By Ann-Marie Adams, Op-Ed Columnist
Shawn Wooden is a curious fellow.
Not long after giving an impassioned speech about plans to be Hartford’s next elected mayor, he mysteriously quit.
The recent news of his withdrawal from the mayoral race was strange, even within the context of Gov. Dannel Malloy’s intervention. It was also shocking to some, but not to those following the machinations of Hartford’s political underbelly.
Wooden, a prodigal son of Hartford, returned from New York several years ago and recently began pursuit of his long-held political ambition: to be the third black mayor of Hartford. Thirman Milner was the first in 1981 until 1987. Carrie Saxon Perry was the second in 1987 until 1993. Wooden was Perry’s assistant and a rising political star.
To some, Wooden had the mayoral timber to be “the next one.” Had he continued on as the top contender to Mayor Pedro Segarra and won, he would have defied naysayers who said there will never be another black mayor in Hartford. Instead, Wooden raised then shattered the hope of many.
So for some residents, he still has some explanation to do.
But to others, an explanation isn’t necessary. Wooden’s political pivot was inevitable. Perhaps the essence of this inevitability lies in Wooden’s past in Project Concern, a school program that bussed Hartford students into the suburbs.
Wooden, while in Manchester High School, said he learned how to navigate his way around stereotypes about blacks. He apparently developed what some would call “engaging characteristics” appealing to suburban whites. His experience exposed him to other children, (usually whites) who “expected to succeed.” This was a touted benefit of the program that began in 1966.
But few talked about the psychological harm to some impressionable black teenagers in an all-white world perceived as ideal, especially ones without a solid foundation in their own history and thier people’s contributions to society. Was Wooden affected in such way? I don’t know.
But this much I do know: Wooden walked away learning how to negotiate a white world, but failed to learn how to navigate the old neighborhood he left behind. So when he went knocking on doors there, few people warmed up to him.
As the story goes, Wooden left the neighborhood to achieve for himself and his family. And as one resident said: “He didn’t achieve for us.” Hey, I have yet to hear a story of Wooden doing pro bono work as a lawyer in his old neighborhood.
In addition, his wife was supposedly adamant about not placing their sons into the Hartford Public School system. So to some, it was like this: “If your kids are too good to be in school with our children, you don’t need to be my mayor.”
While Wooden racked up record amounts of money for his mayoral campaign, his letter-writing campaign to solicit support from several Democratic Town Committee members resulted in naught.
And although he had the inside political connection, his campaign message lacked appeal to those outside city hall. His message was mostly tailored to corporate Hartford and to the suburbs rather than to Hartford residents. He also sent his press releases to media houses that cater to suburbanites, rather than to local neighborhood and ethnic press focused on Hartford.
Besides that political blunder, there was the issue of his hiring “an Indian from Ohio and a white girl from Kansas” to run his campaign, said Butch Lewis, who said he’s supporting Segarra.
“They couldn’t even find their way from downtown Hartford to Mahl Street,” Lewis said. “He met with us and told us we’re not ‘intelligent enough’ to run his campaign.”
If that was actually true, Wooden showcased the same arrogance espoused by his friend and former mayor of Washington, D.C., Adrian Fenty. Fenty was perceived as someone who snubbed D.C.’s black community. He was reportedly insulting to D.C. taxi drivers, who on election day, galvanized. From sun up to sun down, taxi drivers volunteered to take people to the polls for free—all in an effort to vote out Fenty. Apparently Fenty forgot that these “foreign” taxi drivers were also citizens who could vote.
Here in Hartford, some African Americans had already decided they wouldn’t give Wooden a chance to get in as mayor—no matter how much money he amassed. Wooden’s decision to withdraw from the mayoral race may have been calculated several weeks ago. The questions Wooden had to face then were: how and when.
But the question he will face as he continues on as candidate for the Hartford city council is: why?