April 7, 2006
By OSHRAT CARMIEL, Courant Staff Writer
Allegations of political shenanigans leveled by operatives of Hartford Mayor Eddie A.Perez against a bitter rival have sparked a criminal probe, but there are also allegations that it was the mayor and his staff who were up to no good.
The Perez allegations, filed originally with the state Elections Enforcement Commission, have been referred to the chief state's attorney's office for review. The complaint has not been made public, but - based on comments by the mayor's staff - the state probably is seeking to determine whether Democratic state Rep. Minnie Gonzalez acted improperly by luring able bodied voters at a Laurel Street apartment building to vote absentee during the Democratic town committee elections on March 7.
A relative of one absentee voter at Laurel Street said, however; that it was Perez's camp that acted improperly on Election Day when they shepherded her mother - who has Alzheimer's disease - to city hall to rescind the absentee ballot she had cast for Gonzalez.
Amparo Martinez, an 81-year old who, records show, has voted absentee for at least the past five years, was one of the voters with whom the mayor's staff took issue on Election Day, saying she was "unaware" that she voted and that Gonzalez handled her ballot after she had marked it.
Martinez's daughter, Elba Calafiore, said town committee candidates affiliated with the mayor went to Martinez's apartment, told her she might have voted illegally and drove her to city hall, where she rescinded her absentee vote. Then they took her to the polls to vote again.
"I believe they broke the law right there because that's not proper to do," Calafiore said.
Citing the pending criminal investigation, mayoral chief of staff Matt Hennessy declined to respond to Calafiore's allegations.
But on Election Day, Hennessy said many residents of Laurel Street who voted absentee were at the local senior center that day, evidence that they were fit to go to the polls.
For this Democratic town committee race - a super-local neighborhood election in Gonzalez's 3rd District - she personally registered more than 80 absentee voters at 25 Laurel St., records show. The building, in the Frog Hollow section is populated with many spanish-speaking, elderly and disabled residents.
Backers of the mayor's slate contend that number is suspiciously high. On Election Day, they combed the building, looking to talk to all absentee voters registered by Gonzalez.
"Many of these people were not aware that they had voted," Hennessy said. "These were not people who were out of town or very seriously ill. Nothing like that."
The complaint is the latest chapter of an ongoing feud between Perez and Gonzalez – for the heart of Hartford’s newly emerging Latino voting bloc. Few can agree on the origins of the fracas, but it has endured as a game of one-upmanship that most recently resulted in Perez preventing Gonzalez and her entire winning slate from becoming delegates to the Democratic state nominating convention, which will be held in May.
Gonzalez says the mayor’s accusation of absentee ballot fraud is matter of sour grapes, a classic Hartford smear trick the mayor is using because Gonzalez beat his slate in the heavily Latino 3rd District.
Gonzalez refers to Martinez, the Alzheimer’s patient as proof. Moreover, Gonzalez said, the mayor never had a problem with her registering voters at Laurel Street – long a bountiful harvest of absentee votes – in the days before their falling out.
In September 2001, when Perez ran in the mayoral primary, there was 92 absentee voters registered from 25 Laurel St. In the general election of 2001, when Perez was first elected mayor, there were 105 absentee voters from that building. In November 2003, when Perez ran for re-election, about 119 residents of the building registered to vote absentee.
Gonzalez said she and her associates registered the voters at 25 Laurel Street in those years.
“He never had a problem with it when we were working for him,” Gonzalez said, adding: “Even his son helped me to do absentee ballots during the campaign.”
Gonzalez said she leaves the decision to vote absentee up to the resident. She goes door-to-door reminding them of an upcoming election and asks those with a history of voting absentee if they want a application to do so again.
“Most of the time they say ‘Yes, I want to do the [absentee ballot] application,’” she said. “And I say if you receive the ballot and you feel OK and you want to go out and vote, ignore the ballot and call for a ride.”
As far as the March primary election goes, a Courant visit to the building to interview absentee voters showed the following: Although a few might have been able to get to the polls, others said they had illnesses or disabilities that would have made it difficult.
Despite their reasons for voting absentee, those interviewed said they would have voted for Gonzalez in any event.
There’s Raymond Cote, 70m for example. He’s known Gonzalez for years – he said she used to cut his hair – and will always vote for her, he said. Cote used to go to the polls, but “Mrs. Gonzalez, she told me, I’m going to send you a ballot.”
So he votes absentee. But if he has to go the polls next time, no problem.
“I love to walk,” he said.
Then theirs is Julio Ortiz, 55, who’s in a wheelchair. “Minnie,” he said, “the only person I always vote for.”
Arcadia Gonzalez, 76, said she is illiterate. She said that she had help filling out the ballot from a neighbor down the hall and that she told her neighbor to check off Gonzalez’s name.
Maria M. Garcia, 68, said she suffers several mental health issues and needs to vote absentee. And she said she’ll always vote Gonzalez: There’s just no forgetting the time representative helped her sort out a bureaucratic mess in which almost lost her Medicaid benefits. Gonzalez stepped in, she recalled, and it all turned out fine.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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