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Hartford's Latinos Revel In Securing Mayor's Office

Perez Must Now Campaign for Real Power

Hartford's Latinos Revel In Securing Mayor's Office

November 18, 2001
Copyright © 2001
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

HARTFORD, Nov. 17 – When Hartford elected Eddie Perez mayor by a landslide two weeks ago, his victory margin was eclipsed by the sense of history being made: he will be the first Latino mayor of a capital city in New England. He opened his celebration at a Hartford bar by addressing the crowd in Spanish as salsa music pulsated and Puerto Rican flags fluttered around him.

In Hartford, Latinos have arrived. Yet in a city where they make up 39 percent of the population, the question on many minds is what took them so long.

Hispanic candidates here have long been elected to offices, like state representative, that allow them to run from strongly Latino districts. But for many Hispanic voters, Mr. Perez's citywide election is a quantum leap even though the mayor's job is largely ceremonial in Hartford's "weak mayor" form of government.

"Now Hartford belongs to the Hispanics," said Juan Martinez, 31, as he left for work one morning a few days after the election. "The Latinos used to be scared to get involved and felt no one would listen. Not anymore."

Part of the reason some Latinos have felt such distance from politics can be found on Park Street, the heart of Hartford's Hispanic population. Perhaps more than any other neighborhood, it bristles with energy. On a recent morning, people flowed in and out of the stores and gathered to talk on street corners.

They stood four deep in line at Caribe Auto Parts, where the owner wears a scowl but presides over an overflowing stockroom. At El Mercado Market, there are nine varieties of yams, golden empanadillas warming in lighted cases and four Latino restaurants. At nearby Sanchez Elementary School, a health clinic is just inside the front door and a new playground is under construction.

The insularity and self-sufficiency of the neighborhood may help explain why Latinos have been hesitant to test the political waters, said Clyde D. McKee, a professor of political science at Trinity College, just up a hill from Park Street, and a student of Hartford politics since 1960.

The vast majority of the city's Hispanic people are Puerto Rican, and because they are United States citizens at birth, they do not undergo the naturalization process that helps other newcomers cement ties with their new American communities, Professor McKee said.

Many Puerto Ricans who move north continue to speak only Spanish, a decision that further insulates them, he said. They tend to travel back and forth between Puerto Rico and the continental United States, or are living here only until they can earn enough money to afford a better lifestyle back home, he said.

"Among Puerto Ricans, sometimes there is an ambivalence about being an American," he said. "For many, Puerto Rico is where their heart is."

American politics, then, would seem to hold little interest. But Mr. Perez, who was born in Puerto Rico and moved to a house on Bellevue Street in Hartford when he was 14, may change that.

"We think Eddie's going to do a good job," said Ramon Flores, an owner of El Mercado Market, who came to Hartford from the Dominican Republic in 1962. "Before him, people thought, `Why should I vote for this person if he's not going to do anything for me?' They weren't sure their vote counted."

Puerto Ricans first came to the Hartford area in the mid-1940's for migrant work in the tobacco fields of Windsor and Bloomfield. In time, many stayed and their families followed because the economy was better than in Puerto Rico. The Latino population grew as many people found jobs in Hartford factories.

Mr. Perez, 43, has spent his career organizing neighborhoods to seek better housing, schools and jobs, but he says he has never regularly attended meetings of the Hartford Democratic Committee or the City Council. When he was in his 20's, he said, he often told people that a Latino had no chance to become a political leader in America. He still says that Hispanics come north for economic reasons and have little interest in politics.

"There was no sense of building social, economic and cultural capital as Americans," he said. "We have to begin to rebuild that foundation."

Mr. Perez became a bridge between the Park Street neighborhood and Trinity College, when he served as assistant to two Trinity presidents, as well as a neighborhood organizer in a handful of groups.

If the voters approve an overhaul of the city charter next November and the city embraces a "strong mayor" form of government, Mr. Perez said, he can again be a bridge, linking the corporate world – which donated about $200,000 to his campaign – to city residents.

"I do think Latinos feel they have more opportunity with Eddie in office," said Jose Guerro, 39, a meat salesman. "Maybe you'll be able to buy a house or open a store of your own."

Mr. Perez, who takes office on Dec. 4, said he was elected not as a Latino but as a leader of the community who happens to be Latino. "It's about being able to empower people, whether African-American, Italian or West Indian or Latino," he said. "I'm a neighborhood organizer, independent of who happens to live in the neighborhood."

The Perez campaign added most of the 2,000 new voters who were enrolled before the election. Hundreds came from the Park Street neighborhood, said Delia Bello, who registered many of them at Sanchez Elementary, where she is principal.

"Eddie's election is very good for the Latino people, " said Jessica Lazu, 19, as she waited to enter the Park Street branch of the Hartford Public Library. "Hopefully we'll see some difference, better schools and maybe cleaner streets."

Mayor Must Now Campaign for Real Power


November 18, 2001
Copyright © 2001
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

EDDIE PEREZ, the newly elected mayor of Hartford, the first Latino mayor of a capitol city in New England, campaigned for and won an office that hardly exists. By city charter, the office is more ceremonial than substantive, but Mr. Perez, a child of welfare, the first high school graduate in his family, the first college graduate in his universe, has never let what is, determine what will be.

Charter reform will be his most important priority when he takes office Dec. 4 because the city needs a strong mayor form of government, he said. Although city residents voted on Nov. 6 to increase the mayor's salary from $30,000 to $75,000, they defeated a charter change last spring to install a strong mayor government. If it passes in November 2002, Mr. Perez will already be halfway through his term in a city where statistics are grim.

