Mike Peters wasn't Hartford's FDR, but he had a canny ability to make you believe and laugh at the same time.
That's what we've lost and what I will miss about Peters, who for eight years proudly was the all-hours mayor of Hartford. He was the guy who held court with a cold Bud and a Marlboro at 11 p.m., but who was there the next morning at 7, haranguing the guys-in-suits at the chamber of commerce breakfast.
Peters, who was 60, suffered from cirrhosis and died Sunday night, months after a liver transplant.
In a racially charged climate during the 1990s, when Hartford was seized with gang warfare, this unlikely South End fireman with the quick wit resonated. People noticed and responded, long before Barack Obama made hope a buzzword.
We could use another dose of that, with less Budweiser.
Once, in 1996, when nobody knew what to do next about the imploding Hartford public schools, Peters bumped into a Channel 61 reporter while prowling downtown one night and said the state should just take over the embattled district.
The world scoffed. A year later, the state did just that, setting the stage for long-term reform of Hartford schools that continues today.
Do you really think suburban second-graders today would recognize Jodi Rell or Eddie Perez? I don't. But I saw it time and again. Everyone knew Mayor Mike, whose name became a local brand, including a beer, a restaurant and an after-school program for children.
"I am who I am," Peters memorably commented to Courant reporter Tom Puleo a dozen years ago. "I never shoo anyone away."
Peters was an early supporter of hiring a private company to run city schools, salvaging the doomed partnership more than once by yanking all parties into his city hall office.
Bob Jackson, a political leader during the 1990s, told me he didn't know what to make of this white firefighter-turned-politician from the South End — until they sat down and talked. Jackson, a black man from the North End, would become one of Peters' biggest supporters.
"We were discussing the city and we were talking about a love affair," said Jackson, the former Democratic town chairman. "I realized that he and I had the same feeling for the city."
Back then, "you didn't think about the whole city," Jackson said. "He broke that down."
Peters' style wasn't complicated and it's what we don't have enough of today.
"It paid off. People started to feel good about the city," said Peters' longtime assistant, former city council member John Bazzano, who reminded me that Peters' cheerleading translated into accomplishments.
Friends and supporters say Peters wasn't about studying things to death. He was about speaking up and trying something. When did we last see that in Hartford, the General Assembly or in the governor's office?
Nothing happening? Let's have a parade.
Housing projects drug infested? Tear them down.
Nothing for kids to do? Start an after-school program.
No quotes for your story? Come on into my office.
His view of successful economic development — perhaps flawed, in retrospect — was equally straightforward: "show me a crane, baby."
A confidant, Kevin Dubay, now a Superior Court judge and once the city's corporation counsel, told me that some people thought the former firefighter "was naive or not bright."
No, Dubay said, "they were confused with his optimism and his energy."
I'll take Peters' optimistic imperfection any day.
He said what he thought. He swirled together the personal and political. He drank and smoked too much. He believed. He could crack you up.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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