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Perez Basks In San Juan Reception; A Trip To Forge Cultural And Economic Links, Island Trip Will Pay Bonus

Perez Basks In San Juan Reception; A Trip To Forge Cultural And Economic Links

MARK PAZNIOKAS; Courant Staff Writer

March 8, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- -- Two police motorcyclists snaked through the morning rush hour, clearing a path for a three-car motorcade bearing a visiting dignitary: Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez, on his way to an economic development presentation.

The motorcade pulled up to a beachfront hotel and conference center and one officer opened the mayor's door. Perez got out, nonchalantly hoisted a box of Hartford promotional material and headed for the entrance. The head of the security detail gaped, then scurried over to wrestle away the package.

The security man shook his head. This would not do, not for the mayor, the alcalde.

On his second visit to the island since becoming mayor, Perez still struggles with his role as a symbol of success by the Puerto Rican diaspora, the generations of islanders who left for a mainland that now has about as many Puerto Ricans as Puerto Rico .

``For me, it borders on being a little bit scary, a little bit embarrassing. For me, I'm a guy who picks up boxes. It's no big deal,'' Perez said. He shrugged and added, ``When you're on the pedestal, I guess you have to play the part.''

In Hartford, he is Eddie. He drives himself. He has a staff of five, not a bodyguard among them.

His previous trip to Puerto Rico in June befitted a visiting head of state. Perez's address to a joint session of the Legislative Assembly was broadcast live. In the small town of Comerio, the entire populace turned out for an hours-long parade in his honor. His return to Corozal, the mountain village he left in 1969 at age 12, was cause for raucous celebration.

``It was a main event here, on radio and TV,'' Carlos Vizcarrondo, the speaker of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Representatives, said of Perez's visit. ``His victory is ours.''

The reception accorded Perez then and now reflects native pride, practical politics and the nuanced relationship Puerto Rico enjoys with the mainland United States. As a commonwealth, Puerto Rico has only nonvoting representation in Congress. The island needs friends in the states.

But some Puerto Ricans point to pride over politics as the reason why Perez, who is not a sure bet to get an appointment to see the governor in Connecticut, is sought after here by the governor, legislative leaders and a dozen mayors.

``You see it in every small nation and island. They look for their idols,'' said Bob Segarra, an economic development official under a previous administration. ``Here in Puerto Rico , you see it in the celebration of the selection of Miss Universe. It also showed in the pride we took in Tito Trinidad.''

In May 2001, Denise Quinones of Puerto Rico was selected Miss Universe. The next day, local boxer Felix ``Tito'' Trinidad won a world welterweight championship. Much of San Juan closed to celebrate.

On a more modest scale, Perez basks in the same nationalist pride. It is a heady status for a man who rebelled as a teen about speaking Spanish: ``I said, `I don't need to be bilingual.'''

At La Fortaleza, the Spanish colonial fortress that is the official residence of Gov. Sila M. Calderon, Perez was welcomed for a private meeting with the governor in a sunny library overlooking the harbor. They posed for a photo as Perez presented her with a gift: a blanket stitched with an image of the Old State House in Hartford. The stitching was red, the color of Calderon's Popular Democratic Party.

Calderon, the first woman elected governor of Puerto Rico , has assiduously cultivated mainland politicians and labored to mobilize Puerto Ricans politically in the states. Her administration has spent $6 million on a continuing voter registration drive that has enrolled 100,000 voters on the mainland.

``We are not their government now, but they are Puerto Ricans. Their families are here. They come back and forth. We are family. And there is an invisible bridge between [here and] the United States, in places like New York and Hartford and New Jersey,'' Calderon said.

Perez's visit to entice Puerto Rican companies to consider expanding to Hartford, which was supported by Calderon's export agency, cannot be separated from Calderon's desire for stronger ties to mainland politicians.

``There is always an abstract dimension, a broader dimension to this,'' Antonio Sosa Pascual, the export director, said of Perez's trade mission.

Calderon is pushing Puerto Rican businesses to expand their markets to the mainland, a campaign that involves island-born politicians like Perez. One of Calderon's models is Ireland's savvy use of Irish Americans to bring business to Ireland. She sees Perez fulfilling that role.

Signs of Calderon's ``invisible bridge'' or ``circular migration,'' as others call the back-and-forth travel to the mainland, are everywhere, from factories to La Fortaleza.

