When Pedro Segarra stepped off a bus in Hartford more than 30 years ago, he felt an instant connection with the city.
Despite having little money and no place to stay, Hartford felt safe to the boy who, at 15, had left the South Bronx to escape the pressure of joining a gang.
Segarra, a lawyer and city council president, said he still feels that same connection to the city where he's spent most of his life. Now he's busy preparing for what could be his most influential role — the next mayor.
"I see the role as more of a helper than a politician," he said recently from his office at city hall. "I'm stepping in at a time of crisis. That takes some of the pressure off of the job." He explained that because he's not elected, he doesn't have to concentrate as much on the usual political aspects of the job.
The city charter specifies that the council president will succeed a mayor who leaves office before his term expires. Mayor Eddie A. Perez has promised to submit his resignation Friday following his conviction June 18 on bribery and extortion charges. Perez hasn't said when he actually will leave office.
Segarra, 51, said his goal is for more than a change in his office nameplate. He said he hopes to restore public trust in the city's government and inspire more residents to get involved.
"I hope there is a transformation in the way politics are done in this city, so we don't repeat the mistakes of the past," said Segarra, who would become the city's first openly gay mayor.
The shift in responsibilities is one he never dreamed would happen.
Segarra was born in the small town of Maricao, Puerto Rico, and moved with his family to the Bronx when he was 7 years old. He was raised there with three sisters and two brothers until, he said, several gangs tried recruit him.
"It was basically the gangs that drove me away from my family," he recalled. "Some people who declined their invitations were killed."
So he cashed in his last two paychecks from a job at a supermarket, dropped out of high school and boarded a bus bound for Hartford. He spent the first few nights sleeping at the downtown YMCA.
Rebuilding his life wasn't easy. He commuted to New York City a couple of times a week to attend night school. Early jobs in Hartford included mopping floors and working as an emergency medical technician.
But Segarra said he didn't mind. He felt safe and at home in Hartford.
"It was a very friendly, welcoming city," he said. "There was more stability, and a stronger sense of community."
Segarra joined neighborhood groups and marched in the Puerto Rican Day and gay pride parades. He graduated from Greater Hartford Community College, now called Capital Community College, and went on to earn a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Hartford and a master's degree in social work from the University of Connecticut. He graduated from UConn Law School in 1985.
Segarra later served as corporation counsel under former Mayors Mike Peters and Carrie Saxon Perry, and joined the city council in 2006.
When he became council president in January, he said he knew there was a possibility he could step into the role of mayor, but he was a bit "in denial."
"I didn't walk into city hall with the expectation that I would be mayor," Segarra said, "but for those of us in public service, we do what's necessary."
Now, faced with the reality of taking over for the remainder of Perez's term, which runs through November 2011, he has a lengthy list of things he hopes to accomplish. The list includes stabilizing city finances, advocating for more federal aid and finding new ways to generate revenue.
Segarra is in the process of leaving his Hartford law firm, Segarra & Associates, to focus on being mayor. He said his clients will be transferred to other firms.
Several city council members have expressed their support for Segarra.
"He's exhibited every characteristic you would want in a leader," said Councilman Luis Cotto. Those traits include patience, intelligence and "flexibility to fully analyze a situation," he said.
Councilman Kenneth Kennedy called Segarra a "hands-on" and "inclusive" leader who values others' opinions.
"He did an excellent job of directing each person's concern during the budget process this year. He'll always listen, instead of giving you his viewpoint right from the start," Kennedy said. "I believe he'll be very accessible to everybody."
Councilman Jim Boucher pointed to Segarra's public record as a reason he would be well suited for the role of mayor.
"He has a good mix of legal and social work behind him," Boucher said. "I think Pedro's leadership style is good for the city."
Looking ahead to the fall of 2011, Segarra said he's not sure if he'll run for his own term.
"It's not even on my mind at this point," he said. "I would highly encourage other competent people with a new vision to run for the office."
In the meantime, Segarra said, he'll draw from his background in social work and politics to help the city move forward.
"I love this city," he said. "I'm very optimistic about the future of Hartford."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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