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Mayor Eddie Risks Alienating The State - And Voters

February 4, 2007

Mayor Eddie is in trouble.

Wednesday night I attended a coffee to introduce city Democrats to I. Charles Matthews, a former city councilman who has returned to Hartford after a 10-year absence. He proposes to challenge Mayor Perez in this fall's municipal election.

I. Charles is everything Mayor Eddie is not - funny, back-slapping, inclusive, outreaching, coalition-building and generally warm and fuzzy along the lines of former Mayor Mike Peters. He would be a great cheerleader for the city. These are fabulous if not indispensable traits for a successful politician.

These traits used to be sufficient to get elected and be a good mayor of Hartford. Not anymore. Now that we have a strong-mayor form of government, the buck clearly stops at the mayor's desk: Unlike all previous mayors, the new strong mayor has both the responsibility and the authority to deliver the goods.

Unfortunately, I. Charles also appears not to be everything that Mayor Eddie is: issue-oriented, operations-savvy, implementation-oriented, a hands-on and demanding chief executive who has a clear idea of where he wants to go, and understands how the machinery of municipal government and the economics of cities work. Matthews' answers to numerous questions were surprisingly vague. The jury is still out on Matthews, and I hope I'm wrong, because a hard fight between well-qualified candidates would be healthy for the city.

The mayor is also being challenged by Rep. Art Feltman, a well-regarded state legislator from Hartford's South End. Matthews is black, Feltman is white and Perez is Puerto Rican. You couldn't ask for a more representative field from Hartford, where the electorate is divided roughly into ethnic thirds.

Mayor Eddie has been competent and honest, has substantial achievements and deserves another term to finish his work. But if he doesn't get it, he has no one to blame but himself. Perhaps because he is driven to deliver for the city, he has also been bullheaded, a micromanager and dismissive of good counsel from thoughtful people who supported him. You have to admire his willingness to take political risks - Lord knows we need that. But the gratuitous thumb in the eye of allies, particularly state allies, has been bad for the city, and the list of alienated locals grows daily.

The latest example - the Pathways magnet school site - is particularly egregious and poorly timed. He has initiated construction of an inappropriate design on an iffy site, where there has been considerable resistance for good reason from neighbors, doubts from his design consultants and legal uncertainty whether the state would allow a school there.

These issues could have been resolved amicably. But the mayor has charged ahead, refusing to reconsider design or site, and alienating just about everybody in the process.

The mayor's latest pratfall was the gratuitous accusation that the governor has betrayed the Sheff vs. O'Neill school integration mandate in objecting to the school site. Gov. M. Jodi Rell brought in the attorney general, who declared Thursday that the school does not qualify as "economic development." Yet the mayor remains defiant.

The city needs the governor, as I. Charles was quick to point out, and the sentiment among his listeners the other night was disgust with the mayor. A particular interest of mine - the redesign of the I-84 Aetna Viaduct area and the mending of the urban fabric it has gashed - will require lots of support from the governor and from her Department of Transportation.

The mayor has told a strong neighborhood constituency for the viaduct project that he is willing to make the appeal to the governor. Now, one must ask, what will that appeal be worth?

This didn't need to happen. One can only hope for a change of heart and reconciliation on the school site, and a quick charm-school refresher course for the mayor. Don't hold your breath.

Toni A. Gold, who lives in Hartford, is an urban development specialist and senior associate of Project for Public Spaces.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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