The spin cycle is over in Hartford's Democratic mayoral primary, and here are the dry facts: Both Mayor Eddie Perez and lead challenger I. Charles Mathews, despite their rhetoric, delivered disappointing performances.
Across the street from Mathews headquarters on Albany Avenue Tuesday there was an ominous sign still hanging from a dry cleaning shop: "Barrows For Mayor."
"I'm working on it," Mathews said with a laugh, adding that he believes he's persuaded the shop owner to switch. That's Mathews' biggest challenge now, getting the anti-Eddie voters to support him.
For November's race to be competitive, state Rep. Art Feltman and former state Sen. Frank Barrows must drop any thoughts of an independent run. Their combined third- and fourth-place finishes totaled 22 percent of the primary vote. If Mathews, a former city deputy mayor, can tap their bases, he can begin to rebound.
Barrows' north Hartford support is believed to have siphoned votes from Mathews. Perez actually won the predominantly black North End by a few percentage points over Mathews. Mathews barely won the diverse West End, a white enclave. Perez was dominant in the predominantly Latino districts in Parkville.
If Feltman and Barrows join the Mathews team and state Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, an independent candidate, becomes a spoiler in the Latino districts, we could have high drama in November after all.
A lot of people are beholden to Perez because of his control of city hall, the school board and the Democratic town committee. He raised and spent almost $500,000 in the primary, and was the only candidate with television advertisements. All that muscle generated a paltry 3,750 votes. (Rookie city council candidate Matt Ritter was the top vote-getter with 5,256.)
Perez's 49 percent tally was no mandate. Fifty-one percent of voters are displeased with his leadership. Camp Perez, naturally, views things differently:
"Urban primaries typically have a low turnout," said Kenny Curran, Perez's campaign manager. "The people who did turn out had strong support for the direction that the city is going."
After the primary, Mathews talked optimistically about his second-place finish - 29 percent - and November. Expectations were high. A steady rain is believed to have dampened turnout. Mathews' loyalists felt he had momentum, with endorsements from popular former Mayor Mike Peters, AFSCME and The New York Times. But Mathews wanted to draw 35 percent or better to open the eyes of an apathetic electorate and the wallets of circumspect political donors.
In a 1993 city Democratic primary, 65 percent of Hartford residents voted for someone other than incumbent Mayor Carrie Saxon Perry. Perry won the primary, however, with 35 percent of the vote - then was trounced in November by Peters. Peters had finished second to Perry in the primary.
Mathews is well aware of Peters' journey. Gerri Sullivan, Peters' sister and a former Perez supporter, is a Mathews campaign strategist.
Drawing parallels from Peters to Mathews is not really a stretch. In both cases, there was an incumbent whose support was waning. In Peters' case, he was able to take on Perry one-on-one in November.
Mathews won't have that luxury. Republican candidate J. Stan McCauley, and independents Gonzalez and Raul De Jesus are also in the mix. We'll know it's time to get serious again about the race when Mathews shows he can consolidate the Barrows and Feltman bases.
He can start with that dry cleaner.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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