Long-Shot Hopeful Says He Knows City, Can Delegate
By MARK PAZNIOKAS, Courant Staff Writer
September 09, 2007
Frank D. Barrows used to have a standard political biography. He paid his dues scrounging votes for others and was rewarded with four terms as a state senator from 1985 to 1993.
And then he went to jail.
Out of office and unemployed, Barrows became a correction officer in 1994 at age 48, an offbeat career move for a middle-aged politician whose private-sector job had been building jet engines at Pratt & Whitney.
So, the question inevitably comes, what has he learned in a dozen years in jail that has prepared him for the job he now seeks: mayor of Hartford, overseeing cops, firefighters, streets, schools, libraries and a $500 million budget?
"Nothing," Barrows replied.
"Nothing," he repeated.
This time, he laughed.
"What qualifies anybody to be something? You know, what qualifies somebody to be president of the United States?" Barrows asked. "They don't know nothing about being a president of the United States until they get to it."
Barrows, 61, whose day job still has him reporting to work at the Hartford Correctional Center, a steel and concrete complex that is the state's biggest and busiest jail, said he knows people and knows the problems of Hartford.
"The whole key is you have the right people in there to do the right job. You have the right people in place, putting the right people in there to do the right job," Barrows said, adding that you then hold them accountable. "I can delegate. I can do that. And that's what a president does. That's what a CEO does."
Barrows decided to run for mayor three years ago after Mayor Eddie A. Perez tried to place several allies on the Democratic town committee slate in the 1st House District, which runs from the West End up to the Bloomfield line. Barrows was district leader.
"That's what got me going," he said. "That's what woke me up."
Barrows refused the mayor's demand to alter the slate. Ultimately, Perez organized a challenge to Barrows' slate and lost.
"Since then, we've been getting ready," Barrows said.
By most objective measures, Barrows is the long shot. As he tells voters, he has no money, no website, no paid staff and no army of volunteers. His wife, Deborah, a former acting police chief, is his campaign manager.
"My strategy is to get out there, knock on doors, talk to people," he said. "This way, at least they see the candidate."
The other challengers are I. Charles Mathews, a former deputy mayor and retired corporate executive, and state Rep. Art J. Feltman.
Barrows grew up in Hartford, attended Weaver High School, where he played football, then served a tour in Vietnam as a Marine. He came home with a Purple Heart. Barrows mentions his war experience when explaining why he is trying for the mayor's job.
"I told a close friend of mine, when you are in combat and you should have been dead a few times and you're still alive, you are here for a reason," he said. "I said, `Let me see if this is why I am here.' So, I'm going to try it."
He won his Senate seat in 1984 by defeating one North End icon, Sen. Wilber G. Smith. He lost it eight years later to another one, former Mayor Thirman L. Milner. He said he left office with no hard feelings.
In this sour political season, Barrows has been a happy warrior, unburdened by high expectations as he goes door to door, asking for votes.
"I really like doing this stuff," he said. "I feed off it, going door to door."
His gregariousness is what led him to leave Pratt. A training program he enjoyed running was eliminated, so he returned to building and inspecting engines, a well-paying job he grew to detest.
After he quit, he worked as a lobbyist for Steve Wynn, the gambling mogul who tried to persuade the state to let him build a casino in Bridgeport. A friend later told Barrows that a human resources job might be open in the Department of Correction.
It never materialized, but Barrows passed the test for a correction officer and went to work at the jail in the city's North Meadows. He found himself enjoying working with inmates, most of whom are there for short stays.
"I don't beat 'em up. I don't cuss at them, and they protect me," he said. "I can go anywhere in the city, and I'm comfortable."
Because many inmates at the jail are being held prior to trials, they have not lost their right to vote. Barrows said many of his charges have become interested in his political comeback.
"When I go to work, the inmates are into this," Barrows said. "They are asking me, `How can I vote?' So, I tell them, `Go see your counselors, tell them you want an absentee ballot.' And I tell them, `If you are not a registered voter, tell them you want a voting card, so you can register. That's your constitutional right.'"
He did not offer an estimate of the size of the jail vote. In recent weeks, he has been using vacation time, trying to reach the rest of the electorate. He said he is curious to see whether they are as engaged as the inmates.
"I want to see if people really want to get Eddie out of there, or are they just talking," he said. "It's put up or shut up."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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