Abe Giles was laid up in the hospital with a bad colon and bad heart last July, weak as could be. When doctors finally let him go home for Thanksgiving, he couldn't even eat.
"But the next day I started eating like a pig. And I've been eating like a pig ever since," said Giles, 82. He sat in a hot conference room in his hot warehouse in Hartford's North End wearing two campaign buttons — one for him, one for Barack Obama. "I was the weakest man still alive, anywhere in the world," he said.
Which is to say that even Abe Giles is surprised that Abe Giles is running again.
Abraham L. Giles — from Georgia, of Hartford — is on the ballot for state representative for the first time in 20 years. He's running to represent the 5th District, which includes both ends of Hartford's economic spectrum — the moneyed downtown business district and the impoverished North End.
His opponent, Marie Lopez Kirkley-Bey, is the eight-term incumbent; Giles, also an eight-termer — from 1972 to 1988 — is the Democratic Party's pick. The primary is Tuesday.
Giles is one of the city's enduring contradictions: a legislator whose constituents kept electing him after his colleagues voted him the legislature's worst; a politician who works tirelessly to register voters but who was infamous for missing votes; a businessman who complains that public money passes his people over but who is often accused of making his living off the public dime.
Giles has had a rough year. It included a long stay at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, which ended, and a long state criminal investigation — focused on allegations of corruption in the administration of Mayor Eddie A. Perez, and involving Giles — which has not.
The investigation also has meant stories in The Courant, which Giles says hasn't gotten anything right about him since 1975 except his name. No matter. He doesn't need the newspaper's vote. He just needs the vote of the people.
"I'm getting older. I can't do what I used to. I'm not going to outslick anybody and I'm not going to try," he said. "But nobody's going to outwork me. And that's been my philosophy all my life."
'The Only Thing I Know'
Giles was born in Savannah in 1926 to a father who built buildings and a mother who peeled shrimp. His father cared about preaching and politics, and he took his young son with him on the long walk each year to pay his poll tax. That's how Giles got his start in politics, "the only thing I know."
That's not entirely true. Giles knows how to scrape for a dollar. He has worked all kinds of jobs — hotel clerk, bowling alley manager, computer operator, busboy, carhop, lawn man, laundry worker, laundry owner, carpenter, real estate broker, state marshal, supermarket owner, novelty license plate maker, parking lot operator and mover.He attributes his business success to his work ethic; his critics attribute much of it to politics.
"I'll do practically anything that's legal to feed my family," said Giles, who has been married for 55 years and has three children and nine grandchildren. "Where this thing comes from that I'm living off the city, that's just the most ridiculous thing. … I do for $225 what nobody would do for less than $750."
In politics, Abe Giles fixes things.
"He's a guy, if you need a stop sign, you get a stop sign. If you need a mailbox, you get a mailbox," said former Mayor Mike Peters, a Kirkley-Bey supporter. "But you've also got to perform at the state Capitol, and that's one thing I think he falls short on."
Former city Councilman Steve Harris said Giles, his neighbor, missed his calling.
"He should have been a social worker, because what Abe does is pretty much practice on-the-ground, reach-out-and-touch politics," said Harris, who also supports Kirkley-Bey.
But he said Giles wasn't effective as a lawmaker, and he doubts Giles can be now.
"Abe's only allegiance and alliance is to himself," Harris said. "If I'm going to shake you down, I'm going to shake you down for something that benefits the neighborhood. I'm going to wrangle for some jobs, I'm going to wrangle for some economic development, I'm going to wrangle for some relief. I haven't seen that happen."
Salami And Bologna
If Abe Giles is surprised he's running for office, so is the singing bus driver.
That's the name Benford "Benjie" Stellmacher earned 30 years ago as a driver for Connecticut Transit Co., winning praise from Gov. Ella Grasso and others for bringing a little song and a little style to the daily commute.
Life steered Stellmacher away from Hartford, but last week, a family reunion pulled him back.
That's when he saw Giles' campaign signs.
"I said, 'This can't be the Abe Giles I know. It's got to be Abe Giles Jr.,'" Stellmacher said. When he learned otherwise, he got involved.
Because Stellmacher remembers. He remembers that Giles gave his mother a job registering voters, paying her money that helped buy food. Giles took his mother to the grocery store. Giles took his sister to buy clothes for the first day of school. When he needed work as a teenager, Stellmacher got a job at Giles' grocery store making grinders. When he came home from college, Giles would give him some money for school.
"I'm kind of indebted, trying to pay some of that back," Stellmacher said. "Not pay the money back, but pay my friendship. Pay homage. Because Abe was there for my family."
Now he's back in a bus, driving Giles' RV.
"Abe said, 'Let us do something for you.' And I said, 'All I need is gas, some lunch money and a few coins in my pocket,'" Stellmacher said. "It's not a great big ole $50,000 contract. It's minimum, minimum, minimum. ... A little get-by money."
As he drives, Stellmacher says, he sings:
"Some likes salami, some likes bologna. But don't nobody like a real phony. Vote for Abe Giles."
Giles tucked in his short-sleeved shirt, put on his cap and boarded his RV.
On the way to Faith Manor, a senior housing complex, Giles said he was running because no one else would. Kirkley-Bey, he said, has done nothing for the community and has only "aggrandized" herself.
That said, he considered staying out of the race, but Kirkley-Bey wouldn't give him what he wanted.
He wouldn't say what that was. But Kirkley-Bey would.
He wanted floor passes to the Democratic National Convention in Denver, she said. He wanted dirt from a city construction project. He wanted her to help him get an increase in the state pension he earned as a legislator. And he wanted her and another to resign from the city's Democratic town committee.
Giles said the part about the passes and the dirt aren't true.
On the campaign trail, Giles is long on how he can help the little guy and relatively short on grand ideas. He said he'd like to make Hartford's streets safer, but he doesn't quite know how. He has offered a debt deferment plan for anyone who owes anybody money, but he doesn't know if that's something the legislature has in its power to pass.
And as for the grand jury investigating the city, the mayor and Giles — he doesn't even know what there is to investigate.
"The judge said to me, he said, 'You're not going to answer any questions, are you?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'See you later,'" Giles said. "Actually, what he said was, 'If we need you, we'll call you.' And they haven't called me since."
When Giles walks up to Faith Manor, the first man he comes across is 74-year-old Leostine Blake. Blake said he hasn't voted once in his life.
He was a challenge for Giles. The rest were not. Here, most people are already registered to vote, his staff said. And most had already voted absentee.
"What you want, Abe?" Mary Rogers Lewis asked Giles as she sat on the balcony, adding that she was angry he didn't call her when her son was ill.
"You didn't tell me," Giles said.
She hadn't bothered him because he was sick, she said.
"I haven't been sick since last year," Giles said.
"Last year? You still sick. You ain't that well," she responded. Pulling his face down to hers with a hug, a kiss and a smile, she told him she would pray for him, "So he could be well and win."
Giles left to knock on more doors when a campaign worker spotted a potential voter.
"Abe, go get her," the staffer said.
"OK," Giles said, following the woman. "I'm on my way."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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