Published in the Graduate Report, Fall/Winter 2012
At the age of fifteen, Pedro Segarra ’85 left his mother and five siblings and moved – by himself – to Hartford to escape the gang violence that took the lives of two of his good friends in the Bronx neighborhood his family had settled in after leaving Puerto Rico in 1966. While Segarra never imagined he would someday be Hartford’s mayor when he stepped off the bus in Union Station, he came to the city he now leads – and loves – optimistic about the future. “I spoke to my mother and basically told her I was leaving because I wanted to do better for myself and get away from the drugs, drinking and guns,” recalls Segarra, whose father was shot and killed when Pedro was only a year old. “That conversation took place on a Thursday. On Friday, I told my boss at the supermarket that I needed my paychecks because I was leaving on Saturday to get away from the gangs.”
According to Segarra, his decision to start a new life in Hartford had its roots in a conversation he had at a San Juan Festival in New York with Maria Angelica Bithorn, a professor at Greater Hartford Community College (now Capital Community College) at the time. When he learned that Bithorn was a professor, Segarra told her he wanted to go to college some day, perhaps her college, and he proceeded to write down her telephone number on a paper bag. “She told me to look her up if I ever got to Hartford,” he says. He did.
Once settled in Hartford, Segarra took classes at Greater Hartford Community College, completed his high school education two nights a week back in New York, and worked a 72-hour shift from Friday to Monday as an EMT for an ambulance company. Before long, the hard work paid off. In 1979, Segarra completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Hartford (which he attended on a full scholarship), after which he went on to earn a master’s in social work at UConn. “I had my eye on going to UConn Law while I was at the University of Hartford, but I was lacking confidence, so I figured I would first do the master’s program,” explains Segarra, who worked as a psychiatric social worker at Hartford Hospital while in law school.
Upon passing the bar exam, Segarra ran his own community law practice (with a year-long hiatus as an assistant state’s attorney) until being called upon in 1991 to fill a vacated position as Hartford’s corporation counsel. At the time, Segarra was 32 years old, making him the youngest corporation counsel in the city’s history. “Back then, I was doing a lot of community work,” he says, “so even though I wasn’t involved in politics, I was very familiar with a lot of people in the city. Also, I was quite diligent and thorough, whether I was doing real estate closings, criminal work or administrative work, so people who knew me as an attorney knew I had a very good record.”
After three terms as corporation counsel (then a part-time position), Segarra returned to private practice on a fulltime basis in 1996, at which time he focused on integrating his social work and legal skills, particularly in divorce and disability cases. Although Segarra notes (with a broad grin) that he also used his “integrated professional training to deal with politicians,” he didn’t consider entering the political arena himself until he was asked to fill a vacancy on Hartford’s Court of Common Council in 2006. After first declining the offer, he took the seat with the intention of finishing out the eighteen months left in the term. “Then I decided to run for another term – and I won,” says Segarra, chuckling. “Halfway through that next term I became Council president, and when the mayor resigned I slid into that position with no intention of running after that.” So much for good intentions. On November 5, 2011, Segarra was elected Hartford’s 66th mayor, garnering more than 80% of the vote.
Despite the many difficult challenges he faces as mayor of one of the region’s poorest cities, Segarra, who was named one of 2010’s “Most Compelling People” by Out magazine, looks to the future with the same optimism he had when he arrived in Hartford nearly 40 years ago. “[When I took office], I had a million things that I wanted to do, including improve the educational reform agenda, develop and grow our downtown for residents and businesses, reduce crime, take down dilapidated buildings, further develop our transportation infrastructure, improve the conditions of the parks, address housing conditions at Bowles Park and Westbrook Village, and make the business of my office more transparent. I wanted to take on everything. I have come to realize that the harder I work, the more the sky is the limit. Even in difficult times, there is a lot we can do.”
So what does Pedro Segarra do when he is away from the mayor’s office? “There is no life away from the mayor’s office,” exclaims a half-joking Segarra, who lives in Hartford’s West End with his husband, Charlie Ortiz, a leading advocate of beautification efforts in Hartford. “There is too much to be done.”