MIKE PETERS, 1948-2009 A City's Champion: 'Mayor Mike' Peters Dies At 60
EDMUND MAHONY and JEFFREY B. COHEN
January 05, 2009
Mike Peters, the wisecracking fireman who over four terms as mayor helped lift Hartford from a political, financial and crime-ridden funk, died Sunday about 8 p.m. following a struggle with liver failure. He was 60.
Peters had undergone a nearly eight-hour surgery in October to remove his cirrhosis-damaged liver and replace it with a healthy one. He had done well with the new liver but developed complications with his kidneys. By Nov. 20, he was back in intensive care at Hartford Hospital, and his doctors were considering a kidney transplant once he regained strength.
Peters' sister, Geraldine Sullivan, said Sunday night that her brother took a sudden turn for the worse about 3 a.m. Sunday morning and that his death was unexpected. He died peacefully and was surrounded by family, she said.
"He fought to the bitter end, and with each complication he got weaker, but he fought until the end and was interested in everything to the end, including all of the Hartford news," Sullivan said. "It's just that with each passing complication he got weaker and weaker and couldn't fight anymore."
In a statement, Mayor Eddie A. Perez said Hartford had lost "a great champion and cheerleader."
"There isn't a fight he wouldn't take on," Perez said. "Sadly, he lost his fight for his health but will always be remembered for his passion for his beloved Hartford and for the contributions he made to help us become New England's Rising Star."
Perez on Monday requested that the city flag be flown at half-staff in Peters' honor. Perez is also going to propose that Engine 15, the firehouse on the corner of Fairfield and New Britain avenues, be named after Peters.
During his time in office, from 1993 to 2001, Peters repeatedly was elected to work under a city charter that gave him only limited formal power.
Armed with a revision to the charter, his successor, Perez, got what Peters always wanted but never had: strong mayoral authority to shape the city's agenda.
But powerless or not, Peters had limitless enthusiasm, and he hurled it at his office with great effect. Armed with only his personality, a not-inconsequential weapon, he reinvigorated a city that, during the 1980s, seemed perched endlessly on the dismal brink of yet another failure.
By cajoling, badgering and begging the often undisciplined members of the city council — then the real source of power in the city — he built alliances that allowed him to begin repairing Hartford. He tore down abandoned buildings. He razed rat- and drug-infested, World War II era housing projects, incubators for many of Hartford's problems. He paved streets, cleaned up parks, washed away graffiti and pushed a tax cut through the city council.
Notably, he fought to regain the trust of the city's biggest private employers. He succeeded. His anti-business and pro-social service predecessor, Carrie Saxon Perry, had so alienated business that even iconic Aetna and Travelers were thinking about severing historic ties to Hartford and leaving town when Peters arrived at the mayor's office.
He was short and shaped like a keg but cast a larger than life shadow. He began as Hartford's chief pitchman and left recognized nationally as a force for urban improvement. But he was most comfortable with where he came from. He seemed to have a story about each of the city's street corners and a lot of the characters standing on them.
During an impromptu farewell tour of the city, days before moving out of his office, Peters was something of a slow moving traffic jam as he crossed and recrossed the city, revisiting the spruced-up commercial facades, neat new homes and new theaters and retailers he counted among his accomplishments. Constituents ran into the streets to shake his hand. Oncoming drivers made illegal U-turns to pull alongside and wish him well.
Waiting for the light at Garden and Ashley streets in his black Buick, the soon to be unemployed Peters waved and asked a kid in a hooded sweat shirt outside the Ashley Cafe how he was doing.
"I need a job," the fellow said.
"So do I," Peters fired back.
In the 1980s, he was working at Engine 15 on New Britain Avenue. Blocks away, gangs of drug-dealing thugs were gunning one another down. The public schools were awful. Abandoned housing soiled street scapes. Corporations were downsizing and moving away.
When Peters announced his campaign for mayor, he seemed to come out of nowhere, which was not true. He had served on the Democratic Town Committee, Redevelopment Agency and Civic Center Authority. He started the Hooker Day parade. His sister, Geraldine Sullivan, had been a city council majority leader.
Peters' fresh face, self-confidence and enthusiasm swept him into office. Political observers consider his first two terms successes, the final two less so. Peters claimed to have significant accomplishments during his third term, but by then they were clearly becoming harder to come by. His fourth and final two-year term is considered unremarkable.
Allies said that the longer Peters remained in office, the more envious his would-be successors on the council became. Sometimes, they said, Peters would put together a deal only to find the council had unraveled it when his back was turned. And, the allies said, Peters was tiring of constantly having to beg recalcitrant council members in order to build the majorities needed to move his agenda.
He also, during his final years in office, began a long and cold standoff with the city's biggest news engine, The Courant, which he said had begun taking cheap shots at him.
Despite late-term setbacks, Peters' list of successes is lengthy. He took down the decrepit Charter Oak Terrace housing project. He rebuilt the equally squalid Bellevue Square and Stowe Village projects. Along the way, he figured out how to boost the share of money Hartford received from Washington.
He began Mayor Mike's Companies for Kids to expand after-school activities, and it raised $1 million for youth recreation programs in the city. He pushed for a state takeover of the non-performing Hartford public school system. And he backed a six-month, city moratorium on new social service facilities, such as half-way houses and group homes. Some city neighborhoods were at risk of becoming social service malls.
Peters fought to get the Crown Palace movie theaters and the new Stop & Shop on the city's west side, as well as facade improvements on Park Street and the Veeder Place and ArtSpace projects.
In 1996 he was at the top of his game. Syndicated columnist George Will called him "part Falstaff and part Fiorello La Guardia." Governing Magazine said Peters was one of 10 public officials of the year, crediting him with creating a citywide "mood swing."
When Hartford landed the presidential debate that year, big-shot, out-of-town political reporters waited in line for a chance to trade quips with Hartford's charismatic mayor. Peters was re-elected by a 9-1 ratio in 1997, and vice president Al Gore was among those who called with congratulations.
When Peters decided not to run for a fifth term as mayor in May of 2001, some wondered what he would do next. After stints hawking used cars on cable TV for an Ellington automobile dealer, leasing tailgate lots to game-day revelers at Rentschler Field and tending to a handful of consulting "clients" that friend and lobbyist Tom Ritter sent his way, Peters vaulted back into the public eye when he opened his namesake restaurant on Asylum Street in 2004.
Mayor Mike's Restaurant — billed as an American tavern with Italian and Southwest cuisine influences — was a natural fit for the civic pitchman who turned a circuit of bar stools into personal polling precincts.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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