April 10, 2017
Bishops Redux?

Ghosts of Hartford's past power brokers hover over insurers' $50M pledge

PHOTO | Steve Laschever
PHOTO | Steve Laschever
The Hartford's CEO Christopher Swift, shown in the insurer's Capital City headquarters, joined with the chiefs of Aetna and Travelers in pledging support for the city.
PHOTO | “Images of America, Hartford Volume II,” by Wilson H. Faude
An old photo of the 1970s construction of Hartford’s tallest skyscraper, CityPlace I, formerly home to Aetna, which was instrumental in the building’s development.
Robert Killian Jr. said the bishops’ interests often meshed with Hartford’s.
Mayor Luke Bronin says Hartford’s relationship with businesses isn’t paternal: “I view it as a partnership.’’

The recent $50 million pledge to Hartford from three major insurers headquartered in the city recalled a time generations ago when the civic, economic and cultural interests and future of the city and region were in the powerful hands of a few business leaders.

Known as the "bishops'' or the "bosses,'' those dozen or so men — and a handful of women who also played a role — intervened as necessary, either through their businesses or the then-influential head of the local chamber of commerce and local and state politicians, to bring to or get done whatever the city needed.

The financial pledge from The Hartford, Aetna and Travelers, to be spread over five years, comes as the city struggles to close deficits in its current and future budgets. With the state also grappling with financial pressures, the three major regional employers' gift to the city, which would help fund, among other things, the Hartford Public Library, public safety and recreation centers, would appear to be timely.

However, the insurers haven't said precisely what they expect in return for their pledge, other than being "part of a comprehensive and sustainable solution for Hartford," which the CEOs declared in a published op-ed.

That, says Andrew H. Walsh, a Trinity College professor/historian who has tracked Hartford's history, raises skepticism in some as to the companies' motives.

"I read in the newspaper that Aetna's headquarters might leave and go to Louisville [Ky.], or might go to Boston,'' said Walsh, who is associate director of Trinity's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. "At a certain level, what everybody worries about is that the insurance companies are slowly withdrawing from the scene. They don't have to stay.''

"But it is true that it's in their best interests that Hartford not be an empty shell,'' he said. "They're trying to recruit workers. They own property here. But that doesn't mean they're always going to be here forever.''

The CEOs of Aetna and Travelers weren't willing to talk in more detail about their pledge, beyond their previously stated shared goal in wanting to help Hartford avoid bankruptcy.

But The Hartford's Chairman and CEO Christopher J. Swift told Hartford Business Journal last month that the investment is "creative but also necessary, because the city is in crisis and bold action is necessary.''

Asked about the pledge's origin in an interview, Mayor Luke Bronin said it stemmed from his ongoing dialogue with residents, businesses and leaders in the city and region about a shared fiscal solution, one that possibly includes collaborating to provide certain municipal services. Bronin said the trio didn't ask for tax abatements or other considerations in exchange for their commitment.

"They're not asking for anything that I'm not asking for … that the state work with all our parties so we have a sustainable solution'' to the city's fiscal problems, Bronin said.

Their "generous financial pledge,'' the mayor said, "sends a powerful message that the strength of Hartford matters to them."

Asked whether the companies' commitment recalled the days of Hartford's bishops, and whether this signals a revival of their paternal relationship with the city, Bronin said: "I don't view that as a paternal relationship. I view it as a partnership. That's primarily the relationship every city should have with its employers.''

The joint investment by the three insurers is unique, although in 2011, The Hartford made a like-minded gesture, pledging $2 million toward demolition of the Capitol West office tower by eminent domain as part of its aim to revitalize the Asylum Hill neighborhood that surrounds its headquarters campus, Swift said.

"That obviously also had a significant dimension of self-interest," Walsh said, "but most people were grateful that The Hartford did the deed.''

Bishops' Hartford history

Hartford's period of paternalistic engagement with the business community dates back as early as the mid-19th century to the days of gunmaker Samuel Colt and isn't unique, Walsh and others say. Cities like New York and Boston, too, can trace similar roots to their development as sprawling metropolises.

In the Hartford region, the bishops' peak can be traced back to the mid-20th century, when mainly insurance and bank executives wielded their power and wealth to influence city development and policy. Their impact wasn't always portrayed in a positive light.

Before that, early in the 20th century, with money and personal and political will, a group of bishops birthed the Metropolitan District Commission in response to concerns at the time about the quality of drinking water. The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, the regional hope chest, too, was initiated under the bishops.

Constitution Plaza, Hartford's leading urban-renewal development of the early '60s, was sparked by the bishops at a time when insurers' appetite for new office space appeared insatiable, observers say. Aetna was also instrumental in helping to finance/support construction of the 38-story CityPlace I office tower, which still remains Hartford's tallest skyscraper, and the Civic Center, known today as the XL Center.

In 1957, with their backing, the University of Hartford was born from the merger of three smaller liberal-arts schools, plus an engineering school added, to educate a new generation to work at Pratt & Whitney, insurers and other employers in the region.

Hartford attorney Bruce Rubenstein says he was in law school and politically active as a volunteer to then Deputy Mayor Nicholas R. Carbone, who was a key liaison between the city and the bishops during the 1970s. Carbone died in 2015.

"He had a personal relationship with the heads of the insurance companies, the banks and other large companies doing business in Hartford,'' Rubenstein said.

Rubenstein recalls that during the '60s and '70s the bishops met fairly regularly, mainly when issues came up to be addressed. John H. Filer, then head of Aetna Inc. "was one of the leading bishops'' at the time, he said. Filer died in 1994.

Carbone would phone Filer, Rubenstein said, and request a meeting with "three or four'' of the bishops. Filer would contact the others and arrange a meeting between them and Carbone at Filer's office at Aetna headquarters.

The bishops also interacted regularly with local and state politicians, among them then State Rep. George Ritter, the late patriarch of a politically active Hartford family.

"They also would see and read stuff in the newspaper and chime in," Rubenstein said. "They'd call Nick or Ritter and express their opinion. … There was a lot of two-way communication."

"It would be hard to reconvene the bishops in 2017 under these circumstances,'' he said. "The bishops would probably be solicitous of the current mayor and the three insurance-company leaders and their generosity to help the city, given their emotional attachment at the time.''

Retired Hartford probate judge Robert Killian Jr. was a press aide to former Connecticut U.S. Sen. Abraham Ribicoff during the '60s and '70s, when the bishops still reigned.

"They were almost captives of the city,'' said Killian, who mounted an unsuccessful campaign for Hartford mayor in 2015. "They were within spitting distance of each other. Even though the region was growing, business interests were heavily concentrated in Hartford. When they considered their self interests, it was almost identical to the city's interests.''

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