Abraham Giles was a Hartford politician and former state representative known for his personality and for his ability to survive in the game when others had long ago lost, or moved on.
Giles died this past weekend at the age of 84. But if you've heard his name lately, it's probably not for best of reasons. He was arrested by the state in the corruption probe of former Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez. State prosecutors at the time said Giles and Perez tried to extort $100,000 from a city developer. In the end, Perez was found guilty on that and other charges. He's been sentenced to three years in prison and is free on appeal. In December, Giles pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges and avoided jail time.
But now that he's gone, people like Trude Mero say you have to look at the entire history of Abe Giles to appreciate the man. She says she's known him since the 1950s, coming up in a Hartford political world in which black people weren't yet elected to anything.
"He wanted to have a better tomorrow like most people and he was willing to work for it. Don't we all? But he also said, I'll help other people, too, and he did."
"I don't know how many people he's paid rents for, bought food for."
"Abe missed his calling. He should have been a social worker."
Steve Harris is a state marshal and a former city councilman who lives a few houses from Giles in Hartford's North End.
"I know cases where Abe delayed peoples' evictions, people who were getting evicted. Abe would go talk to folks, I know Abe went in his pocket, his own pocket on occasion to keep put groceries on people's tables."
"Abe always looked for an opportunity to make a buck, he always did. And, you know, some folks would say, he would take advantage of some folks who didn't have anything or who couldn't do better. Well, the fact of the matter is if you look at that, and they couldn't do better, than if it wasn't for Abe, they wouldn't have done at all."
"Abe just happened to, and this is my perspective, happened to get into politics because those same folks that didn't have nothing saw Abe as a means of getting something. And elected him and Abe did what he did. Now, was he a good politician? It depends on who you ask. Did he make some mistakes? Obviously, he did. But I just don't think the guy was this predator, so to speak. I think he was an opportunist."
Giles clearly profited form his opportunism and connections. In recent years, he rented a city-owned parking lot and then sublet it out for a profit. When he got paid to evict people from public housing as a state marshal, he also got paid as a mover to take and store their stuff.
Giles once said he we do practically anything that's legal to feed his family. That included charging less when other people charged more. Trude Mero says Giles got a bad rap for that drive -- the same thing that led other people, white people, to success before him.
"I saw how...when the Irish controlled everything, and I saw the Italians -- we were right there with them, because we knew that when they made inroads, we made them, too."
"Once people share in the political arena, they say, We have a slice of the pie. and then we want to pick the flavor. What's wrong with that?"
Mark Pazniokas covers the capitol for the Connecticut Mirror. He first came across Giles in the early 1980s.
"He represented really one of the poorest corners of Hartford, where voter turnouts were very, very low, so if you had a good, old-fashioned machine that was based on helping people, that was usually enough to eek out a win. And that's what he did.
"He was a character that you read about in old-time political books about the wheeling and dealing and favors."
"There are other folks around in different neighborhoods who play that role, but I don't think there's anybody left who is going to play that role for 10, 20, 30, 40 years as did Abe Giles."
GILES: Good morning, Abe Giles.
That's how Giles answered his cellphone last year when we called to interview him about how he spent his public campaign money for a race for state representative in 2008. Half of that money went to family members and people he knew. And, as he told us, he paid neighborhood people to work this polls and get out his vote.
"They live from day to day, they have to have something to get some food from day to day. Even if they had more money and bought a lot of food, their kids would go through it in two or three days and they wouldn't have nothing for the rest of the week or the rest of the month."
Giles was well aware of the criticism that he often took -- that he was out for Abe Giles first and foremost. It's a characterization he said was flat wrong.
"As a matter of fact, I'm not a taker. I'm a giver."