Tuesday's Hartford mayoral debate was quieter than you might expect, what with all the big issues and bad blood running among some of the candidates. Civility is welcome in politics, but with 10 days to an election, challengers to incumbent Eddie Perez must sharpen their differences or draft their concessions.
It's not that Perez sits on a fat lead or commands an army of ardent followers. The debate among six candidates at the library near City Hall drew a decent but less than capacity crowd, most of whom sat stone-faced when the mayor rose to speak. With all the tools at his disposal, Perez ought to be able to create at least the optical illusion of broad, enthusiastic support.
A crowded field favors Perez. In theory, you can win a six-way race with 17 percent of the vote. In practice, 40 percent usually does the trick. A low turnout makes that number easier to hit, and folks in Hartford have a well-earned reputation for finding other things to do on election days besides vote.
When it comes to voting, Hartford is the land of the lotus eaters. Just 28 percent of registered Democrats bothered showing up for the September primary. In a city of 124,000, Perez won handily with just 3,750 votes. In a general election a 50 percent turnout is a tsunami. The minimum turnout needed for regime change is probably 40 percent.
Because the electorate is not exactly a bunch of satisfied customers, a challenger could rouse them to their duty. But it takes issues. So far the entire campaign has been, like the debate, too quiet to develop any.
The exception is state Rep. Minnie Gonzales, who has two good ideas. One is to use the old YMCA as an emergency homeless shelter. It may not seem it, but winter is just around the corner. Whether it proves mild or severe, the homeless will feel it more than you or I. Along with housing abandonment, homelessness spikes every winter. Is it too much to ask the city to cough up a contingency plan for a virtual certainty? Suburbs should pitch in too, but a cynic might predict it will be a cold day somewhere other than Hartford when they do.
Gonzales' second idea goes to the heart of the election. She wants a real city ethics code and tools to enforce it. Hartford's problems - drugs, crime, schools, housing - are on a scale unimaginable to most communities. But the issue that has stopped the city dead in its tracks is corruption.
Perez is under investigation for, among other things, taking $20,000 in home improvements from a city contractor. The contractor never got a permit for the job and Perez didn't pay him until much later, when the probe had already commenced. The excuse of both mayor and contractor: the time-honored "I forgot."
For a generation Hartford has tolerated a politics that ranges from pay to play to outright cash and carry. It's a big reason Hartford stalled out in the '90s as other cities soared. Eddie Perez is in many respects a good mayor, but if he were holding office in a suburban town he'd be toast. Is there any reason to hold our capital city to a lower standard?
Perez's problem with politicians arises from a sometimes bare-knuckled leadership style. As with Gov. M. Jodi Rell, some observers blame staff. But most politicians get the staffs they want and all get the staffs they deserve. If there's a third Perez term, he should start by counting up all the political capital he has squandered.
It helps Perez that voters are unsure of his challengers. I. Charles Matthews had a strong primary showing but says little about ethics and generalizes on most issues. Gonzales has the most passion for reform but must prove to some that she's ready to govern and, above all, in it to win.
The race is fluid enough that with a stronger message, either Matthews or Gonzales can still win. Whoever wins, we know Hartford's charter is weak on checks and balances. The problem is politicians with wishes - usually more than three - only a mayor can grant. The council is mostly a rubber stamp.
The Working Families Party council candidates promise far more independence. The difference between mainstream Democrats and their progressive offshoots is less in what they say than in how much they mean it. Candidates Luis Cotto, Urania Petit and Larry Deutsche might not enact a living wage, but they'd be fine watchdogs for a city that will go on losing precious revenue to patronage until people demand better.
Bill Curry, former counselor to President Bill Clinton, was the Democratic nominee for governor twice.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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