A Cartwheeling Mayor
Maureen Carroll has known Shari Cantor, West Hartford’s mayor, for 25 years and observed her early political stirrings. “I remember when Shari became PTO president, when our two youngest were at Morley School," Carroll recalled. “Shari already had three little boys and was pregnant with Jacob, and she took on this role. I only had two kids and I was exhausted just watching her.”
Shari Cantor, 59, is a person in almost constant motion. She doesn’t simply march in town parades — she’ll throw in a cartwheel, as if she were still the captain of the Hall High gymnastics team. Her energy and enthusiasm as she sticks the landing are palpable.
Cantor is a volunteer on steroids. For starters, being mayor of West Hartford is an unpaid position. She has been a town councilor (gratis, too) since 2004, became deputy mayor in 2011 and mayor in 2016.
In addition to putting in 30 or more hours a week on town business, she volunteers for the American Heart Association, Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, West Hartford Rotary, Foodshare, the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, the West Hartford Art League, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and the American School for the Deaf. She is trustee of the University of Connecticut, her alma mater.
Cantor, a Democrat who heads a nine-member council (six Democrats and three Republicans), even elicits praise from the opposition. “While we disagree generally on tax and spending issues, I respect the effort and the time she devotes to the community,” said Chris Barnes, minority leader on the council.
Born and raised in West Hartford, Cantor attended the town’s public schools (as did her four children). Her mother, who is 90, still lives in the house where Cantor and her three siblings grew up.
Cantor sat down for an interview the day before she had surgery to repair her knee, which she injured skiing.
Q. Will you be able to able to run in road races this fall?
A. That’s the goal. I started running in the Hartford Half Marathon after my youngest son was born with heart disease. He’s 22 now. I started running it to raise money for CCMC [Connecticut Children’s Medical Center]. They saved his life. [Jacob runs in the race each year as well].
Q. You’re an unpaid volunteer. How busy are you?
A. I put in a lot of time, partly because we have a relatively new town manager, about 30 hours a week, sometimes more. I respond to every email I get. … I like [being mayor] more than I ever thought I would. There’s a political bent to it, but I don’t feel like I’m political. I still feel like it comes from a place of being a volunteer for the community.
Q. What do you do in your down time?
A. My husband and I travel. We host events for his international clients. [Michael Cantor is co-managing partner of an intellectual property law firm, Cantor Colburn, headquartered in Hartford]. He’s a patent attorney and when he started at the firm there were two partners and he was the only associate. Now it’s the third-largest patent firm in the country with five offices. We go to a couple of conferences a year.
Q. What can your town do, if anything, for Hartford?
A. I am on a number of boards of Hartford organizations and nonprofits ... I will say probably half of the board members [for Hartford organizations] are from West Hartford. So we’re very connected. We understand that Hartford’s success is important to West Hartford. I also believe that West Hartford’s success has been important to Hartford in recruiting talent for Hartford businesses. Hartford receives a lot of support from the state and it should. It is our capital. Hartford is our corporate and cultural center.
Q. Has the national epidemic of partisanship oozed into town?
A. There are shreds of it… but I work really hard to make sure the lines of communication are open, that we have civil discourse and are respectful. You can disagree with one another and we do, but that’s OK. You need to listen. I come from a Republican family and I married into a Democratic family. I have learned from both sides.
Q. It is trendy to be down on Connecticut. What do you say to the naysayers?
A. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don’t believe in yourself, how are other people going to believe in you? My husband grew a business here from a very small patent law firm. I think that model can be used in many instances. I love this area, Hartford in particular. It’s got a lot of history and character. We are diverse. There is cultural richness … We have so much here.
Q. Do you have aspirations for higher office?
A. I did consider it a couple of times … I really am happy where I am.
Q. Are you concerned about the rise in hate crimes?
A. Yes, I am, of course … When I do hear things, people saying things that are not true or are hurtful — on either side, right or left — or there is criticism of things we do, often I’ll pick up the phone and call people. I’ll ask them to come in and talk, have a cup of coffee.