Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez won a four-way Democratic primary Tuesday night, brushing aside questions about his ethics and a bruising style as the city's strongest mayor.
Perez, 49, who enjoys unprecedented powers under a charter that took effect with his election to a second term four years ago, won with 49 percent of the vote, according to unofficial returns. About 25 percent of the city's 30,000 registered Democrats cast ballots.
Perez exulted in victory, but acknowledged the damage he inflicted on his reputation by using a city contractor on a home remodeling project.
"No one is more angry about my political mistakes than me," Perez told supporters who crowded into the Arch Street Tavern, a block from city hall. "But no matter what, I continued working hard each and every day."
All three primary challengers and three others have qualified for the general election in November, giving the mayor an edge over a badly divided opposition.
I. Charles Mathews, 63, a former council leader returning to politics after a 16-year hiatus, emerged as the strongest of Perez's Democratic challengers, finishing second with 29 percent.
Together, the three challengers edged Perez, 3,906 to 3,750 votes - a mere statistical footnote, unless the field thins and one candidate can consolidate the anti-Perez vote.
"We have to find a way, those of us who truly want change, to narrow down the number of candidates," Mathews said. "If we can narrow the field, that will increase the probability that one of us will have the outstanding opportunity to beat Eddie Perez."
Rep. Art J. Feltman, 49, who has represented the western half of the South End in the House for the past decade, finished third with 13 percent, failing to win a single precinct in his own assembly district. He vowed to remain in the race.
Frank Barrows, 61, a former state senator attempting a comeback 14 years after leaving office, came in a distant fourth with 9 percent. He was uncertain about continuing.
Perez, who faces a criminal investigation into the home remodeling and parking lot deals made with a supporter, declared victory at 9:30 p.m. flanked by his wife and mother.
"Our opponents tried to do everything they could to talk down our progress," Perez said. "But today the voters said no to the politics of the old."
His opponents seemed surprised by the mayor's strong showing. He ran well throughout the South End and held his own in the West End. He narrowly won one precinct in Blue Hills, losing other North End precincts to Mathews.
"I'm surprised with all the revelations about the mayor over the last several months," Feltman said. "I'm astounded that anyone would vote for him. Perhaps people are burying their heads in the sand. You have to wonder what were they thinking."
Feltman said his third-place finish is no reason to quit.
"We still need to hold the mayor accountable," Feltman said. "We need to give the voters a choice."
Mathews put a happy face on his second-place finish, but the mood was downbeat at his post-election party at Uptown Flava in the North End, a recognition that Perez finished 20 percentage points ahead of Mathews.
"This is not a funeral," Mathews told his supporters. "If it was football, they might say this is the first half. If it was a play, they might say Act I. We've still got a long way to go and we still intend to win this election. Yes, we intend to win this election."
Mathews noted that he was badly outspent by the mayor.
Barrows said he felt good about his showing, considering how little he raised - less than $7,000.
Barrows said it was too early to tell if he would try again in November or lend his support to another challenger.
"The only way I can give my support to someone else is if they have the same agenda for Hartford as I do, and I don't mean downtown," he said. Mathews' manager, Geraldine Sullivan, said, "Frank's being in the race and getting 10 percent probably hurt Charles more than any other candidate," Sullivan said. "That 10 percent was not the vote that would have gone to Eddie or Art. It's the vote that would have gone to us."
On Tuesday, Mathews needed bigger margins in the well-to-do West End, which has the highest turnouts in the city, and in the largely black, middle-class neighborhood of Blue Hills.
In one West End district with a 42-percent turnout, Mathews took 201 of 509 votes cast, with Perez and Feltman splitting the rest. At Rawson School in Blue Hills, where Mathews lived when he was on the council, Perez actually beat Mathews, 230-227.
The expanded field in November will include Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, a Democrat disqualified from the primary over problems with qualifying petitions, and ex-Mayor Thirman L. Milner.
Gonzalez could help Mathews by holding down Perez's margins in Latino districts, while Milner could draw from Mathews' strength in the predominantly black North End. Both Mathews and Milner are black.
A major focus of the campaign was the extent to which Perez has come to dominate city politics: He is the city's chief executive, its school board chairman and de facto leader of the majority Democratic Party.
A secondary issue was an 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."
"It was a slip, a personal and political slip," Perez said. "It had an impact. I'm sure it had an impact."
The Democratic primary usually is tantamount to election in Hartford, though the popular Mike Peters was first elected as a petitioning candidate.
Democrats outnumber unaffiliated voters, 30,039 to 10,454, with Republicans running a distant third in voter registration with 1,932 members. J. Stan McCauley, a minister probably best known in Hartford for his cable-access television show, is the GOP nominee.
Perez, Hartford's first Puerto Rican mayor, was elected in 2001 to a two-year term under the old council-manager government and re-elected in 2003 to a four-year term under a new charter that gives Perez powers unimagined by his 65 predecessors.
Hartford also held a council primary in which all six endorsed candidates won, led in the voting by Matthew D. Ritter, the 25-year son of former House Speaker Thomas D. Ritter.
Ritter had 5,256 votes, followed by: Kenneth H. Kennedy, 5,234; Pedro E. Segarra, 4,500; Calixto Torres, 4,360; James M. Boucher, 4,312; and R.J. Winch, 3,985. The sole challenger, Thom Page, had 2,146 votes.
Courant Staff Writers Jeffrey B. Cohen, Tina Brown and Steven Goode contributed to this report.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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