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Tight Format Inhibits Sparks

May 16, 2007
By DANIEL E. GOREN, Courant Staff Writer

The candidates vying to become Hartford's mayor in 2007 met in a public forum for the first time Tuesday, each offering a vision for a city struggling with violence on its streets, poor performance in its schools and a population hungry for work.

The eight candidates sat tightly together at a long table before an audience of nearly 150. Despite their shoulder-to-shoulder proximity, they exchanged no serious barbs, and the forum's format limited any true debate.

Attending the forum were seven Democrats - Mayor Eddie A. Perez, former state Sen. Frank D. Barrows, state Rep. Art Feltman, state Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, former Deputy Mayor I. Charles Mathews, political newcomer Raul De Jesus and youth advocate the Rev. Patrice Smith - and one Republican, J. Stan McCauley.

From the outset, the power of incumbency was on display - the forum was held at the public library across from city hall and Perez's offices. Those entering the library had to walk through a phalanx of Perez supporters and city staff holding signs on the mayor's behalf. Perez campaign fliers were on every folding chair set out for the event. Perez supporters often broke in with jeers from the crowd as his opponents spoke.

And Perez stuck to his record, saying his vision was to continue what he has done since he was elected in 2001.

"I've been making a difference every day that I've served as your mayor," he said. "My vision for this city is to keep the momentum we have built over the last six years. This city is moving. It may not be moving fast enough or hard enough, but it is moving in the right direction."

That direction, he said, is to lower crime, raise educational achievement, build homeownership and create jobs - all issues on which Perez says his administration has made progress.

But his challengers disagreed that the city's direction is entirely positive. They homed in on topics seen by Perez's critics as the mayor's weaknesses. They spoke of a need for inclusiveness, being willing to hear all opinions and opening the government's operations to scrutiny.

"For a city this size, as diverse as we are, we need to talk about a shared vision that we all can agree upon to move this city forward," Mathews said. "We have to include all voices, we have to include all neighborhoods. But the first thing you have to start with when you have a vision is accountability, transparency, honesty, integrity and leadership. ... I'll let you think later about if we've been lacking that."

And Feltman - who said the city was in for a "good political fight" - questioned several of Perez's main claims, such as that homeownership has increased under Perez's watch.

According to Feltman, Perez says his administration has created 1,350 new homeowners since 2002, but the same number of foreclosures has taken place during that time.

"While there are new people coming in, the same number of people are moving out," Feltman said. "There is no net gain."

The forum's format did not encourage debate between the contenders, as each candidate answered questions posed by a moderator, who held them to a strict time limit.

Each candidate was asked to give his or her vision for the city's future, and asked what their solution would be to one of the city's main challenges. They also fielded written questions from the audience on a wide range of topics - education, crime, economic development, transportation, job creation, rising taxes, the city council's effectiveness and arts and culture.

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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