinnipiac University, Arulampalam eventually worked for nearly five years at the politically connected law firm of Updike, Kelly & Spellacy.

Among 70 attorneys at the well-known firm, Arulampalam said he was the only attorney of color and the only lawyer who lived in Hartford.

During those years, he often thought about the future of Hartford and its possibilities.

“I would go to work every day — sometimes bike there, sometimes drive there — and go through our community,” Arulampalam said. “Every single day, I dreamed about what was possible in communities like mine across Hartford and what was possible in the housing stock as I passed through all of these vacant, blighted properties on the way to work. Every day, as I was punching the clock and getting billable hours to help pay off my student loans and pay for this new house, I thought about the possibilities of the neighborhoods around me. That has fueled so much of my passion to be involved in this community.”

After leaving the downtown law firm, he became deputy commissioner in Gov. Ned Lamont’s consumer protection department. He then took the next step by becoming chief executive officer of the Hartford Land Bank, a nonprofit that rehabilitates blighted housing to help create affordable housing for Hartford residents. That brought him into daily contact with the city’s long-running problems with housing.

Family ties

Although he is a Democrat, Arulamapalam is a member of a prominent Republican political family that is well known in Connecticut. His wife, Liza, is the daughter of Greg Butler, a longtime Republican who briefly ran for governor and serves as general counsel for Eversource, the mammoth utility that delivers much of Connecticut’s electricity. Butler is married to former House Republican leader Themis Klarides, a longtime legislator who won her party’s convention endorsement but lost to conservative fundraiser Leora Levy of Greenwich in the 2022 U.S. Senate primary.

Butler and Klarides both contributed to Arulampalam’s campaign, along with state Rep. Nicole Klarides-Ditria of Seymour, and her son, Cade, who plays football at Trinity College in Hartford.

While collecting contributions from Republicans, Arulampalam has also received funding from leading liberals and supporters of the union-backed Working Families Party, including former city council member Wildaliz Bermudez and current councilor Tiana Hercules. Democratic state legislators Julio Concepcion of Hartford, Eleni Kavros DeGraw of Avon, Cristin McCarthy Vahey of Fairfield, and Sen. Jan Hochadel of Meriden also are among the supporters.

Burning candle at both ends

In his neighborhood, Arulampalam has learned the lessons of the major problems facing Hartford.

When his family lived on Vernon Street, about a mile from where they live now, their home was next door to an apartment building that was largely filled with low-income Section 8 residents. It was the winter of 2020 when they saw immediate changes after the building was sold by a Hartford resident to New York investors.

“Slowly, we noticed that fewer and fewer lights were on,” Arulampalam said. “Then in the midst of COVID, right before Christmas, they just started kicking residents out. They said they needed to do renovations and so the residents needed to leave, but when you’re on Section 8 vouchers, you have very few options. … Some of the residents tried to stick around and fight it, and they shut off the power in the entire building. It was just horribly inhumane. You could see at a really visceral level what happens when your own neighbors become numbers on a spreadsheet to somebody else. It fueled this incredible anger and also a passion to try to do something different in my neighborhood. Around the same time, I had an opportunity to become the CEO of the Hartford Land Bank.”

Local Hartford residents, he said, need “the opportunity to build the same pathways to generational wealth that every other community has gotten for generations.”

While 76% of Hartford residents are renters and the city has the lowest percentage of homeownership in Connecticut, Arulampalam says that as many residents as possible need to be given a chance.

“Not everybody is going to be a homeowner, but more than 24% of our residents need to be able to build wealth in the place that they live,” he said. “And that’s the work we’ve been doing at the Land Bank.”

During a recent debate at The Lyceum off Capitol Avenue, Arulampalam urged as many voters as possible to cast ballots in the three-way Democratic primary on Sept. 12.

“The election is maybe the most consequential vote you can make as a citizen of this city — more than votes in presidential elections or Senatorial elections,” he told the crowd. “This may be the most consequential vote you make.”

This is the first in a series of profiles on candidates in the Hartford mayoral primary race. Future stories will focus on Democratic candidates John Fonfara and Eric Coleman.

Christopher Keating can be reached at [email protected]

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From Zimbabwe to HartfordFamily ties Burning candle at both ends