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Call Him 'Señor Alcalde'
HARTFORD: Perez Sweeps To Overwhelming Victory As First Hispanic Mayor
BY ERIC M. WEISS
November 7, 2001
Hartford's mayor-elect Eddie Perez is carried into the Trout Brook Brewery on the shoulders of his brothers, Nelson, left, and Noel, after results showed Perez easily winning the city's top job. Eddie's mother, Felicita, is at lower right.
In a historic first for Hartford's fast-growing Hispanic community, Eddie Alberto Perez was elected the city's 65th mayor Tuesday, promising a new era of reform and accountability in city hall.
Perez, 44, a community organizer who played a key role in the Learning Corridor project, managed to assemble a coalition that included the poor and others alienated from the political process, as well as city corporate and political leaders.
Propped up on the shoulders of supporters, Perez stormed into the Democratic victory party at 9:35 p.m. to cheers of "Eddie! Eddie!" and the waving of Puerto Rican flags.
"`Señor Alcalde': It feels good," Perez said, relishing the title of "Mr. Mayor." "It's a new beginning for my family. A new beginning for Hartford."
Winning with 75 percent of the vote, Perez replaces Michael P. Peters, who was elected mayor in 1993. Peters decided not to run for a fifth two-year term.
Perez faced former Deputy Mayor Robert F. Ludgin, Libertarian Richard Lion and petitioning candidates Nora Wyatt, Kenneth Mink and W. Michael Downes.
"It's extremely difficult to buck the Democratic candidates, simply because so many voters are used to voting the Democratic line," said Ludgin, Perez's closest competitor with 15 percent of the vote.
The six Democratic council candidates on Perez's ticket all cruised to victory, as did newcomer Robert L. Painter, a retired surgeon, who ran as a petitioning candidate.
But Council Minority Leader John B. O'Connell, a veteran Republican council member, lost his seat, as did Councilman Alphonse Marotta.
In many ways, Perez is an accidental mayor. Unlike other politicians, who for years plot, plan and position themselves for high office, electoral politics was never a real consideration for Perez.
He had never run for office before, and just 18 months ago he told The Courant he turned down invitations to run for the city council because "it's a suicide mission."
But once Perez indicated earlier this year that he was serious about a run, Peters quickly bowed out. Then Perez largely breezed toward office - with the help of nearly $200,000 he raised for his campaign. That is almost double the previous record in Hartford, set by Peters two years ago.
Perez's campaign has energized the city's Hispanic community, which has never had the political clout to match its numbers.
Latinos now make up a larger part of the population in Hartford - about 40 percent - than in many big cities in the Southwest, including Phoenix, and San Diego, according to the latest census figures.
At the Trout Brook Brewery, city Democrats began celebrating early.
"It's about pride and it could be about power," said Carmen Rodriguez, the director of La Casa de Puerto Rico. Perez's challenge, she said, would turn a victory for Hispanics into a victory for the entire city.
"I think we made history," said party leader Ramon Arroyo, who had a Puerto Rican flag draped across his shoulders as he listened to a band playing traditional folk songs.
In his victory speech, Perez said voters gave him a mandate on his two main issues: charter revision and increasing homeownership.
He plans to ask the council to put to voters next November a list of proposed charter changes, including a move to give Hartford's mayor more formal powers.
Perez has called for increasing the city's homeownership rate from 25 percent to 30 percent. He said that would translate roughly to 500 new units per year for five years.
But during his campaign, he also ducked three key issues that he will be faced with immediately after being sworn in on Dec. 4, along with the new city council.
He has declined to lay out his plans for dealing with a projected $42 million budget gap in the next budget year. And he also has avoided questions about who he wants to see in the city manager's office.
Perez was born in Corozal, Puerto Rico, and came to Hartford in 1969 with his family. During his childhood, Perez and his family bounced around from apartment to apartment in some of the city's toughest neighborhoods. Perez himself was a charter member of a gang: the Ghetto Brothers.
After a career as a community and housing activist in the city's North End, Perez was hired by Trinity College in the late 1980s to address the deteriorating Frog Hollow neighborhood around Trinity.
Trinity President Evan S. Dobelle committed Trinity to becoming a key partner in an ambitious $250 million neighborhood redevelopment project. The centerpiece of that project is the Learning Corridor, a campus of four new public schools.
Perez was charged with implementing Dobelle's vision, working to get the project built, on schedule and on budget. Last year, he was appointed as a member of the charter revision commission, which recommended turning the mayor from a figurehead into a powerhouse by making the position the city's chief executive officer.
The effort also put him on a collision course with city Democratic leaders, who preferred the comfort of the familiar.
The movement was doomed when the city council voted to place the charter questions in a special election, rather than on the November presidential election ballot. Sure enough, the measure passed overwhelmingly, but the turnout was too small for the vote to count. But the momentum for change had begun.
The council's action was considered a betrayal by charter revision activists, and they soon planned retribution. They began casting about for candidates and one name kept on getting mentioned: Eddie Perez. Indeed, the core of the Perez campaign consisted of charter revision warriors and donors.
During the summer, Perez began to look and act like a winner, and the corporate money and endorsements flowed. He easily defeated Ludgin in the Sept. 11 primary, winning 72 percent of the vote, including all 27 voting districts.
Throughout this campaign, his ambivalence about campaigning was on display. While he clearly enjoyed meeting voters one-on-one, he struggled to deliver a basic stump speech and studiously avoided controversy or tough questions. And he seemed to place the direction of his campaign in the hands of political consultants and staff.