More Than A Few Dubious Honorees In Hartford's Black History Month Exhibit
February 18, 2010
Take a walk with me, won't you?
Not far. Just down to Hartford's city hall, through the revolving doors, up 15 marble steps to the atrium and the Black History Month exhibit.
Nice setup, no? Check out the tables lining the room with all the moving bios of Hartford leaders.
There's Ella Brown, touted as the state's first black female police officer. Yvon Alexandre, a local businessman who spearheaded relief efforts for earthquake-ravaged Haiti. And Doc Hurley, who's turned a long line of Hartford boys into men, including former Hartford Fire Chief Charles Teale, also a past honoree.
And over here, there's — um — Abe Giles.
Yep, honored among real Hartford heroes is the longtime Democratic ward boss who for years made or broke political aspirations with a house full of mysterious registered voters and who's long lined his pockets with questionable parking lot deals. Just recently, he was arrested alongside Mayor Eddie Perez, who was charged with attempted extortion from a private developer for the benefit of his political pal Giles.
I might have chalked it up to an oversight or to Hartford's tendency to forgive corrupt leaders. (Remember how welcoming Hartford was of former Gov. John Rowland long after most of the state had written the mooch off?) But as I continued to peruse the tables, I started to wonder what message visitors were supposed to get from the likes of some of the people staring back at them.
Besides straight-up criminals, there were plenty more who've shamelessly fed off the city for years. But then, I could fill a few columns with those types.
So, let's just take the short tour.
That's Veronica Airey-Wilson, the Republican councilwoman who was arrested for allegedly fabricating evidence to show that she had paid for work done on her home by the same city contractor from whom Perez is accused of getting discounted home repairs.
Those two guys over there are Russell Williams, one-time head of the Greater Hartford branch of the NAACP, and former Urban League of Greater Hartford CEO James Willingham. Both men cashed in big after supporting the company that was awarded the city schools' multimillion-dollar construction project.
Makes you think they should change the name of the exhibit from "Honoring our Own" to "Getting Yours," doesn't it?
And that honking portrait is of Prenzina Holloway, who four years ago was fined $10,000 by state election officials for absentee ballot fraud. She paid a fraction of that fine after crying poor, then turned around and bought a used $31,727 Hummer she didn't pay taxes on, despite drawing a city paycheck in the — wait for it — registrars of voters office.
But then, those details are bound to be overlooked when your daughter is the city council's Democratic majority leader who is also the program's one-woman nominating committee.
That is, until a couple of years ago, when rJo Winch expanded the committee to include herself, her mother and her sister-in-law.
No conflict there.
None, insisted Winch when we talked later — which might explain why she also didn't see a problem with being an honoree the first year of the event, now in its sixth year.
True, some of the most questionable picks were honored before they got into trouble. But why would we tarnish the contributions of so many worthy people by placing them next to some of the city's biggest embarrassments?
The program, which includes the exhibit and a reception held earlier this month, is supposed to highlight Hartford's best, and be about honoring role models. When I was there, there were several kids checking out the display.
But Winch wasn't moved: "No one's perfect. People make mistakes."
"When are we going to stop punishing them?" she said.
I'd like to say our conversation got Winch thinking, maybe made her consider excluding some of those honorees — at least the ones with pending criminal charges.
She's done it before. In 2006, Winch decided to pull community activist Mamie Bell from the mix after Bell was arrested for taking a bribe in exchange for helping a criminal under her supervision skirt court-ordered community service.
"It seemed inappropriate to honor her at the same time she was arrested," she said.
Exactly, I said, thinking she might connect the ironic dots here.
Not a chance. And really, it was silly of me to expect anything else from a woman so blindly loyal to our twice-arrested mayor.
The whole thing would be funny, if it wasn't all so pathetic.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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