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How Strong?

HARTFORD'S MAYORAL RACE: Former Friends Find Eddie Perez Bullheaded. Some Of His Dealings Are Suspect. But, He Asks: Have You Hit Any Potholes Lately?

By DANIEL E. GOREN And MARK PAZNIOKAS, Courant Staff Writers

September 02, 2007

He is mayor. He is chairman of the board of education and is overseeing the massive rebuilding of city schools. He appointed the police chief, helped choose the school superintendent and influenced the makeup of the city council and housing authority.

Hartford is Eddie A. Perez's city.

But in consolidating power over the past six years to an unprecedented degree, Perez has bruised friends, marginalized opponents and antagonized the governor and state legislators. Many of his most vocal critics are former supporters.

In next week's Democratic primary, he is opposed by three candidates for mayor, with some opponents describing his tenure in apocalyptic terms.

"This is a reign of terror," said Geraldine Sullivan, one of Perez's disenchanted former supporters who now runs the campaign of challenger I. Charles Mathews. "We can't have this in the city."

Adding to his political woes is a criminal investigation of city parking lot deals and improvements to the mayor's home by a city contractor. Perez put one of the deals back out to bid and apologized for the home-improvement arrangement as a "mistake."

But Perez admits to few other regrets as he looks back over his efforts to redesign government and change the political culture of a city in which power was diffuse and no one was accountable.

He predicts that Hartford will give him a third term in recognition of jump-starting a tired and listless city. Hartford, he insists, is now a city that works in ways large and small.

And people know who is in charge.

"The first thing I say to people - real people, not the pundits, not the insiders - I say, `How many potholes have you run into lately? How many?'" he said during an interview. "I start with that, because I think that's what matters to people."

His supporters say they are willing to overlook the mayor's brusqueness in the pursuit of progress. They point to luxury apartments downtown, dropping crime rates and new schools as measures his success.

The Rev. Cornell Lewis, one of his staunchest supporters, said Perez has brought a "fresh breeze through city hall."

"The first thing he did when he got into office was fix the streets," Lewis said. "I was driving down the street and I said, `Something is wrong. My truck isn't shaking.'"

But while Perez has been facing questions about his style for some time now, on the eve of the primary he is - for the first time - facing questions about whether he used his office for personal gain.

Last month, state investigators searched the mayor's Bloomfield Avenue home and the office of a city contractor who did roughly $20,000 worth of kitchen and bathroom work for Perez. The contractor, Carlos Costa, has millions of dollars of work with the city.

"I made a mistake," Perez said. "I've acknowledge the mistake. I was very transparent with people, and said it happened. I wished I hadn't done it the way it happened. I hope it was a minor distraction, and at the end of the day it won't be a significant distraction. It takes away from all the good work that we've done."

Andrea Comer, a school board member who worked for Perez's first election, said one peril of his all-encompassing management style is that he can't convincingly say he was not attentive enough on the parking deal or home project.

"If you want to be the strong mayor, the end-all and be-all, you don't get to not know," said Comer, who stepped down as the mayor's spokesman in his first term after a falling-out with Perez's chief of staff, Matt Hennessy.

But it is unclear how much the latest questions about the mayor will affect his chances on Sept. 11.

The same investigators have for months been reviewing documents at city hall as part of a probe into parking-lot deals made with Abraham L. Giles, a North End political boss who helped Perez get the Democratic Party's endorsement.

So far, the Perez campaign has seemed insulated from the investigation. His detractors are distributed among the campaigns of three primary opponents: Mathews, a former council leader; Art Feltman, a state legislator; and Frank Barrows, a former state senator.

John B. Kennelly, a former city councilman who fell out with Perez during the mayor's first term, described what appears to be a tepid reaction to the investigation as a kind of "political combat fatigue."

"People aren't outraged," Kennelly said. "They are kind of like, `Whatever. These are just politicians.' They are almost resigned to this being true about their politicians. The impression is that they are all crooks, so what's it matter? Anyone who sits in that seat becomes a crook. There is no sense of moral outrage."

The episode also appears to have had little effect on Perez's support within the business community.

"Short of an indictment," one prominent member of that community said, "I'm having a hard time seeing the business community going to any one of the other candidates."

