When Mike Peters was Mayor of Hartford, he showed up at so many different events that members of the press often suggested that he had cloned himself. It was these Mayor Mike clones, we joked, who were cutting all the ribbons and handing out the proclamations, while the man himself was probably down at the Arch Street Tavern, watching a baseball game with his buddies.
But there was only one Mayor Mike, of course, in both a literal and figurative sense. “He was always himself, whether he was talking to the President of the United States or some guy he’d just met on the street,” said Joe Musumeci, a close friend of Peters for almost 30 years.
Musumeci’s thoughts were echoed by City Treasurer Kathleen Palm, a close political ally of Peters and also a personal friend. “He was a man of the people and never, ever forgot it. Time and again I witnessed him – during a parade, walking down the street, or wherever he was – stopping to listen attentively to a little child or a street person, with whom he could speak to as easily as he could to a corporate CEO,” she said.
Peters’ sister, former City Councilwoman Geraldine Sullivan, said Mike was always that way. “He was always very charming, very gentle, even as a kid. He tried to get everyone to get along with each other...he always seemed to have a bunch of friends around him,” she said.
After graduating from St. Augustine’s School and South Catholic, Peters joined the Hartford Fire Department. He would serve as a firefighter for over two decades, going right from the firehouse to the mayor’s office.
Peters first entered politics as a candidate for his local town committee. Sullivan said it was soon apparent that he wasn’t a typical politician. “He kept on knocking on doors even after he’d won the election...checking on people, seeing if he could help them with something..little things, like getting a tree limb taken off the street or putting up a traffic sign to indicate that a handicapped child lived on the street.”
Peters’ decision to run for mayor in 1993 was, at first, opposed by his extended family, said Sullivan. “We all said, ‘What, are you crazy?’ But he had a dream of getting elected and when we saw how serious he was we all got behind him 100 percent, of course,” she remembers.
Hartford’s political world was in turmoil at the time (see related story by Mike McGarry). Due to infighting among elected officials and their supporters, the city’s Democratic party had splintered and several slates of candidates were fighting for power at City Hall.
“Everyone was saying to us, ‘You’ve got to attack [former Mayor] Carrie [Perry], you’ve got to attack Carrie.’ But, from the start, Mike and all of us had agreed to run a positive campaign,” Sullivan said. “Mike always used to say, ‘You don’t get the biggest house on the street by tearing down all the others.’ That summed up his views on negative campaigning.”
Peters won the election and “Mayor Mike” soon became a local celebrity. “He’d worked hard to become popular in the South End. I wasn’t sure how that would translate to other parts of the city once he was elected mayor,” said Sullivan, “but it did, the city and beyond.”
Former Assistant City Manager Linda Bayer remembers, “I went with him to a community meeting in Parkville when he first got elected and the enthusiasm he generated was catching. He was so funny that you accepted the serious stuff he was saying without even realizing it.”
Peters used his warmth and humor to establish stronger ties between Hartford and the surrounding towns and between city, state and federal officials. He also brought a new sense of optimism to City Hall that Bayer remembers well. “He was always totally supportive of me and my work at the City, although I wasn't spared any of his zingers,” Bayer said. “In fact, when I was getting divorced and was pretty down about it, he made a point of saying he was sorry and then made me laugh by asking if I wanted him to go punch out my ex!” Palm agreed, saying, “He made every occasion fun – even when the City was going through tough times – and he was always willing to listen to other people’s points of view, and often act on them.”
The city certainly did go through some tough times during Peters’ tenure in office. Always a big sports fan, he was particularly hurt when the Whalers left town in 1997. And his dream of bringing a minor league baseball team to Hartford was never realized.
But he quelled the gang violence that rocked the city in the early 1990’s. He worked with Governor John Rowland to redevelop Downtown Hartford. He provided key assistance to the the late John Wardlaw in his sweeping transformation of public housing in Hartford.
But Mayor Mike’s most important contributions to Hartford are less tangible. He restored hope and optimism to a city that, at the time, didn’t have much to feel hopeful and optimistic about. He shined a light on all that was – and is – good about Hartford. And he showed that nice guys don’t always finish last because, in the hearts of so many city residents, Mike Peters will always be first.