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Political Malaise Hangs Over Hartford

September 12, 2005
By OSHRAT CARMIEL, Courant Staff Writer

For the first time in - how long has it been? - Democrat John B. Kennelly is on electoral hiatus. No campaigning. No trips to the registrar's office.

It's not like he's had a tough summer. He spent weekends at his beach house in Madison, took a spur-of-the-moment trip to Spain and played tennis. Lots and lots of tennis.

But, oh, would he trade it all for the feel of a hotly contested election.

"You go out there and there's nothing to do," Kennelly, a former city councilman, said. "So you go play tennis."

This is the season of no politics in Hartford. A new charter's in effect, so there's no municipal race for council or mayor. It's an odd-numbered year, and that means no legislative contests either. Sure, there's the school board. But the three Democratic candidates were party-endorsed and no one's challenging those results in a primary.

The only thing left to decide - and this is in November - is likely whether a Republican, a Green or a Working Families Party candidate will get the fourth school board seat.

In this Democratic city, that's pretty light fare, like water replacing beer; bowling supplanting football.

And it's enough to a make an inveterate city politico do crazy things.

Like take a vacation. Play golf. Count days to the beginning of next year's gubernatorial race.

"It's just so boring," said Angel Arce, a member of the 4th District Democratic Town Committee.

The void spans political persuasions. Republican Richard Wareing, lulled by the lack of requests for money, has resorted to planning his wedding instead. He's getting married in November - an unthinkable date if he were managing a campaign or running for office this fall.

"I guess the lack of election has changed my life," Wareing said.

At the root of this malaise is a charter change that took effect last year that did away with biannual municipal elections in Hartford and scheduled them once every four years. So while the rest of the state's municipalities are cranking up for local contests, Hartford can only watch.

And remember.

This year, there will be nothing like the animated days of 2003, when Kennelly, on crutches and rebuffed by his party, was hobbling for re-election on a public safety theme, after being mugged and beaten in the West End. (He lost.)

Or 2002, when charter reform activists went door to door trying to explain the value of district elections and two Democratic state legislators were forced to compete against each other after their districts were merged into one.

Or the year before that, when the city made history with the election of Eddie A. Perez, its first Puerto Rican mayor.

"When's the next governor's race?" asked chef Thomas Armstrong one morning of the regulars at his Rajun Cajun restaurant.

He and the group of North End politicos who gather there each morning to talk Hartford over toast and eggs have found little political to talk about this summer - at least locally.

That bothers former councilman Steve Harris, a longtime member of that breakfast club, who said that without an election, important issues - crime, education, quality of life - just aren't being raised.

"What worries me is we have for the most part an apathetic voting population in an election," Harris said. "Then you get a time like this and it's harder."

And there's no incentive for voters to take stock of how elected officials are doing.

"It's like an airplane," was how Steven Bonafonte, former Republican candidate for council, put it. "You pay attention when it takes off, you pay attention when it lands. You're not paying attention at 35,000 feet.

"For all you know, the pilot can be on autopilot."

Nonsense, said Noel F. McGregor Jr., chairman of the city's Democratic Party. He insists the school board race is intriguing - and will raise plenty of issues. The endorsed Democratic candidates, though they face no opposition, will be mailing literature, knocking on doors and speaking at community forums, just like candidates do in any other year.

"It's unfortunate," said Michael Lupo, McGregor's Republican counterpart and a GOP candidate for school board, "that people tend to think that the board of education is an election that's not as important as the mayor's or the governor's race."

And if the school board race does not offer sufficient cudgel-wielding reality, Wareing said, there are plenty of alternatives for political observers come fall and winter.

"The MDC is going to hire a new clerk, right?"

He's referring to a potential political hire at the Metropolitan District Commission, the regional sewer and water agency.

Oh, and the streets of Hartford will be dug up soon, when the MDC begins its sewer separation project. That should be interesting, too, he said.

But then again, why not, as the summer draws to a \close and the political season begins elsewhere, don't Hartford political junkies just enjoy the sounds of silence?

"It's good, isn't it?" said former Mayor Michael P. Peters, as he tended to the lunch crowd in his downtown restaurant.

"But," he said, turning his attention to the media, "you guys are always looking for a story, so you have nothing to do, too.

"You're writing a story about nothing."

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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