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Hartford's Biggest Issue Is ... Mayor Eddie?


August 12, 2007

The "Jeopardy!" answer is "earthquakes." The question: "Name a problem Hartford doesn't have."

Hartford sure has every other problem you could name. A lame public relations campaign calls it "New England's Rising Star." Given the murder rate, "shooting star" would be more fitting: Last year, there were 24 homicides in a city of just 124,000.

Hartford will spend $14,300 per child on education this year, $2,500 above the state average. Still, drop-out rates are triple the state average. Parents don't read any better than their kids do. Forty percent of adults are at "Level 1" literacy, meaning they can't find an intersection on a street map, comprehend a sports page or fill out a job application. As a result, nearly a third of city residents live in poverty. And the list goes on.

You may wonder, with so many tough issues to face, which one is driving the election. That's easy. Wherever you go, whomever you ask, the answer's the same: "The issue is Eddie."

Mayors are often at the centers of storms. Any mayor seeking re-election should expect a referendum on his performance. But the debate over Mayor Eddie Perez goes beyond the usual and customary. It's more personal, not only among his opponents but among voters as well.

Perez has drawn a field of challengers far stronger than one normally sees in a Hartford municipal race, including, most prominently:

Frank Barrows, an intelligent and public-spirited former state senator. Barrows seems to stand rather than run for the office. It's a strategy that last worked for George Washington, and if it works here, we'll know Hartford voters are paying closer attention to politics than anyone thought.

I. Charles Mathews, a shrewd political veteran with eight years of council experience. Matthews is smart and well-educated - Wesleyan and Cornell law - but his platform consists mostly of calls for study commissions. His campaign shows more energy than Barrows' but perhaps not the sort of zip it takes to mobilize his North End base.

State Rep. Minnie Gonzales, a passionate populist who, when it comes to serving her district, works as hard as any legislator. Her years at the Capitol have deepened her knowledge and widened her worldview. Primaries are her principal hobby, and an opponent who underestimates her will likely pay for the mistake.

State Rep. Art Feltman. With years as a community organizer, councilman and legislator behind him, Feltman has the strongest resume in the race. He's also the most knowledgeable person to seek the job in a generation.

There are policy differences among the candidates. All are for property-tax reform. Perez's plan would help only homeowners. But the business community is Mozzicato's, not just Aetna. To preserve Hartford's character along with its job base, you have to cut business in on the action, a reality that Feltman acknowledges.

It's a debate worth having, but a mayor's race is more about performance than policy. A mayor doesn't set tax policy except by holding down spending; the rest is up to the legislature. He's the city's chief executive and its ambassador to the governor, legislature and public. The election is about how well Perez handles those roles. His critics say poorly, blaming his temperament and his view of the scope of his position.

Big-city mayors often meddle in matters outside their job descriptions. Congressmen and legislators never fight other people's battles. Last year, Perez took on Ned Lamont for Joe Lieberman and John DeStefano on behalf of Dan Malloy. He lost a fierce fight with legislators over the location of a new school and picked a fight with Gov. M. Jodi Rell over what seemed like nothing at all.

Perez has also waged primaries against Hartford town committee members. One was against Minnie Gonzales, and it's a big reason she's after him now. The fight over the school may have been the last straw for Feltman. Talk about buying a lot of trouble for nothing.

Hartford Registrar Shirley Surgeon may bar Gonzales and Matthews from the primary ballot based on an obscure statute. It would mean a lawsuit and lots of depositions. Gonzales turned her petitions in early, but only learned she had a problem with hours to go. If Surgeon knew but kept mum, the resultant uproar will make Perez's other battles seem like minor fracases.

Perez has done some good things. But when a mayor's style becomes a bigger issue than murder and drop-out rates, it's time for him, and everyone, to take stock.

Bill Curry, former counselor to President Bill Clinton, was the Democratic nominee for governor twice.

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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