Hartford's incumbent mayor has raised almost $600,000 in his bid for re-election. He has a brutally efficient, well-paid staff and controls the city's Democratic political machinery with the power of incumbency. He won the Democratic primary with 49 percent of the vote, leaving his closest rival, I. Charles Mathews, in a distant second at 29 percent.
Is an upset possible?
Some - mostly his rivals - say yes, and point to recent Hartford history.
In 1993, Carrie Saxon Perry was in her third term as mayor and, having lost her luster, faced a primary challenge by well-known firefighter Mike Peters. Perry won the Democratic primary that year, beating Peters by about 700 votes.
But when the general election came, Peters didn't just defeat Perry - he crushed her, winning by 4,700 votes.
How Peters won is the model the Mathews camp views as the key to success on Nov. 6. They must sway some of the Democratic voters they lost in the primary, as well as those Democrats who did not vote at all. And they must pull from the city's unaffiliated and Republican ranks.
Of the 30,000 registered Democrats in the city, only 25 percent voted in the primary. Of the 11,000 unaffiliated voters, about 4,000 are considered "prime" voters, those who are likely to vote on Election Day. Similarly, of the nearly 2,000 Republicans, the Mathews camp says about 900 are likely voters. In the average Hartford mayoral election since 1985, about 26 percent of eligible voters actually vote.
"It is just common sense politics," said Geraldine Sullivan, Mathews' campaign manager and Peters' sister. "Half of the people who typically vote haven't voted yet."
But Mathews is not Peters, Perez is not Perry and this is not 1993.
On Aug. 16, Perez stood before TV cameras and said state criminal investigators had raided his house after what he described as his "mistake" - hiring a city contractor to do $20,000 worth of work on his bathroom and kitchen.
A month later, coming off his primary victory, Perez stood at the Legislative Office Building alongside some of the state's highest ranking Democrats, who were there to endorse him.
After Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, state Comptroller Nancy Wyman and Democratic State Chairwoman Nancy DiNardo had finished saying nice things about Perez, Blumenthal and Bysiewicz were asked about the wisdom of endorsing a mayor who is under state criminal investigation.
Blumenthal's response echoed the explanation Perez himself had given voters. The mayor had made a "mistake," a minor slip compared to his bright record, Blumenthal said.
The savvy campaign had succeeded in transforming its biggest vulnerability - what some critics say has been a pattern of unethical behavior - into a mere, forgivable misstep.
Instead, Perez continued to tout his record, saying the average voter knows that the city is in a better position today than it was before he took office in 2001.
"The work that we started six years ago has been moving us in the right direction," Perez said during a recent debate. "My goal is to take the city to the next height, and the only way to do that is to keep building on the momentum we have. Not only in Hartford neighborhoods and downtown, but in the region, to continue to make the city the regional leader it once was."
Among the highlights of that record, the mayor's backers point to:
• As chairman of the city's school building committee and board of education, guiding the rebuilding of six schools and hiring a new superintendent, Steven J. Adamowski, who brought a strong vision for the school system.
• Pushing through a 311 information line at city hall to help streamline citizens' interaction with government and launching a pilot program to test whether a wireless computer network could work in Hartford.
• Initiating a $50 million anti-blight program in the city's poorest neighborhoods and developing a plan to end homelessness in the Hartford region in the next 10 years.
• Holding crime steady, pushing to increase the police department's ranks to 500 officers and promoting city native Daryl Roberts as chief to refocus the department's efforts on community policing.
Perez's campaign manager, Kenny Curran, says he is "confidently optimistic" about their chances on Election Day.
And as Perez has gone door-to-door, sat in people's living rooms and called them on the phone, Curran said his candidate has heard the same chorus - keep up the good work. The primary underscored that, Curran said.
"Our victory in the primary election was a really useful poll," Curran said. "It told us that Hartford is receptive to the message that we are making progress on the issues they see as important - education, public safety, neighborhood investment and quality of life."
A Subdued Challenge
The night of his primary defeat, a dejected Mathews appeared before a quiet crowd of supporters and tried to stay upbeat.
"This is not a funeral," Mathews told the group. "If it was football, they might say this is the first half. If it was a play, they might say Act 1. We've still got a long way to go, and we still intend to win this election. Yes, we intend to win this election."
In the weeks following the primary, two of Perez's other challengers, state Rep. Art Feltman and former state Sen. Frank Barrows, dropped out of the race. Feltman endorsed Mathews, Barrows endorsed Perez.
State Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, who was not on the primary ballot but is running in the general election, was never seen as a serious threat. Neither was the endorsed Republican J. Stan McCauley. And the two other petitioning Democratic candidates, former Mayor Thirman Milner and 20-year-old Raul De Jesus, never mounted a serious challenge.
Many political observers expected Mathews to emerge after the primary as a lion, roaring at Perez about his record. Instead, the lion sheathed his claws.
A debate had raged inside the Mathews camp: Should the candidate follow the Peters playbook - stay positive and let your opponent destroy himself - or go on the offensive?
Mathews chose the former tack, a tone he says he prefers over the bare-knuckle style his critics say he wielded as deputy mayor in the early 1990s.
Still, the Perez campaign never hid the fact that it sees Mathews as their only real challenger.
At candidate forums and in direct mailings to voter homes, Perez attacked Mathews on crime, education and even the candidate's residency, calling Mathews a carpetbagger for the nearly 10 years he lived in Chicago and Florida. Several of the mailers sent out by Perez contained errors or omissions that Mathews angrily said were designed to malign him.
It took Perez's attacks to awaken Mathews' aggressive side - some say, perhaps, too late.
In the final weeks of the campaign, Mathews fired back in his own mailings, saying voters had to ask themselves what the city has gotten from numerous tax increases under Perez's administration - safer streets and better schools, or lining the pockets of Perez's "friends and politically-connected contractors?"
At their final head-to-head debate, Mathews said voters should be concerned over whether the mayor gets led out of city hall "in handcuffs" by state investigators.
He warned voters not to be fooled by Perez's "misstatements and distortions."
Feltman said he believes Perez, by his attacks, unwittingly did Mathews a favor.
"Generally, front-runners don't attack challengers unless they are feeling vulnerable," Feltman said. "Perez has made Charlie the consensus challenger by going after him."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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