But Hyacinth Yennie, a community activist and organizer, is upset with Perez.

"This is not about the person. This is about what the person has done," Yennie said. "I like Eddie, because I knew him from the grass roots, and that is why we supported him in the past. But when you take the power and misuse it, that is a fine line. And when you cross it, there need to be consequences."

Strong Man

Six years ago, Perez took office as a phenomenon. He had grown up poor, joined a gang and then became an effective community organizer, impressing people like Geraldine Sullivan, who viewed the Perez biography as "a gritty Hartford success story."

"I just admired him so much," said Sullivan, who urged him to run for city council when her brother, Mike Peters, was mayor. "Instead, he decided to run for mayor, and I was thrilled."

Perez was elected in 2001 to a two-year term under Hartford's old council-manager government, backed by a coalition of activists who advocated a strong-mayor charter.

With no statutory power, Perez assembled a council coalition that allowed him to reorganize city hall. He also initiated a new charter revision campaign. In 2004, he was elected with token opposition to a four-year term as Hartford's first strong mayor.

Over the next four years, Perez asserted control over all corners of government and politics.

In addition to taking control of the schools, he ousted the commissioners at the Hartford Housing Authority. He had showdowns with the governor, the city's legislative delegation and House Speaker James Amann.

He clashed with the legislative delegation over legislation intended to blunt the impact of property revaluation on homeowners. When he failed to prevail in April 2006, he issued a press release saying legislative inaction could force him to fire police and make other cutbacks.

His rough style has left some bruises. And while he chalks it up to getting the job done - he says he's driven by "projects, not politics" - others aren't so sure.

"I believe the delegation's feeling toward Eddie is one of disappointment and not knowing what he may pull next - and try to have us blamed for that," said Rep. Marie Kirkley-Bey, D-Hartford.

In one of his most visible fights, Perez elevated a dispute over the location of the Pathways to Technology magnet school into high political drama. Over the objections of the legislative delegation, Perez began construction without clear title to what had been state land.

Perez said he simply was defending the choice made by a city panel, but it ended with a rebuke from Gov. M. Jodi Rell, renewed hard feelings among state legislators and an opinion by Attorney General Richard Blumenthal that the city had no authority to build a school on the site.

The episode reinforced an image of a mayor unwilling to accept limits on his power or tolerate dissent.

Perez has seemed to chafe at some of the checks and balances written into the new charter. While the mayor now denies any role, his council allies blocked the appointment of two independent, strong-willed men to an internal-audit panel.

"Eddie or his opponents should go back and recognize the value - not just to the city, but to the mayor - of having strong instruments of government other than the mayor's office," said Allan B. Taylor, chairman of the charter revision commission.

Sullivan's husband, Tim, an activist whose disagreement with Perez on a property tax relief plan turned ugly, said Perez developed a habit after the 2003 election of elevating policy disagreements and petty differences into blood feuds

"He was making enemies of people he didn't need to make enemies with," Tim Sullivan said.

But Perez still has a strong contingent of supporters.

Some applaud the mayor's accomplishments; others fear losing their livelihood. Still others have personal memories of Perez that outweigh the questions that have been raised about Perez's behavior. He's a friend. A guy they simply like.

"Eddie has passion, but sometimes that passion is funneled in the wrong direction," said John Bazzano, the council president. "He sets his mind on something and he doesn't want to bend, and that is where he gets himself into a bit of trouble. But for the most part I think Eddie has a good heart, is passionate, and really cares."

Perez has been a friend of business, people in that community say. And apart from a few instances that made them wince - his support of a union organizing effort at the Connecticut Convention Center, for example - they are supporters.

The city's businessmen like Perez's nerve and his pull-me-up from poverty story, and they recognize the difficult task he has to synthesize disparate communities. Perez's campaign coffers are overflowing with cash, mostly from the city's business community. The mayor has raised more than $370,000.

Comer was once among the mayor's biggest fans, but she now supports Mathews and said the estrangement of Perez from his early supporters troubles her.

"Despite the fact I am supporting Charles, I take no joy in this," Comer said. "At the end of the day, I think it's sad for the city. People did have such high hopes."

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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