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El Jefe Steps Aside, But He Still Grips The Reins

Helen Ubiñas

February 19, 2009

As the dismantling of dictatorships go, El Jefe's dethroning himself this week was a bit anti-climactic.

With few words, fewer signatures and a weirdly enthusiastic relinquishing of the gavel, Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez on Tuesday formally turned over chairmanship of the board of education to Ada Miranda, who clearly doesn't scare easily.

But back to the mayor. The guy looked downright giddy, or relieved, or medicated — I'm not sure which — after he removed himself from the helm, though not from the seat of honor. (Not yet ready to let go, eh, mayor?)

Whatever was really going on behind Perez's metamorphosing face, one thing is clear: This is a mighty uncharacteristic move from a guy who came into office and wasted no time anointing himself boss of this, that and everything over there, before ta-da, El Jefe was born.

Oh, his apologists continue to insist there's nothing fishy about the man who never passed a throne he wasn't interested in warming, stepping down from not one, but two posts just weeks after being indicted on bribery charges. In addition to turning over his crown on the school board, he handpicked former school official John Motley as his successor on the school building committee.

This was planned, supporters said. In fact, one especially loyal follower insisted, his stepping aside was scheduled for this precise moment. The guy's got bigger priorities, one lackey nearly spat when I questioned the timing.

I'd say. But besides maybe needing those extra hours to work on his defense with lawyer Hubie Santos, I suspect Perez probably figures it's not a bad idea to distance himself from school matters.

Let's not forget that the city's $1 billion school construction program was part of the corruption probe.

I know, plenty of you are ready to order custom T-shirts emblazoned with "The State investigated El Jefe for 15 months, and all they got him on was a few stinkin' kitchen countertops." But I'd hold off on that purchase.

Still, Perez is politically astute and people are leery of turning on him, which might explain the deafening silence when it comes to leadership in this city speaking out against the mayor.

Except for the usual suspects saying the usual things and the city council's failed boondoggle of a coup, there's barely been a peep or a raised eyebrow from politicians and other community "leaders" who wouldn't exactly be going out on a limb by stating the obvious: This is bad for the city, and someone not only needs to step back, but step away.

(Note to rebel council members — make sure you have the votes before you storm the castle next time.)

Instead, people are picking their words very carefully, usually saving their harshest ones for conversations far from city hall. Speaking out has long been a liability under Perez's regime, which is why most aren't going to seriously challenge Perez or his behavior until his fate is obvious.

If there's one creed most of Hartford's recycled leaders live by, it's "don't bite the hand that feeds you."

It explains a lot about the current state of the city.

For all his show of giving up leadership, it's not lost on many that Perez handpicked his replacements — a signal to those who might confuse El Jefe's being down with being out.

So, better to tread lightly, to play all sides so as not to come out on the losing end.

In gambling, it's called hedging your bets.

In politics, at least in my book, it's being spineless.

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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