On Tuesday, Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport re-anointed their political establishments, each performing the ritual in its own way.
New Haven barely had an election while Bridgeport endured a flawed, bitter primary that continues to enjoy a kind of judicial afterlife, if not yet a full-fledged judicial review of alleged irregularities.
Hartford glumly re-elected Mayor Eddie A. Perez despite a pall of corruption hanging over him, including that rarity in our politics, a criminal investigation by the state's attorney into alleged wrongdoing.
One reason for Perez's victory is widespread approval of school Superintendent Steven Adamowski, who's still fresh enough in the job to be judged by promise rather than performance. Voters who stuck with Perez are like unhappy spouses who stick out bad marriages for the kids' sake.
Perez's victory owes even more to the special circumstances of the election and the sorry state of urban politics. First there was the field. From any incumbent's perspective, the more challengers the merrier. With five challengers, Perez could get re-elected with 49 percent of the vote; hard to do in a two-person race.
Then there was the money. Politics is the only sport where the biggest players are not on the field but in the stands; more precisely, the luxury boxes. Perez raised and spent more than $600,000, the most ever in a Hartford mayoral race. It's a figure in need of context.
Perez spent double the amount spent by all his primary and general election opponents combined. Compare him to Ned Lamont, the millionaire challenger to Joe Lieberman who shattered Connecticut's all-time spending record by plowing $20 million into his campaign. Lamont got 450,844 votes, meaning he spent roughly $44 for each one, surely another record.
No longer. For his more than $600,000, Perez garnered an abysmal 6,453 votes. That's a whopping $93 a vote, in its way a record as impressive as Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak. I hope it lasts as long, though I'm chastened to consider that Lamont's record stood but a year.
What's most amazing is that in a city of 125,000 people, 6,453 votes are enough to elect a mayor. Hartford's official turnout of 31.8 percent sounds awful, but the reality's even worse. Only 43,595 of Hartford's 87,500 voting-age residents are even registered to vote. So with all they had at stake, only about 16 percent of the city's voting-age population even bothered to show up.
To what do we compare such civic sloth? In West Hartford, a town with half of Hartford's population, it took 9,100 votes for Democrat Scott Slifka to lead the council field. In Torrington - population 36,000 - Mayor Ryan Bingham polled more votes than Perez did in Hartford.
The most depressing statistic I found is this one: In Hartford, more people actually get arrested than vote. (About 16,000 likely arrests this year, compared with 13,844 voters on Tuesday.) Who knows the exact ratio of ballots to bullet, but for sure it's high - and as accurate a measure of a city's well-being as you'll ever find.
This we must understand: The condition of our cities is directly related to the condition of our democracy. If we tolerate corruption, we tolerate injustice and failure. In the 1990s, cities all over America were on the rise. Not ours. Part of the reason is in our policies, but part is in our politics.
For Hartford to rise again, it must free itself not only of the taint but also the drain of corruption. If taxpayers knew how much it cost them to let developers and other special interests pay for their campaigns, they might rise up, and the city might then rise up with them.
Assisted by endorsements from state constitutional officers and this newspaper, Perez survived his ethical lapses. He's still under investigation, but regardless of their findings, investigators have a harder job now. Hartford's ethics commission hasn't even discussed the charges dominating the news; perhaps its next vote should be to disband.
Perez called his re-election a "vindication." Not quite. But if he makes it past the state's attorneys, he'll have a shot at redemption. He could start by supporting a statewide municipal ethics code and an independent local ethics commission with the tools to do its job.
He should also resign from any building committees. Politicians generally don't know much about design, engineering, construction or, for that matter, business. There's hardly a one who, in the letting of contracts, can resist the temptation to play a very expensive brand of politics.
In the end, only the people can save a city. The next four years will test not only Perez, but Hartford. Some say the city can't enforce high ethical standards. It is up to the people of Hartford to answer in a strong, clear voice, "Si, se puede." Yes, we can.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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