State Rep. Marie Lopez Kirkley-Bey has had enough of Matt Hennessy.
"I have a wonderful rapport with the mayor, but his chief of staff is not allowed to talk to me because of his behavior and condescending attitude," said Kirkley-Bey, a leader of Hartford's state legislative delegation.
After a nasty exchange at a meeting on property taxes earlier this year, the lawmaker told Mayor Eddie A. Perez that his right-hand man could no longer address her.
"It's been a build-up with Matt," Kirkley-Bey said. "It wasn't that one meeting."
Perez is seeking a second four-year term as the city's strong mayor following a convincing Democratic primary win in September. But his reputation as an overbearing, my-way-or-the-highway leader has provided ammunition to his opponents and turned off some supporters, particularly, they say, because Hennessy doesn't smooth over Perez's rough edges, but amplifies them.
Many in the city's political circles say they will vote for the mayor reluctantly, pointing to Hennessy as one of the reasons for their tepid support and encouraging Perez to cast him aside. But Perez has refused, responding that Hennessy has played a pivotal role in his success and has "made me who I am."
Supporters say Hennessy brings intelligence, confidence, political and fundraising connections and management skills to the job. They say he is a capable chief of staff - a big guy with a marginal sense of humor who gets paid to say "no" so the mayor can say "yes."
To his detractors, Hennessy is an intimidator who demeans his opponents, an appointee who oversteps his bounds, a short-sighted loyalist who sees disagreement as disloyalty and fights every fight like it's his last.
And while a strong mayor deserves a strong chief of staff, critics say Hennessy makes saying "no" personal.
"The way you do it is pretty damn important," said outgoing Republican Councilman Robert Painter, who for years told Perez that Hennessy needs to go. "Matt's way of doing it is to cut the legs out from under them."
Democratic Councilman Kenneth Kennedy, who supports Perez despite some high-profile skirmishes, complains that Hennessy practices a "very harsh brand of politics."
"Whatever misgivings you may have about Eddie as an individual, if you look at his family and his life and the people they are, you know that Eddie himself is a decent man," Kennedy said. "But Matt Hennessy is not a name that is well received in Hartford."
Hennessy refused to be interviewed for this story. In an e-mail, Hennessy pointed to the mayor's political and policy successes. "I am proud of what has been accomplished and look forward to helping keep that progress going," he said.
Perez also refused an interview. In an e-mailed statement, he said Hennessy was both "effective and trusted."
"He is someone committed to public service and to helping improve the lives of the people of Hartford," Perez said. "Those who want to focus on politics and personalities before progress are simply distracting people from the important work before us."
A Man Of Connections
Hennessy, 37, has served as Perez's chief of staff since 2001. He is paid $114,500 a year to handle public policy development, intergovernmental relations, special economic development projects, and strategic communications.
Before he took the job, he was Perez's go-to guy when they worked at the Southside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance building the Learning Corridor project.
Hennessy, a resident of the city's West End, comes with political connections. He has worked as a deputy national finance director for the Democratic National Committee and for U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman. His mother-in-law works for Lieberman; his father has served as a state judge.
Hennessy earned his undergraduate degree in political science from Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and his master's degree in public policy from Trinity College.
Early in his political career, he worked for the Hartford County Sheriff's Office as a deputy to then-Sheriff Walter J. Kupchunos Jr. In that role, Hennessy was fined $500 by the State Elections Enforcement Commission for producing and distributing a bogus press release in 1998.
Hennessy also has campaigned unsuccessfully for a seat on the city council.
Democratic political participants and observers say Hennessy's political savvy and fundraising know-how helped Perez go from community organizer to a man who could be mayor.
Mark Ojakian respects Hennessy, supports Perez and knows what it means to be a chief of staff.
"You need somebody that's strong, with a very strong personality, with very strong organizational skills, and who is extremely loyal," said Ojakian, Perez's choice to head the Hartford Housing Authority and the chief of staff to state Comptroller Nancy Wyman. "That describes Matt."
He knows Hennessy's bad rap. But the rap comes from those who have lost political fights against the mayor, Ojakian said.
"A lot of it is sour grapes, frankly," he said. "You can't always be liked by 100 percent of the people. That's not your job as the second in command."
City developer and Perez supporter Philip Schonberger agreed, and has advice for those who can't take Hennessy: Toughen up.
"It's just his sense of humor," said Schonberger, who has known Hennessy for years. "You've got to get used to it."
Plus, Schonberger said, Hennessy is Perez's appointee.
"He's very close to Eddie," Schonberger said. "If he's acting on a plan, it's Eddie's plan."
'A Problem With Matt'
Twice, Perez has gone to the home of Geraldine Sullivan to ask her for her support in a mayoral election bid.
Sullivan has served on the city council and her brother, Mike Peters, was mayor before Perez. Hers is a sought-after endorsement in Democratic circles.
Four years ago, Perez visited her home and Sullivan gave him her support.
"But I said, `Eddie, you've got a problem with Matt,'" Sullivan recalled. "`He treats people badly, it's often inappropriate, it's way too heavy-handed, and it's in your name.'"
Perez heard her complaint, but said he both needed and owed Hennessy, she said.
Four years later, Perez returned to her home and got a different answer. Not only would she not support him, but Sullivan was planning to run the campaign for one of Perez's opponents, I. Charles Mathews.
As she had four years earlier, Sullivan brought up Hennessy.
"He repeated the same thing he said to me four years earlier," Sullivan said. "`I need Matt. Matt's made me who I am.'"
Perez then told her he would raise enough money to win; Sullivan said he'd do it without her.
"He gave me a hug, and he left. And, I'm telling you, it was painful," she said. "The warmth I felt for him, the affection, it was incredible. To reach this point is very sad for me."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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