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It's Perez's Party Now

But City Mayor Alienates Some Democrats, Ensuring Primary Battle

July 18, 2007
By DANIEL E. GOREN, Courant Staff Writer

Even before Hartford's Democratic town committee went through the motions of interviewing the six mayoral candidates who want its endorsement, the likely outcome was clear.

Eddie A. Perez is their man - making the incumbent mayor a heavy favorite to win the party's backing at its convention at Bulkeley High School on Thursday.

"When you are the top Democrat in the city, people want to be with you," said Noel McGregor Jr., the committee's chairman and a Perez devotee.

That support comes as no surprise, Perez's critics say - but it may have come at a hefty price.

In his six years as Hartford's mayor, four under the strong-mayor system, Perez has consolidated power on many fronts.

He has appointed himself to the board of education and is chairman of the school building committee. He holds sway over a majority of votes on the city council. He has given lucrative contracts to supporters. And he enjoys strong support on the town committee - partly, his critics say, because he has used his influence to back candidates either loyal or beholden to him.

All this has made him a virtual lock to win Thursday's nomination.

And there lies a political irony for Perez.

In securing his political position, Perez has alienated part of his Democratic base, party insiders say. And that has all but ensured a fierce fight in the Democratic primary and general elections in the fall - the kind of struggle Perez avoided when he first ran in 2001 and then when he ran for re-election in 2003.

The Democratic race for mayor is the heart of politics in Hartford, where the party includes 69 percent of voters in the city, according to the city's registrars of voters. Unaffiliated voters make up 26 percent and Republicans 5 percent.

Perez has six Democratic challengers: 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 the Rev. Patrice Smith, a youth advocate.

Only one will be chosen by the town committee as the endorsed candidate, earning the top line on the ballot in a Sept. 11 primary and the backing of the party's political machine.

Feltman and Mathews already have promised they will run in the primary, regardless of who gets the endorsement. Both said they lack faith in the endorsement process because it does not represent the true Democratic voter.

Many people now serving on the town committee are beholden to Perez because they work for him or have contracts with the city, the two challengers said.

"The town committee has traditionally been populated by people who either work for the city or work for agencies with contracts with the city. But under Perez it has become dominated by people who make their living that way," Feltman said.

Among the many city employees on the committee are a project manager in the city's license and inspections division, a chief in the fire department, a deputy Democratic registrar of voters and a high-level school official. It also includes many people with city contracts, whether they run a parking lot, operate a nonprofit agency or manage an economic development project.

"The mayor had an opportunity to build a town committee that would be strong and effective, but given his personality, he didn't want the competition," Mathews said. "He didn't want to risk that one day a strong, independent body would challenge him. So what did he do? He packed it with people who are city employees, or who have city contracts, or who owe him in one way or another, so that he could control it."

Kenny Curran, Perez's campaign manager, said neither Feltman's nor Mathews' argument carries much weight.

People are not placed on the town committee by Perez alone but are voted onto the panel in an "open and fair Democratic process," Curran said.

And the endorsed candidate, while predictably pooh-poohed by those who expect to lose, is the chosen leader of the Democratic Party, he said.

"This is very common among challengers, to downplay expectations about a convention where they don't think they are going to do very well," he said. "It certainly isn't surprising. ... I still haven't heard any new ideas from them about jobs, public safety or education. It is unfortunate that in an election of this importance, these trivial matters are being focused on."

McGregor described the endorsement vote as a "family decision," and described the town committee as a kind of networking opportunity - a way for its members to build relationships. Those who gripe about it are often the ones "not at the table," he said.

Politics has long been a vehicle for people's livelihood in Hartford because so much of the population is poor and government is one of the city's main industries, McGregor said.

"People in the town committee and in the political process have been in it for jobs all along," he said. "They see it as a way they can work their way up, especially in a city that is so poor. And as soon as Eddie is not elected, they will support the next person."

The mayor's critics, while acknowledging he is likely to win Thursday, question how meaningful that victory will be.

The endorsement, Mathews said, has lost much of its influence over the years. The city's Democratic "machine" used to come with money and workers, but today the primary significance of its support is having one's name appear on the top line of the primary ballot - a placement that many say translates to votes.

"Other than that, most of the people on the town committee who will vote for him will go to the beach afterward," Mathews said.

Feltman said he believes the town committee process is so out of step with the party's core voter that he has decided not to attend the convention. Instead, Feltman said, he plans to hold his own "un-convention" across the street, essentially what he described as a rally "for Democrats who are not part of the Eddie Perez machine."

"We are perfectly satisfied for them to do what they want to do, since it doesn't mean anything anyway," Feltman said. "As far as I'm concerned, the endorsement is nearly the kiss of death in Hartford politics."

In both the recent and distant past, some candidates with the support of the city's Democrats have gone on to lose.

In 1993, Carrie Saxon Perry won the Democratic mayoral primary against Mike Peters, only to have Peters go on to win in the general election as an independent.

In 2006, the Democratic town committee supported both U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman in his primary race and Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy in the gubernatorial primary. Neither won a majority of votes in Hartford on primary day - Lieberman losing in the city to Ned Lamont and Malloy to New Haven Mayor John DeStefano.

Those who keep close watch on Hartford's political scene say the true race for mayor starts Friday, the day after the party's convention.

On that day, they say, any candidate who is not endorsed must gather signatures to have his or her name placed on the ballot for the Democratic primary in the fall.

And while his challengers believe Perez is more vulnerable than ever before, the mayor still wields tremendous power, political insiders said.

He has raised money at a faster clip than any of his challengers, raking in $371,000 since January. He also has the benefit of experience and, perhaps most important, he already controls the muscle of city hall.

As John B. Kennelly, a member of the town committee and former city councilman, said, "Nobody should underestimate the power of incumbency."

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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