Political ward heelers pretty much went away after World War II, made obsolete by changes in civil service, welfare and election laws. But a few hung on in poor urban neighborhoods, where people weren't as connected to the system. One of them was Abraham L. Giles, the longtime power broker in the North End of Hartford.
Mr. Giles, who died Saturday at 84, was an institution, a survivor, a major player in city elections stretching back to the 1960s, a record few can match. He was a masterful politician who used his position to take care of neighborhood folks and do reasonably well for himself along the way.
Mr. Giles was a courtly gentleman, gracious and generous. His work ethic, even into his 80s, was remarkable. He and his wife adopted and raised three young Latino siblings after their mother died. As an eight-term state legislator, he often used his salary to buy groceries and clothes and pay rent for North End people in need. He kept furniture, appliances, pots and pans in a friend's garage because someone always needed something.
And if a person he helped wished to return the favor by casting a vote for him or his preferred candidate, it was gratefully accepted. If that person was in need of an address, Mr. Giles would provide his.
The Power Broker
The ability to influence a bloc of votes in a district with historically low voter turnouts was Mr. Giles' first step to power. But what really made him a force to be reckoned with was his mastery of town committee politics.
In the one-party town that Hartford became, considerable power rests with the Democratic Town Committee, whose endorsement is often the equivalent of being elected. By controlling his district's seats, and making alliances with members in other districts, Mr. Giles could exercise considerable influence on city politics.
For decades, anyone thinking of running for office was told: "Go see Abe."
Mr. Giles, however, was not invincible. In 1988, he dropped Latina organizer Maria Sanchez from the town committee. Ms. Sanchez came back and defeated Mr. Giles in a primary and took his seat. That ended 16 years in the General Assembly; he would never regain the seat. In his last hurrah in 2008, he tried to wrest the seat from incumbent Marie Kirkley-Bey and failed.
Nonetheless, Mr. Giles wielded enough power enough of the time to keep a seat at the table and to demand his price.
The Price Paid
Over the years, Mr. Giles got city contracts, often on very friendly terms, to run parking lots, move and store the belongings of evicted tenants, even to deliver voting machines to polling places on Election Day. When he lost his job as a process-serving deputy sheriff in the 1990s, he went to the city council and was made a constable, which allowed him to keep serving legal papers in the city. "I have a right to make a living," Mr. Giles said.
This would lead to an unfortunate end. In the early part of the last decade, Mr. Giles seemed to be fading from the scene. Younger people were getting involved, the old housing projects were gone, the landscape was changing and there was a rift between Mr. Giles and new Mayor Eddie Perez.
But it turned out he wasn't gone. Mr. Giles reasserted his town committee influence, and by 2007 Mr. Perez, facing a field of challengers, needed his help.
Two years later, Mr. Giles was arrested for his involvement in a scheme in which the mayor attempted to extort money from a private developer for Mr. Giles' benefit, in return for which Mr. Giles would secure votes for Mr. Perez in 2007.
Mr. Giles pleaded guilty to extortion and conspiracy charges and received a six-month suspended prison sentence and one year of conditional discharge.
In this, as in much of his life, he was a throwback to old-style politics, which was both good and bad. He never lost his connection with people in the neighborhood; he took care of their needs just as the ward bosses of old did. That he could bring this style of politics into the 21st century was remarkable. Yet he also worked within an ethical system that existed in an earlier era, one familiar to bosses of various ethnic groups. That it had changed was his misfortune.
Yet he was one of the principal characters in the drama of Hartford politics for a long time, and will be missed.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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