Hartford is the poorest city in the state, with 28 percent of its residents living below the poverty line, according to statistics from the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

Eleven of the state's 28 worst performing schools are in Hartford; in 1997 the state took over its board of education. Its population has decreased by 13 percent from 1999 to 2000. This year crime is down 4.1 percent, but 2000 saw an increase of 9.8 percent.

Perhaps only a man who lived it, coming of age on Bellevue Street in the city's scrappy north end, saved by the urban safety net of a loving mother, a few reliable neighbors and committed parish priests to graduate from its most prestigious college, can grasp both the difficulty and possibility of change.

''I've traveled the continuum, and I've learned there's something constant about the human spirit,'' Mr. Perez said, as he sat in the living room of his house, a blue colonial on Bloomfield Avenue, not far from the University of Hartford.

It was a Saturday morning and although Mr. Perez is nursing a cold, if he weren't attending the Veteran's Day Parade in another hour, he might be repairing a driveway or lingering over breakfast with his wife, Maria, and his daughter, Sierra, a freshman at Bulkeley High School. His son, Eddie Jr., is a senior at the University of Connecticut.

Right now Mr. Perez has little time to relax. A charter reform committee will be established shortly after he takes office, he said. Its report will be due in April to begin a six-month public education campaign in time for the November 2002 referendum question.

Mr. Perez, a Democrat, was elected with the help of $200,000 from many of the city's largest corporations and the support of its Democratic party. Four new Democratic councilors won election this year and each one has publicly stated he will support a charter change.

His administration will focus primarily on three areas: housing, where Mr. Perez said he wanted to add at least 500 new owner-occupied units to the city; public safety, preventing rather than reacting to crime by adding 40 to 50 new police officers, and building and repairing schools. He recently told The Hartford Courant that Adrian's Landing, the $1 billion downtown revitalization project, won't prevent him from seeking as much state and federal money as he can to accomplish these goals.

Mr. Perez, 43, is president of the Southside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance, a housing program that bought up decrepit homes using grant money, tore them down and built new ones, offering low-income loans to the working poor in the city. Public safety is a top priority of his constituents, as are schools.

Mr. Perez said he believed schools have to be the center of the community, with room for adult education and youth recreation programs. He will work with the superintendent of schools, the State Board of Trustees, and the business community to help insure jobs for high school graduates. What Mr. Perez won't do, he said, is spend a lot of time pointing out who is right and wrong.

''My responsibility is making the system just and efficient,'' he said.

Mr. Perez moved to Brooklyn from Puerto Rico when he was 9. He was 14 when he moved to Hartford. He is the second oldest of nine children in a household headed by his mother, who spoke only Spanish. Mr. Perez said he translated for her at the welfare office or at school conferences. The neighborhood was the center of his world. ''I never felt poor,'' he said. ''When I played stickball on the street, I thought I'd be in the major leagues someday.''

As a high school student who enjoyed the sciences, he guessed he would be a lab technician at a local hospital. For a time, he was a member of a street gang, but in the early 1970's a priest at Sacred Heart Church persuaded him to join a youth group and introduced him to the concept of social justice.

Father Thomas Goekler took a group of neighborhood teenagers to protest in Groton at the nuclear submarine base and to North Carolina to rally for the Wilmington 10, protesters who had been jailed. Another priest, Father Peter Rosazza, now Bishop Rosazza, whom Mr. Perez called ''the poor people's priest,'' who made his rounds on a bicycle, taught him to remember the neighborhood.

Ultimately, Mr. Perez made his name in the neighborhood, working in the Stowe Village Housing Project on welfare-to-work programs before founding a neighborhood organization for housing and employment advocacy.

A summer job at Trinity College, Upward Bound, a federally financed program to help minority students go to college, began his relationship with Trinity, but it wasn't until he was 29, when he and his wife, Maria, had a boy, 13, and daughter, 2, that he decided to finish what he had started at a local community college and enroll at Trinity, taking courses part time before graduating in 1996 with a degree in economics.

It was at Trinity, where he was first the assistant to then president Tom Gerety and later Evan S. Dobelle, where Mr. Perez saw what could be accomplished with the resources of influence and money. Trinity, an elite college, sits in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

''Trinity is a microcosm of Hartford and of most of America,'' Mr. Perez said. ''It is an elitist institution set in a neighborhood that had third world problems.''

Mr. Perez was introduced at university cocktail parties as the ''right-hand man'' of Mr. Dobelle because he had an ability to get things done and knew how to work with the neighbors as the college grappled with problems of campus safety and plans to expand despite disgruntled neighbors. Last year, Trinity, using money from the state private and corporate donations, completed the Learning Corridor, a complex of four public schools that is the jewel in the crown of its neighborhood revitalization effort. Mr. Perez was in charge of creating more owner-occupied housing in the neighborhoods that surround it. He made his name accomplishing the task.

Today, city residents eye him expectantly. Their neighborhoods differ, but their goals remain the same: homes that are safe and clean, good schools and a responsive City Hall.

Mr. Perez recalled a recent afternoon during his campaign when he was exhausted and had been knocking on doors for four hours. A little girl, maybe 3 years old, answered the front door, and he asked if her mother was home.

''She turned and called up the stairs, 'Mama! Es el alcalde!' (It's the mayor.) That really motivated me. If this tiny kid knew who I was, I thought, maybe she'll think she can grow up to be the mayor. Maybe she'll even believe she can grow up to be the president.''

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