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Hartford Courant

Perez Takes Office As Hartford’s First Latino Mayor


December 5, 2001
Copyright © 2001
Hartford Courant. All Rights Reserved.

Eddie A. Perez took office Tuesday night as Hartford's first Latino mayor, completing a migrant's journey through welfare and gangs, then church and community organizing, to the pinnacle of city politics.

Perez, 44, who migrated from Corozal, Puerto Rico, in 1969, was handed a symbolic key to the city by his four-term predecessor, Michael P. Peters, signaling the start of a new coalition government.

"Tonight, we make history," said Yasha Escalera, an old friend who acted as master of ceremonies in the packed, often boisterous atrium of city hall. The crowd chanted, "Ed-die! Ed-die!"

The new mayor made no mention of his fresh split with fellow Democrats on the nine-member council and his alliance with a new five-member majority: a coalition of two Republicans, two Democrats and a Green Party member.

It was a night to gloss over political feuds - even one that threatens to overshadow his drive to unite Hartford behind a transition to a strong-mayor government - and focus on his own improbable rise from the streets.

Perez is Hartford's 65th mayor. He hopes to be the last mayor to struggle under the city's current charter, which gives nearly all power to the council and city manager.

But on his inaugural, he was comfortable describing himself as just a jibaro, a peasant or local kid, who made good in a city that understands struggle and strife.

"I thank Hartford for giving me a chance to demonstrate that a young jibaro from Hartford's North End can start on the rough side of Main Street and become the mayor of New England's rising star," he said, using the city's new marketing slogan.

His story is one that resonates through much of Hartford. Perez was raised on welfare in a single-parent household. He ran with the Ghetto Brothers gang, then fell under the influence of the priests at Sacred Heart Church, a place where young priests taught social justice.

Perez thanked "the heroes" in his life, a long diverse list that started with "Padre Pedro," one of the parish priests of his youth. Today, the onetime parish priest is better known as Bishop Peter A. Rosazza.

Until his nomination for mayor six months ago, Perez was best known as the community organizer hired by Trinity College to usher the Learning Corridor, a complex of schools near the campus, to reality.

He called the Learning Corridor a success with many fathers, including Peters, Gov. John G. Rowland and Evan S. Dobelle, the former Trinity president.

"Thank you, governor. Thank you, Mayor Mike. And thank you, Evan, for making a small dream a big reality," he said.

He spoke about hope, noting that the Dutch who arrived here in the 1600s called their original settlement the House of Hope.

"Hope has sustained this city for centuries," he said.

In a nod to Takira Gaston, 8, who led Perez and the audience at city hall in the Pledge of Allegiance just five months after being shot in the face, he said, "Hope is embodied in Takira Gaston, who has shown us what courage really means."

"It is only with the hope of the many," Perez said, "that we can move our city forward and build our house of hope."

His inauguration was an event in Puerto Rico, whose ties to Hartford are strong. The mayor of Perez's old village attended the ceremony, which was covered by Hispanic media.

All nine council members and Treasurer Kathleen Palm also were sworn in Tuesday. The council selected Republican Veronica Airey-Wilson as deputy mayor and Elizabeth Horton Sheff of the Green Party as majority leader.

Perez was elected with a Democratic council majority of Louis Watkins, Marilyn Rossetti, Kenneth Kennedy, John B. Kennelly, Hernan LaFontaine and Calixto Torres. But he split with four of those six over the selection of an interim city manager.

The new five-member council majority consists of Airey-Wilson, Horton Sheff, LaFontaine, Torres and Robert L. Painter, a Republican elected as a petitioning candidate. Watkins, who was to be the deputy mayor before his split with Perez, is the new minority leader.

Despite the split over the weekend, the council members warmly greeted each other. Perez's wife, Maria, embraced Watkins.

Missing from the crowd was Saundra Kee Borges, who stepped down as city manager Tuesday, her eight-year tenure ending with Peters' reign.

Corporation Counsel Alex Aponte will serve as acting city manager until the council names an interim manager, probably next week. Albert Ilg, the former town manager of Windsor, appears to be the leading candidate.

Kee Borges was uncertain if she would return to the corporation counsel's office today, where she served before becoming city manager, or if she had no job.

"No one's told me anything," she said earlier Tuesday.

Her lawyer and city lawyers were talking Tuesday, trying to resolve her status.

Kee Borges is not eligible to collect her annual pension of about $65,000 until September 2003, after her 20th year as a city employee. She has enough accrued sick and vacation time to stay on the payroll until next September.

Peters, meanwhile, spent his last day saying goodbye.

One of his last duties was to christen a new fire truck in front of city hall. He cracked a towel-wrapped bottle of champagne on the shiny steel bumper, then jumped back to avoid the spray.

"That was appropriate for my last day," said Peters, a retired city firefighter.

His first day as mayor was Dec. 7, 1993, also his last day as a firefighter.

He was visited briefly by Andrea Comer, one of Perez's aides. She thanked him for his help during the transition and urged him to remain long enough during the inaugural for Perez to publicly praise him. Peters, 53, shook his head. He was adamant about handing the new mayor the key to the city, saying a few words, then melting away.

"It's Eddie's day," Peters said.

Comer hugged him and left.

In the afternoon, Peters took a last tour of the building. He was momentarily overcome with emotion when city employees gathered in the city hall atrium and gave him a standing ovation while he left the building as mayor for the last time.

He popped out the back door to find his car blocked by a truck. He sat behind the wheel of his city-owned Buick, the moment recorded by newspaper and television photographers, waiting for the truck to move.

"I'm still the mayor for four hours," he yelled, trying to nudge the truck driver along. The driver seemed unimpressed. Finally, Peters laughed and said, "Is this beautiful or what?"

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