Mayor Mike Peters was a bon vivant of a mayor. From 1993 to 2001, at the smallest of openings — a carwash, the morning shift at McDonald's, an envelope — in the city of Hartford, Mayor Mike was there, arms thrown wide, slapping backs, sipping drinks and kissing babies.
But now the mayor is battling cirrhosis.
Hartford's a small town, and people have been talking about his illness for months. The mayor remained uncharacteristically quiet until last Sunday, when he appeared on WFSB's "Face the State," where he asked that the host, Dennis House, not mention his illness. In a short segment preceding the interview, House told viewers that the mayor was ill but preferred not to discuss it, and that his doctors are optimistic.
During the segment, Mayor Mike was his quotable self. He chastised current mayor Eddie Perez for not using him as a resource. He said he wanted to "slap the back of the head" of a man he'd thought had reneged on a deal in the city. It was classic Mayor Mike, minus the portly (sorry, Mayor) form. His (sorry, Mayor) chubby cheeks were gone. His color was off.
People began calling, so Mayor Mike agreed to talk about his illness, in public, for the first time here.
The prognosis is tough. In addition to cirrhosis, he's diabetic and on enough medication to keep him healthy should he be a candidate for a transplant. His doctor — whom he trusts — will talk to him about that later this month.
In March, Mayor Mike went to a doctor for what he thought was a triple hernia, but an examination revealed scar tissue on his liver. Telling only a few close friends, he entered the world of stress tests, blood draws and what he calls the "fanny-cam" (colonoscopy). Mayor Mike, who will be 60 in November, says he intends to follow doctors' orders and get back his health, and then he might consider another run for mayor. Hartford just may need him, again.
He sits at a table at his restaurant, Mayor Mike's, in downtown. His cellphone rings ("The Sting"). Yet another friend checking in. The mayor laughs.
"He calls," said Mayor Mike, "and waits to hear me speak. If I'm picking up the phone, he figures I'm still here."
A restaurant employee passes and says, "You're looking good, Mayor," and Peters laughs, reaches at his chin as if to remove a mask, and says, "Wait! It's not really me!" He jokes about stepping up to the bar and ordering a scotch — and then drinking the water they actually bring him.
Hartford needs a Mayor Mike, a man who unabashedly loves his city, someone who can reach across valleys to lift this town up. We are hurting the way we were when Peters first decided to run, when gangs and a loss of manufacturing jobs were crippling the city, when it was easier to take potshots than fill potholes.
We need a Mayor Mike. But first? He must get well.
Michael P. Peters grew up in the South End and became a Hartford firefighter at 22. He organized the goofy Hooker Day Parade, and in 1991, he decided his city needed him on a different level. When he talked to his family about running for mayor, his mother said that he should, and that when he lost, the urge would be out of his system.
But Peters walked the city, quipping the whole way. He told The Courant that he would enter a city triathlon, but his three events would be drinking, eating and singing. He promised to fight crime and talked about regionalization. When he ran in 1993 as a Democrat-turned-independent, he trounced the incumbent.
As mayor, Peters was a champion consensus-builder — a cheerleader (sorry, Mayor). While wife Jeannette begged off on all but a handful of official functions each year, Peters was at them all. He wheedled and dickered. He embraced the suburbs, worked with the business community. Attorney General Richard Blumenthal — not a man given to poetry — called him "an original and blithe spirit." Peters worked to reconnect the city with its waterfront. He organized 165 businesses in Mayor Mike's Companies for Kids charity. A textbook on mid-size cities called him "part stand-up comedian, part revivalist." He forged relationships with the state capital, with the Washington delegation. He made Hartford, in a word, fun.
He left office in 2001, and since then, he's kept busy, most notably with his restaurant, where his portlier form (sorry, Mayor) adorns the logo.
He insists he's going to beat this. He didn't know how to run a city when he decided to run for mayor, but he learned, he said. He learned about homelessness and AIDS and teen pregnancy. He will learn this, as well. He still loves Hartford.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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