His supporters and his opponents agree on one thing. The I. Charles Mathews that led Hartford's city council 20 years ago was a tough, skilled politician; a self-made man who got things done and often rubbed people the wrong way doing so.
Fast-forward to 2007.
His supporters say that the Mathews who returned to Hartford two years ago, after a decade's absence during which he survived a bout with cancer, is a mellower, more mature version of the original.
His opponents, particularly those who back Mayor Eddie A. Perez - the man Mathews hopes to replace - not only aren't buying the newer version, they're trying to market the old Mathews to the public.
When Democratic primary voters go to the polls Tuesday to choose among Perez, Mathews, state Rep. Art Feltman and former state Sen. Frank Barrows, they'll have a decision to make. And their perceptions of Mathews, good and bad, may be key.
In 1965, a young I. (for Isiah) Charles Mathews returned to his parents' Boston home from a stint with the Marines in Southeast Asia. He had dropped out of high school at age 16 and got his General Educational Development diploma while in the service. With few skills and little education, Mathews did not know what to do with his life.
Mathews' fortunes changed when his father forced him to visit the local employment office, where he enrolled in a government-sponsored program to train sheet metal mechanics. Then, in November of 1967, after months of bending metal to make air-conditioning and heating ducts, Mathews saw an advertisement in the newspaper: Pratt & Whitney Aircraft was seeking people to be jet engine metalsmiths.
"I told my mother, `I'm out of here,'" Mathews said. "I ran downstairs threw my stuff in the washing machine, tossed it in my bag, into my old piece of a car, and drove all the way down to Hartford."
He pulled into the city at 2 a.m. and walked into the city's YMCA, where he rented a room for $43 a week.
As Mathews tells it, the rest is history.
After graduating from Greater Hartford Community College he got a full ride to Wesleyan and went on to earn a law degree from Cornell. He served in Washington, D.C., as counsel to a special congressional committee investigating the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.
He then returned to Hartford, working as an attorney for United Technologies Corp. for two decades. In the late 1980s, he joined the city council and served three terms, ending in 1991 as Hartford's deputy mayor.
"I'm not special," Mathews, 62, said of his remarkable climb from working-class poverty. "I've been fortunate, been blessed, because people saw something in me and gave me a second chance."
After his three sons left home for college, Mathews and his wife left Hartford so he could take a job as a vice president at the Quaker Oats Co. in Chicago. He worked there for four years before moving to Tampa, Fla. After the terrible hurricane season in 2004, Mathews returned to Hartford in 2005.
"This is my home," he said.
It's Mathews' time as deputy mayor that his critics point to as troubling.
As the leader of the city's Democrats - in a position widely considered the city's most powerful under Hartford's old charter - Mathews earned a reputation for playing hardball politics, shutting doors to outsiders and winning at all costs.
Tom McBride, former mayor of Newington, served on Hartford's city council with Mathews. He represented the city's South End, which was often at political odds with Mathews' base, the predominantly black North End.
"When he was in a leadership position, especially as deputy mayor, he led with an iron fist," McBride said. "Either it was Charlie's way or the highway."
Mathews has leveled charges against Perez that echo criticisms he once faced. He has called Perez a "my way or the highway" boss who has burned bridges with the governor and the city's legislative delegation. Mathews describes the incumbent as behaving more like a monarch than a mayor.
Dan Gerstein, a consultant for the Perez campaign, calls Mathews hypocritical.
"If you look at his conduct and his record, one of the key arguments he is making as to why the voters should fire the mayor and hire him is that the mayor has alienated too many people," Gerstein said. "But if that is one of his primary arguments, and what he is saying is exactly the kind of behavior he exhibited when he was in leadership, it begs the question - why should anyone hire him?"
Gerstein points to other areas where he says Mathews' rhetoric does not match his record. For instance, while Mathews describes himself as a man of the people, Gerstein points to Mathews' work as an attorney defending UTC "against the little guys." While Mathews criticizes Perez for rewarding political allies and punishing foes, the Perez folks say he once acted the same way. And while Mathews highlights his commitment to the city, the Perez camp asks why he left Hartford for more than a decade before returning to the city and running for office.
"After I. Charles Mathews left office, he left town and abandoned the city for 10 years while Eddie Perez was here throughout," Gerstein said.
Mathews had a quick rejoinder.
"Don't stand in your glass house and throw rocks," Mathews said, noting how Perez had lived outside Hartford for nearly a decade, taking advantage of suburban schools and lower taxes.
Perez bought a house in Bloomfield in 1986 and sold it in 1998. And while Perez has said he moved back to the city in 1993, Courant stories published during his 2001 campaign stated he continued to register his vehicles in Bloomfield for years, taking advantage of the suburb's lower auto insurance premiums and automobile taxes.
Perez has maintained he never truly left Hartford, since he continued to work in the city.
For months since Mathews announced his candidacy, he says the Perez camp has been looking under every rock in Hartford to find mud to sling.
"All that digging, and all they found were things they could distort," he said.
Mathews admits that when he was younger he had "a more abrasive style." But, he said, as deputy mayor he had to be a consensus-builder because his was only one of nine city council votes. He had to convince at least four other council members to vote with him to pass anything.
Mathews said he has changed with age and experience.
One episode - his diagnosis of multiple myeloma, or cancer of the blood - forced him to refocus his priorities. As he sat for months getting chemotherapy and having blood transfusions, Mathews - today in full remission - said he thought hard about his past and what he could do better.
"You kind of look at your life and say to yourself, `Who am I, what have I accomplished, where am I going, and have I made anyone's life better because I'm here?'" he said. "I will be the first one to say that when I was on council I could have done some things differently. But I just chalk it up to youth."
State Rep. Marie Kirkley-Bey, who served with Mathews on the city council, remembers him being a tough politician, but said she sees someone today with fewer sharp edges.
"Charlie is a leader. He has an excellent mind. I believe he is a visionary," she said. "He has definitely mellowed."
Mathews has won several significant endorsements. He is backed by former Mayor Mike Peters; former city Councilwoman Geraldine Sullivan; state Rep. Ken Green, D-Hartford; and the public employees' union, AFSCME Council 4. He was also endorsed by The New York Times.
Mathews said he had no intention of running for office when he returned to Hartford - "Been there, done that," he said.
He had simply come home to the place where his parents and siblings are buried, where his children live and where he has friendships of more than 30 years.
But as he walked the city doing pro-bono legal work for the NAACP and neighborhood groups, he felt Hartford was suffering and heard pleas from old friends to get back into politics.
"I got to the point as I looked around, where I truly believed in my heart the city needed a new direction," Mathews said.
So he delved into the issues, saying the city must tackle the root causes of all its ills - an underperforming educational system and a lack of jobs.
If elected, he said, he would put more resources into pre-kindergarten and early education; offer vocational training options to high school kids who don't graduate; and offer programs to the large adult population in Hartford that is not literate.
He wants to expand the city's police department and refocus the department's mission to include "quality of life" disruptions, such as noise complaints and disorderly conduct, and repair the "distrust" between the police department and Hartford citizens through public outreach .
And he wants to set up a new city department to offer resources to small businesses: either grants or technical assistance.
Mostly, Mathews said, he wants to be Hartford's ambassador, building alliances with the governor and the city's legislative delegation.
"The problems of this city are too vast, too great for the city to solve by itself," he said. "We need partners."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at