It will be Hartford's great misfortune if the fractured field facing besieged Mayor Eddie Perez allows the discredited incumbent to win another four-year term. A candidate challenging an incumbent requires a break, maybe more than one, to win the race. The campaign for the Democratic nomination for mayor in Hartford has provided a couple of spectacular opportunities for Mayor Eddie Perez's opponents.
In a race against only one challenger, Perez would have a mouthful of canvas by now. The year has seen revelations of Perez's murky parking lot dealings with local political operator Abe Giles. Those alone were enough to confirm what many suspected but were reluctant to say: The mask had slipped. Perez was using the power of the strong-mayor form of government to benefit friends and allies. (Myopic boosters of the new city charter ought to be recanting in public.)
The August revelations that Perez hired a city contractor to renovate the kitchen and a bathroom at the mayor's home but didn't pay for the work for two years should be enough to scuttle his re-election bid. After all, Perez's labored written explanation and nanosecond appearance before the press - on the day The Courant asked him to confirm that state investigators had searched his house - sounded like a confession, not a defense.
Perez admitted his own miserable judgment in hiring a contractor who has been doing a lot of business with the city to work at his home. Then, there was the weaselly attempt to blame Perez's wife's 2006 illness for the mayor's failure to pay for the improvements sooner. Of all the cringe-inducing displays of dodging responsibility, this one is likely to remain the most revealing. What self-respecting former gang member, a favorite Perez item on his resume, would blame his ill wife for the stench of corruption? No wonder he wanted to keep resolutely independent Minnie Gonzalez off the primary ballot. She's got more ... well, you finish the thought in the privacy of your home.
What's on the public record points to a tear-stained conclusion for Perez, preceded by the obligatory defiance. The contractor failed to obtain and pay for a building permit. That meant there was no public record of the work performed and the company performing it. The fewer fingerprints, the better to pull off the skullduggery and get a new kitchen and bathroom. Perez appears to have paid for the renovations after state authorities began their investigation.
The threat to Hartford is that a re-elected but suspect Perez will make it difficult for the city, which relies on the kindness of strangers in other levels of government for a lot of its money, to garner support. Plenty of officials will be glad to have a reason not to cooperate with Perez on matters important to Hartford.
The problem for voters in the Sept. 11 primary is that, in the balkanized world of Hartford politics, no one has emerged as the front-running challenger.
State Rep. Art Feltman appears to have some support in the district he represents in the legislature. And he might pick up some votes in the liberal West End. But Feltman has fatally soiled himself by aggressively seeking contributions from Capitol lobbyists. He's letting marks know that he may be back in the legislature next year, presumably with a list of who gave and who didn't.
In the 2005 campaign finance debate at the legislature, Feltman proclaimed that under the new law, which included taxpayer financing of campaigns and restrictions on contributions: "What we're trying to achieve here is decisions made in this chamber and in other parts of government on the merits." Unless, of course, you really, really need the money to run for mayor. In that case, pay no attention to highfalutin' talk and get the dough.
Former state Sen. Frank Barrows is a genial candidate who hasn't left any footprints. Former Deputy Mayor I. Charles Mathews could emerge if his campaign can display some energy after snagging the local AFSCME endorsement nine days ago. Matthews has been too polite. He should channel Perez for a week and strip the bark off the incumbent, just like Perez, renowned for his thin skin, would do if his opponent had been caught in a scandal.
If Matthews is to have his moment, this is it. But he can't have it quietly. He needs to make some noise.
Kevin Rennie is a lawyer and a former Republican state legislator.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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