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Voter Apathy Tightens Grip

Eddie Perez won City Hall with a mere 6,500 votes. In West Hartford ? with half of Hartford's population ? he'd have failed with those numbers. Why don't we vote in Hartford?

By DANIEL D'AMBROSIO, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer

November 22, 2007

When I first began covering Hartford for the Advocate last March, I was astonished to learn that in this city of 125,000 Mayor Eddie Perez was swept into power with about 7,000 votes. That can't be right, I thought. There must be a missing digit.

The numbers for Perez didn't seem that much higher than the numbers I saw for first selectmen elected in the dinky Litchfield County towns I previously covered Middlebury and Washington. With just under 7,000 residents, Middlebury counted 1,600 votes in this year's election.

By way of comparison, Perez received 6,453 votes this year, which, as Hartford Courant contributor and one time Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Curry pointed out in a Nov. 11 column, cost him $93 each, a record for the state according to Curry. Perez spent $600,000 to get those votes, another record.

Curry's devastating analysis goes on to explain that even Hartford's abysmal voter turnout of 31.8 percent is deceivingly high, since only 43,595 of Hartford's 87,500 residents of voting age have actually registered to vote. That makes the real turnout about 16 percent. Compare that to an average turnout of 66 percent for well-heeled Washington voters, three-time winners of the state's Democracy Cup, given to the town with the highest voter turnout.

Curry continues with his own comparisons, citing the 9,100 votes Democrat Scott Slifka received to become West Hartford's mayor. West Hartford has half the population of Hartford. In Torrington, says Curry, with a population of 36,000, Mayor Ryan Bingham got more votes than Perez did in Hartford.

But the statistic I found most striking was Curry's observation that more people get arrested in Hartford than vote about 16,000 arrests likely this year compared to 13,844 voters.

Curry blames the "drain of corruption" for voter apathy, given the multiple investigations into Perez for, among other things, Rowland-like hanky panky on a kitchen remodel job in his home.

Others I have talked to have blamed the usual suspects of poverty and lack of education. Hartford is poor, pick your statistic, no one's going to seriously argue the point. As for education, the latest statistics available from a national literacy survey released in 1998 showed that 73 percent of adults in Hartford fall into the two lowest levels of five levels of literacy. That compares to 41 percent for Connecticut as a whole, and 49 percent for the nation.

When you're poor and under-educated, goes the argument, nothing ever gets better no matter what you do, so why vote?

"What drives people to vote is education, income, and rootedness in the community and we don't have much of any of that," said Art Feltman.

Feltman is a long-time state representative and Perez challenger who dropped out of the race after a poor showing in the Democratic primary.

"I started out the beginning of my campaign writing eight position papers on different issues, hardly anyone read them," said Feltman. "I tried to articulate them verbally and people tuned it out because it sounded too complicated."

And don't count on increased voter registration to solve the voting problem either, says Feltman, citing the case of Angel Arce, a well-known community activist with deep roots, who tried and failed to beat Kelvin Roldan, Perez's senior aide, for state representative from the 4th House District last year by actively registering voters.

"It's a classic example of the theory, 'If you build it they will come,', but they didn't," said Feltman.

In fact, Arce, 47, said he had trouble getting even the 200 or so members of his extended family in Hartford to go to the polls.

"A lot of them, I had to push them, I said, 'It's important, it's important,'" recalled Arce. "But they said, 'We don't want to bother with it.'"

Arce blames yet another factor for voter apathy in the recent mayoral election the personal attacks that came to characterize the campaign, particularly as it distilled down to Perez and his main challenger, former deputy mayor I. Charles Mathews.

"I know a lot of people that felt that way, a lot of people didn't even go to vote because of personal issues and personal attacks," said Arce. "It was ugly."

Yet Arce doesn't blame Perez or any of the candidates.

"Regardless of who's wrong and who's right, it's up to the voters to fix the problem," he said.

Arce ran into another problem in his own campaign and his effort to register voters. He says he registered 300 voters in all, but that when Election Day came, many of them didn't show up on the voter rolls.

"There was one building on Colonial Street where I registered a family of 13. When I picked them up and took them to the polling booth only two out of 13 showed up as registered voters," said Arce. "I wish I knew why that happened. By one o'clock there must have been 100 people turned away who went to vote for me who didn't show up as registered voters."

Arce lost the election by fewer than 300 votes, 718 to 421. In an article in the Courant, he attributed his missing voters to "confusion at the city's registrar of voters office." Last week Arce told the Advocate he had decided not to pursue the registration issue and just take the loss. It was another blow in a "very tough year" that also saw him embroiled in a controversy at the Hartford Housing Authority where he was treasurer, and was forced to step down by Perez amid allegations of incompetence.

It's all part of the ugly, street-tough political climate in Hartford that's keeping voters away from the polls, according to Arce.

Arce does blame Hartford residents, however, for not keeping themselves informed and involved.

"A lot of people in the city, especially in the Latino community, don't even know that on Monday or whatever date there's a city council meeting and that they're allowed to attend," he said. "They don't understand they can go to the board of education meeting and express their opinions."

Meanwhile Arce, involved as a volunteer and an activist in the city for 20 years, is considering leaving it all behind.

"To be honest with you, I'm thinking about moving out of Hartford," he said. "That's how disappointed I am. I don't know yet, but I think I want to totally get away from it."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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