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Only One Like Mayor Mike

MICHAEL P. PETERS The exuberant ex-firefighter got Hartford out of the doldrums

The Hartford Courant

January 06, 2009

Fifteen years ago, relations were frayed between Hartford and some of its suburban neighbors. Hartford's new mayor, ex-firefighter Mike Peters, understood that the city and suburbs could benefit from working together. But how to break the ice and gets things moving?

Mr. Peters stood to address a meeting of area officials. "It's time for regional cooperation," he began. "You give me a dump truck, and I'll give you a gang." Everyone laughed, and he was on his way.

The irrepressible and beloved "Mayor Mike," who died Sunday at 60 of complications from liver disease, was the right person at the right time for Hartford. In 1993, when he was elected to the first of four two-year terms, the city was beset by gang violence, failing schools, abandoned and blighted buildings and loss of jobs. City hall had developed an antagonistic relationship with the business community.

Mr. Peters set about to change all of that. In his first years in office, he was everywhere, it seemed, doing TV spots, speaking to Rotary clubs and greeting people at high school football games.

He demanded that city services improve, and once chased a snowplow down the street because he wasn't happy with the driver's work. He insisted that parks and streets be clean; he got rid of hundreds of blighted buildings and lowered taxes.

Perhaps his greatest accomplishment, which he shares with the late Housing Authority chief John Wardlaw, was the removal of the worst of the city's public housing projects, such as the drug- and rat-infested Charter Oak Terrace. "In 1993, that place was so screwed up that when the cops were taking two bodies out of one apartment, the people next door were having a Christmas party. Can you imagine that?" Mr. Peters recalled in a 2001 interview.

He won back the business community, who supported his "Mayor Mike's Companies for Kids" program to the tune of $1 million for recreation programs. He worked closely with Gov. John G. Rowland on the state takeover of the Hartford schools and the "Six Pillars" projects that have done much to revitalize downtown Hartford. Some criticized Mr. Peters for this. But he understood that his small city could not thrive without a strong relationship with the state. As Mr. Rowland later said, Mr. Peters got a lot more than he gave.

By 1996, when the city hosted the Clinton-Dole presidential debate, Mr. Peters was riding high. He was profiled by national columnist George Will and honored by Governing magazine as one of the top 10 public officials in the country.

In his third term, despite successes such as the new Artspace apartments, Crown Palace movie theaters and Park Street facade improvements, the bloom began to fade. Every project was taking a lot out of Hizzoner. During his years in office, the mayor had no formal authority, not even a vote on the nine-member council.

In a way this system was good for Mr. Peters. Administration wasn't his strength. He was free to make contacts, establish trust, talk about projects. But to get anything done, he had to corral five council votes. For a variety of reasons, this got more difficult and wearying. Trying to be a strong mayor in a weak-mayor system finally wore him out. He became testy with The Courant in his last years as mayor, perhaps because he so closely identified with Hartford that he couldn't abide criticism of the city.

In 2001, he decided not to seek a fifth term. That year, three mayoral candidates around the state ran as "Mayor Mike," flattery by imitation. Mr. Peters supported the change to a strong-mayor system implemented a few years later.

He went on to open the popular Mayor Mike's Restaurant in 2004, dabble in some other business ventures and be an ambassador for the city.

Some call Mr. Peters a "cheerleader." He was more than that. He was of an age to remember Hartford at its 1950s apogee, with nearly 180,000 people, a vibrant downtown and great schools. It was a city where a kid from the South End could grab a bathing suit, sandwich and a "Sunday bag" of golf clubs and be good for the day at Goodwin Park.

From this came a vision of a city that was fun, prosperous and exciting, where people could meet in Carbone's or the Arch Street Tavern and strike up a conversation or a business deal. Mr. Peters didn't just talk about this vision, he lived it. He was a man of wit and heart, the best of people, and will be dearly missed.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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