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Suddenly, The Mayor: Pedro Segarra Hits His Stride In Hartford

City's Top Job Took Over His Life; Now He's Looking For Balance

By JENNA CARLESSO

August 08, 2010

HARTFORD Despite serving more than a month in the city's top office, Pedro Segarra said that some days, he doesn't quite feel like the mayor.

Slipping into his suit jacket on a recent morning, Segarra recounted the daily routine that helps him get into character.

He rises at 5 a.m., watches television news for 30 to 40 minutes and meditates for half an hour. Then he races over to city hall, never arriving later than 8 a.m. Sometimes he'll squeeze in an early morning television appearance or call in to a radio show to trumpet something he's working on.

The city has become his chief concern, while several other aspects of his life, including family, friends, sleep and sometimes meals, have taken a back seat.

"The difficulty is the balance. I just want to have some sense of balance," Segarra said. "I'll give you 20 hours of my day, but don't deprive me of the last four hours with my family."

The Courant accompanied Segarra on a more than 10-hour work day recently. His tightly packed agenda included a variety of meetings, a press conference, the taping of a television segment and a tour of local parks.

Segarra called it "a short day."

"Our problems are so overwhelming, our challenges so big, that if you want to do this with any possibility of succeeding, you have to immerse yourself in it so deeply that you can't really do anything else," he said. "I'm pretty much resigned to the fact that I have no life except for a small chunk of time at night."

Segarra has a long history with the city, and his love for it runs deep. He has worked and lived here for the better part of three decades, serving on the city council most recently as its president and as corporation counsel. He also ran a private law practice on Cedar Street, which he began to close just before being sworn in as mayor.

The ascent to mayor was a taxing one, said Segarra, who took over after former Mayor Eddie Perez resigned following his conviction on corruption charges. In his capacity as city council president, Segarra became the mayor by default, stepping in at a time when public trust in city government had dipped significantly.

"At the beginning, I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. I felt an overwhelming amount of responsibility," he recalled. "It was too much seeing what had happened to the [former] mayor."

Closing down his law office was "depressing," he said. He began to see less and less of his family and his longtime partner, Charlie Ortiz, with whom he shares a home in the city's west end. Within the first week or two the job, Segarra had shed almost 10 pounds.

But recently, the new mayor has begun to hit his stride. He asked all of the city's department heads to submit letters of resignation and hired in a new chief of staff and corporation counsel. He was instrumental in moving the city toward a deal to buy the infamous eyesore at 1161 Main St. known as the "Butt Ugly Building" and tear it down. Segarra has called for a citywide clean-up that includes local parks, streets and public green spaces.

"He's navigated what is an overwhelming task very well," City Councilman Luis Cotto said. "At the beginning, it was obvious he was overwhelmed, but he recovered quicker than I had anticipated he would. It isn't an easy thing."

And Segarra's just getting started. During the remainder of his term, which runs through January 2012, he hopes to target more blighted buildings for demolition, carry out additional staffing changes at city hall and rebuild public trust in the government.

He declined to say which buildings he would target or what positions at city hall could be on the chopping block.

"Part of the problem is, I don't want someone else to know before that employee does," he said of the staffing changes. "I can tell you that any reorganization that is done will be done with efficiency in mind."

When his life starts to feel out of control, Segarra focuses on the little things that make him feel grounded, like cooking dinner at least twice a week or driving himself to work. Some days, in his spare time, he'll hop in his "little Mercedes-Benz" and take a spin through the city.

"I used to take drives when I was council president, just to see everything in the city. Now when I do, I look at it through a totally different lens because it's my responsibility," he said.

The upside of that responsibility, Segarra said, is his ability to affect change.

"I'd always heard a lot of complaints [from residents]," he said, which have ranged from the cost of living in Hartford to the unclean conditions of some city streets and parks. "We've been working hard to change some of those things."

Since Segarra took over as mayor, more residents have expressed an interest in volunteering for projects and participating in activities, said David Panagore, the city's chief operating officer.

"I'm seeing a certain amount of new energy coming forward. The dark cloud that hung over the city and the questions that hung over the city have been removed," he said. "We've turned a page."

Hyacinth Yennie, a city resident and activist, said that when she walked into city hall recently, "the atmosphere was different."

"I've seen a different attitude. People are willing to serve and do things in a positive way," she said. "I'm hoping it has something to do with Pedro's leadership."

Although Segarra has a towering view of Hartford from his second-floor office at city hall, he said he also shares perspective with the people on the streets.

As a child growing up in the South Bronx, there were days he had nothing to eat and no place to live. His family would move each time it lost a home to a fire five times in total.

Segarra said he feels a connection with those who struggle in Hartford.

"I stay very true to poor people, relating to them at that level," he said. "I experienced poverty in its worst ways. I've experienced homelessness. I've experienced hunger. I know that sense of feeling the odds of life are stacked against you."

Segarra hopes to draw from his childhood experiences and background in social work the field he worked in before pursuing a law degree to develop programs for city children. One idea he has is to create a public-private partnership in which corporations could "adopt" grade-school children. The children would have a goal of graduating high school and going to college, and the corporations would pay a portion of their college tuition.

Segarra said he also plans to launch a poverty study to help identify areas where resources should be deployed in Hartford.

"I feel that given my set of skills, I'm better situated to at least identify opportunities and begin to implement some programs to help people," he said.

While he continues to focus on the tasks at hand, Segarra's future is less certain. He said he hasn't decided yet whether he will run for his own term.

"I can't even begin to think about that. The election is November 2011 that would mean that very shortly I would have to come up with a campaign, and I'm too focused on the day-to-day operations," he said.

But some things are more clear: He's looking forward to a time when the balance between his work life and personal life is restored.

"If there's going to be any reward, it'll be that I'll be able to rejoin my family and my partner when this odyssey is over," Segarra said. "Hopefully I'll have time to catch up on some things I'm missing out on."

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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