In a field of seven candidates challenging incumbent Mayor Eddie Perez for his job, it can be difficult to stand out, especially if you're known as a nice guy
By DANIEL D'AMBROSIO, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer
September 06, 2007
Frank Barrows, candidate for mayor, is quick to smile. And when he speaks, he's the antithesis of bombast, low key and tending toward soft-spoken.
Barrows' persona is not exactly an attention grabber, and he could easily be overshadowed by the perceived front-runners in the field of challengers to incumbent mayor Eddie Perez — State Representative Art Feltman and former Deputy Mayor I. Charles Mathews, both of whom are quoted regularly in news accounts of the race and Perez's continuing ethical stumbles.
But there's more to it than that. For one thing, Barrows is not going unnoticed by the Perez campaign. Perez Campaign Manager Kenny Curran recently told the Advocate he's watching Barrows closely in the North and West ends, where Barrows has spent his entire life, and where he represented the 1st district as a state senator for eight years.
"He has a lot of signs up on the North End," said Curran. "He's a hard worker."
Then there's Barrows' own assertion that a smile is not always just a smile.
"I could smile at you and say 'I'm going to kick your ass,'" he said in a conversation about the campaign last week.
Barrows, who's 6 foot 2 and weighs 250 pounds, says he's able to get that message across to the inmates he supervises as a corrections officer at the state jail on Weston Avenue.
"Back in the '60s, guys would say 'I'm smoking Acapulco Gold,'" said Barrows. "Now you don't hear about that. They'll get regular marijuana and lace it with embalming fluid and other chemicals and smoke the stuff. It makes them feel like they can fly. You'll get a guy 5 feet 2 who feels like he's 7 feet tall and can take you on."
At 61 years old, Barrows, a former Marine, looks at least 10 years younger than he is, maybe 20, and appears fit in a short-sleeved tropical shirt and slacks.
Barrows said he told Perez three years ago he was going to run against him in this year's election after Perez tried — unsuccessfully — to defeat Barrows' slate of candidates for the Democratic Town Committee.
The 2004 confrontation began with a call from Perez, telling Barrows he didn't like the people Barrows had picked to fill three openings on the committee for the 1st district, where Barrows lives. Perez had other people in mind for the three slots.
"I said 'No, Eddie, we're the Town Committee. We're the ones that nominate you. Why would you be placing people on (the Town Committee) yourself?'" said Barrows. "We beat them two to one. After that it was on."
Still, Barrows suffers from an image problem. A nice-guy problem.
"One guy told me a couple of years ago, 'I don't think you're going to make a good mayor. You're not hard enough. You have to be tough,'" said Barrows. "I can be tough. I didn't survive Vietnam and a lot of other things without being tough."
Barrows, who has three older brothers who were Marines, joined the corps in 1966 when he was 20 years old. He was sent to the demilitarized zone with an artillery unit, providing cover for the construction crews bulldozing the line dividing North and South Vietnam.
"We were giving them protection in the daytime while they were building this fire strip," said Barrows. "In the nighttime the Viet Cong were trying to knock us out. They were throwing everything at us. They did a job on us. They finally got us out of there."
Barrows next volunteered for a unit called a Combined Action Company, small patrols utilizing both American and Vietnamese soldiers for search-and-destroy missions.
"We trained for about a month," said Barrows. "The day I graduated there was a CAC unit wiped out."
When he asked how often the CAC units were hit, Barrows was told, "Constantly."
"That's what I volunteered for," Barrows said, laughing. "We used to go out on ambushes every other night, ten Marines and five Vietnamese soldiers."
Returning from patrol one morning, Barrows said two Vietnamese soldiers volunteered to take point because they knew a short cut back to the base. Normally, Barrows and his partner were at the head of the patrol, sometimes walking side-by-side.
"Now I'm number four," said Barrows. "We came to a bend. That's when I saw a flash — boom, boom, boom. We got caught in an ambush and all three got killed. My partner too. The two Vietnamese soldiers got killed. That bothered me a long time, you know, I didn't get killed. That bothered me."
Barrows paused and his face went blank. The memory of that morning 40 years ago filled his eyes with tears.
When he returned to Hartford from Vietnam, Barrows used almost all of the month he was allotted to adjust to civilian life before returning to work at Pratt & Whitney, building jet engines.
"I was at the hospital for awhile," said Barrows. "You see everything different."
In the 1970s, Barrows began to get involved in politics, and was voted onto the Democratic Town Committee in 1978. His next stop was the state Senate in 1985, serving until he was defeated by popular former mayor Thurman Milner in 1993.
For his run for mayor this year, Barrows is focusing on law and order.
"My number one issue is the crime," said Barrows. "If we could deal with the crime everything else falls into place. Once you feel safe the perception is gone that if I go into Hartford I might get mugged, robbed or even murdered. Take that away and people will come."
So how do you deal with Hartford's crime, according to Barrows? Two words: spot checks.
"We need to stop cars coming in and out of the city," said Barrows. "People start thinking, 'Do I come into Hartford with a weapon or drugs in my car?'"
And it's not just weapons and drugs. Barrows says he has seen people throw bags of garbage out of their car windows once they enter Hartford.
"Hit them with a fine," he said.
Barrows would add another 200 officers to the police department to make sure his dragnet is effective, bringing the force up to 500 officers. He would pay for it by appealing for state and/or federal aid. Failing that, Barrows has a unique tactic in mind.
"If I can't get federal help or state help I'm going to apply for foreign aid, to embarrass the United States," said Barrows. "It's just like the civil rights movement. The government didn't care about blacks getting lynched. But as soon as the news media got hold of it and started showing pictures then it was, 'Oh we got to do something about it.'"
Barrows' plan has been called nothing more than racial profiling by Mathews and others. His response: so sue me.
"My issue is safety," said Barrows. "I want everybody to feel safe in the city. If I have to randomly stop cars, we'll do it. I want children to feel safe, and their parents to feel safe. That's what it's going to take."
Barrows has a similarly aggressive plan in mind for dealing with Hartford's perennially poor-performing schools. He would use existing social service agencies to reach out to parents, visiting them in their homes.
"Get them involved," said Barrows. "If we have parents who can't read and write, help the parents out so they can help their child. If the parent can't speak correct English, the child won't learn."
Barrows received applause recently at one of the many candidate forums with a more modest proposal.
"I said if you live in the city you should have a sticker in your car. You should be able to park free downtown. You pay enough in taxes already," said Barrows.
Barrows knows it will be an uphill battle to unseat Perez, but claimed he has a lot of support among people who can't "come out publicly" because their jobs depend on the city.
"I tell them just vote for me, that's all," said Barrows.
A lifelong Hartford resident, Barrows is also counting on his 61 years in the city to distinguish him from the other candidates.
"It was great, the city was great," Barrows said. "Downtown you couldn't wait for Saturday. You had movies and an arcade to go to. There was a skating rink on the North End, and horseback riding in the park. Can you imagine? Riding a horse in Keney Park. You can't beat that."