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An Old Organizer Sees Need For New Activism In City

By MARK PAZNIOKAS, Courant Staff Writer

September 09, 2007

The political career of Rep. Art J. Feltman, D-Hartford, seemed undone in 2004 by a private bout of emotional exhaustion and a bumbling performance on the House floor during a high-profile debate.

Over 41/2 hours, Feltman struggled to explain complex legislation he co-sponsored to place Connecticut in the front ranks of embryonic stem-cell research. He struck colleagues as overwhelmed.

"People don't know what they're voting on," Rep. Lenny Winkler, R-Groton, said in an unusually sharp rebuke of Feltman on the floor. "I don't believe Rep. Feltman knows what he's voting on."

Three years after his painful afternoon in the spotlight, Feltman insists he is back on his game as he criss-crosses Hartford as one of three challengers to Eddie A. Perez for the Democratic mayoral nomination.

Feltman, 49, who closed his law practice to focus on legislative duties after what friends bluntly describe as his 2004 "meltdown," is campaigning with the same fervor he displayed as a community organizer fresh out of Wesleyan University.

In 26 years as an organizer, city councilman and state legislator, Feltman has impressed and exasperated people with his passion. He is described as smart, dedicated and persistent to the point of distraction.

Some old organizing friends are among his donors, but others begged off when asked to talk about Feltman and their shared campaigns. One reason is a desire to stay out of Feltman's fight with Perez, who is another former community organizer. Another is that many people say Feltman eventually exhausts the patience of those around him.

More than one person who has worked an issue with or against Feltman resorted to Yiddish to summarize him: He can be a "noodge," a pest.

"I could live with `noodge,'" said David Kovacs, laughing. Kovacs is Feltman's longtime neighbor on Broadview Terrace, where Feltman lives with his partner of 20-plus years, Dale J. Wallington.

Kovacs, a high-school teacher, gave up his summer to run Feltman's mayoral campaign, a common pastime for Kovacs. He has run every Feltman campaign - once for city council and six times for the 6th House District, which covers the western half of the South End.

"Is he perfect? No, no," Kovacs said. "I've seen the warts and the bumps. I've stuck with him when other people walked away."

Kovacs said he has disagreed with Feltman over the years, but the foundation of his support is Feltman's motivation for remaining in public life.

"Character, that's the bottom line. Why is someone in it?" Kovacs said. "He is a holdover neighborhood activist who really believes in change, who believes that `government is for the people,' all this stuff we talk about."

Feltman, a native of Oradell, N.J., which probably considers NFL coach Bill Parcells to be its more famous son, grew up in a house with a Republican father, a Democratic mother and passionate dinner discussions.

At age 11, Feltman and his 10-year-old brother went to the small town's green for an anti-war protest. "I guess I had that activist bug from an early age," he said.

He came to Hartford as a community organizer for Hartford Areas Rally Together after graduating from Wesleyan, a job suggested by a professor as a way to translate political theory into practice.

In 1982, he helped lead a citywide organizing drive to build support for legislation addressing a perennial problem in Hartford: how to ease the impact of property revaluation on the city's small base of homeowners.

One of the organizers on the drive was Perez, the first of many times Feltman's path would intersect with the future mayor.

Another contact he made during the revaluation fight was William A. DiBella, then a rising star in the state Senate, who hired Feltman as a legislative committee clerk.

Out of a job when Republicans won control of the General Assembly in 1984, Feltman enrolled at the University of Connecticut School of Law. In his third year, Feltman conducted a study of the value Hartford received from major tax-exempt institutions, concluding that Trinity College did little for Hartford. When a new Trinity president, Tom Gerety, took over, he made better community relations a priority - and hired Perez as a community liaison.

Feltman was elected to the city council in 1995 as an openly gay candidate. He and Wallington, whom he met at Wesleyan, were among the first gay couples to become legal spouses after Connecticut passed its same-sex, civil-unions law in 2005.

His campaign for mayor has not become a cause for the gay community, a failing that has limited his ability to compete with Perez in fundraising.

As a mayoral candidate, Feltman has promised to slash the size of the mayor's staff and redirect the funds to providing better services. He sees the mayor's 311 complaint line as an over-hyped waste of money.

To fight crime, Feltman wants more rehabilitation beds for drug abusers, better re-entry programs for ex-offenders, strict enforcement of a 9 p.m. curfew for minors and a mandatory midnight closing for convenience stores.

In a position paper on crime, Feltman wrote about a need to rebuild "life-affirming social structures, norms and values, and internal sources of authority."

But he responded casually in July to being robbed in a South End parking lot by a man with a knife, failing to file a report until the next day.

"I understand I am under no legal duty to report," Feltman said. "It was 10 o'clock at night. I wanted to go home. And I just thought it was very unlikely that in the time the police got there, they would find anybody."

Feltman, who worked with Perez in support of charter revision and supported Perez for mayor in 2001, said his relationship with the mayor soured over the same issue that once brought them together: how best to cope with property taxes.

Feltman also blames Perez for the challenge he faced for the Democratic nomination in 2004 from Hector Robles. The challenge added to the stresses Feltman was feeling at the Capitol, Kovacs said.

He won the primary, despite questions about his health. Today, Feltman avoids attaching a clinical label on what happened to him three years ago.

"I think I was overtaxed. I think my body was spent," Feltman said. After a long pause, he added, "That's it."

Feltman said he was exhausted by full-time careers as a lawyer and legislator. "My body told me what my mind wouldn't accept - that I needed to make a choice" between law and politics, Feltman said. "I think at mid-life there are many men who face these kinds of choices."

He said he rebounded in 2006 to help pass legislation blunting the impact of property revaluation on Hartford homeowners. This year, he was a co-sponsor of sensitive legislation limiting the powers of municipalities to seize property by eminent domain.

Kovacs said the campaign gets questions about Feltman's ability to handle the rigors of running city hall. "People will ask that question. At the end of the day, you just tell the freaking truth," Kovacs said. "Is the guy mentally ill? No. Did he have exhaustion? Yeah, here's why."

Kovacs said the proof of Feltman's fitness to be mayor is in his rigorous campaign. He's been at it since January, producing position papers, making endless pitches on the phone for money during the day, then knocking on doors at night.

"He's held up better than I have," Kovacs said.

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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