I was 9 years old walking with my dad down Homestead Avenue when I met Mayor Dom DeLucco. We were headed to DeLucco's, the eatery where "Hartford's own Fiorello LaGuardia" first honed his skills as a CEO.
In his dapper suit and boutonniere, DeLucco looked every inch a mayor. He patted my head. "What a nice boy," he said on no evidence. Later I told my friends all about it. They didn't share my unnatural interest in politics, but were impressed, some to the point of disbelief. Larry Lorenzo said, "Sure. Billy met the mayor. And I'm an astronaut."
It's hard to imagine a kid meeting Eddie Perez would feel anything like my sense of awe at meeting Dom DeLucco. It's not Perez's fault. Politics has fallen on harder times. So has Hartford. A mayor has more to answer for. They see you coming and think only of the gap between your speeches and their lives.
Which accounts for some of the dark mood hanging over Hartford's mayoral election. A hundred years ago, Hartford was the wealthiest city in America. Today it is nearly the poorest. The decline came mostly in the last 40 years, which means in that time no American city fell further faster.
In the '90s, many mid-sized cities formerly in free fall staged surprising comebacks. In New England, Providence, Burlington and Portland won raves for eye-catching urban revitalization. Not Hartford.
It's a familiar anomaly. Connecticut, the nation's wealthiest state, remains home to three of its poorest cities. It's partly a problem of history. Fifty years ago, we got rid of county government. Our tiny cities were easy to abandon; an urbanite could move a mile or two in any direction and never think of them again. A half million or more did just that.
It's also a problem of laws. Our transportation, planning and development laws have been killing cities for years.
But the most lethal weapon is the property tax. It burdens families, strangles small businesses and turns our meager efforts at land-use planning into farce.
It's also a problem of leadership. Hartford has been unlucky in leaders, but the Hartford leader who can make the most difference is the one residing in the governor's mansion. A governor is de facto co-mayor of every city. Only he or she can alter the basic systems on which cities rise or fall.
For 10 years, we had a governor who was interested in cities but not enough to learn anything about them. John Rowland mesmerized politicians, editorial writers and civic boosters with a fool's vision of urban redemption by casino and football franchise - all the while steamrolling the very reforms needed to make any of it work. It brightened no one's mood to realize - some later than others - that his pals got rich off public debt piled higher than a convention center.
Hartford voters are fairly familiar with how the city landed in such straits. They know it isn't all the mayor's fault. But eventually people need answers, not just explanations. For those, they turn to the mayor they elected. He'd better have some.
Perez's most urgent tasks are to deal with education and crime. No one's ready to give him a passing grade on either, but voters will award him points for effort. Perez took a big risk appointing himself to the education board. It hasn't paid off yet, but for the first time in memory, there's a plan on the table that justifies hope.
Any reader of this paper knows how things are going in the crime-fighting department. With each murder we feel anguish for the victim and the city's dying dream of itself. There must be an algorithm predicting how downtown condo sales fall as crime rates rise.
Still, Perez's record on crime shows an understanding of how systems work. His problem is in the politics, as seen in his fractious relations with, among others, Gov. M. Jodi Rell. Perez's appetite for battle has cost him in those relations.
Perez's leadership style is the reason most people cite for the serious challenges he faces from state Reps. Art Feltman and Minnie Gonzalez and from former Deputy Mayor I. Charles Mathews. That Hartford's problems are so hard to solve makes the ability to conciliate and inspire even more critical; thus an election about style. I think Dom Delucco would understand.
Bill Curry, former counselor to President Clinton, was the Democratic nominee for governor twice. His column appears Sundays on the Other Opinion page. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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