Sosa, 28, studied economics at the University of Chicago, then went to graduate school at Michigan. His assistant is Soleil M. Thon, who moved back and forth to the states to be with her father, baseball player Dickie Thon, during his 15-year career as a major leaguer. The governor's adviser on federal affairs is Salvador J. Antonetti Stutts, 34, a Harvard-educated lawyer.

At the trade show, Perez met easily a dozen business executives educated in New England. On a tour of a factory in Caguas, Perez met two women who graduated from Hartford Public High School, Virginia Soto and Mildred Colon. Soto confided her connection to a bit of Hartford history: She was related by marriage to Victor Gerena, one of the most wanted fugitives in the U.S. for robbing a Wells Fargo depot in West Hartford of $7.1 million in 1983.

``Small world,'' Soto said.

Mainland news, particularly from Puerto Rican communities like Hartford and Orlando, Fla., is closely followed on the island. The fatal Greenwood Health Center nursing home fire in Hartford was front-page news in San Juan.

Such ties keep the perennial independence movement confined to the fringes.

Puerto Rico 's two major parties each favor strong ties to the U.S., disagreeing on the form. Calderon leads the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party. Its major competition is the New Progressive Party, which favors statehood . Independence is favored by 5 percent of voters.

Politics on the island are all-consuming, with a voter turnout of about 85 percent. In the U.S., Puerto Rican turnout is dismal, perhaps 40 percent nationally and even lower in Hartford. Calderon wants to reverse that politically crippling trend.

``We carried a very successful voter registration effort in Connecticut. There were 9,600 new voters. We want to get Puerto Ricans out to vote,'' Calderon said.

The governor added she only recently became aware that Perez, a candidate for re-election this fall, could benefit from the registration drive. ``I wasn't aware there was an election this year, but we're happy we were able to register them.''

The governor smiled at Perez.

The alcalde smiled back.

Island Trip Will Pay Bonus

Stan Simpson

March 12, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved.

Eddie Perez's sojourn to his native Puerto Rico, drumming up corporate interest in Hartford, was nothing short of brilliant.

No, not just for the business connections and possible expansion opportunities for the capital city. Perez's more significant role was to plant seeds for a political harvest that could fortify his uneven support base here. He'll need a stronger political foundation as the city moves to a ``strong'' mayor form of government next year.

The novelty of Eddie Perez is not that he's the first Puerto Rican mayor of a capital city. The real distinction is that he is a Latino mayor of a city whose majority population is Latino. Yet, that voting bloc is largely invisible on Election Day. And if you drive around the city -- outside of Park Street -- you'd be hard pressed to see a meaningful Spanish-speaking presence. In fact, based on published accounts of Perez's visit to Puerto Rico, he may be more popular there than at home.

This is Perez's challenge. He's got to find a way to tap into and energize his natural constituency. Even he will tell you that his most ardent voting base is among whites. If the city's Latinos exhibited the same sort of passion for voting that they do in Puerto Rico and Latin American countries, the complexion of this city's power brokers could change dramatically. It's telling that only two of the city's seven school board members are Latino --and they were appointed by Perez. The majority of the student population is Latino.

In short, Perez knows that if he wants to energize his Latino base, he's going to have to deliver. Jobs. Housing. Opportunities. Folks new to the city or simply reluctant to engage in its politics must connect a vote for Perez to an improvement in their quality of life.

On the island, all elections are held on the same four-year cycle. A large segment of the Puerto Rican population holds government jobs, so the motivation to vote is tied directly to one being able to earn a living. Election Day is virtually a holiday. More than 80 percent turn out at the polls.

In Hartford, if a third of the voters turn out, that's considered dandy. Some will say that's reflective of the poverty level. Well, Puerto Rico ain't exactly Greenwich.

Hartford's strength -- don't say this too loud -- has always been its ethnicity. It has among the largest concentration of Puerto Ricans and Jamaicans in the country and strong pockets of Italian and Irish immigrants. Getting outside businesses to see the value in this immense ethnic market is a strategy that should have been executed long ago.

``It's an astute move,'' Edna Negron, the state's regional director of the Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Administration, says of the Perez trip. ``If you look at the market here [in Hartford], if you look at the products, you have more products from Peru and South America and the Dominican Republic on our shelves than from Puerto Rico. There's no reason for that to be.''

Of the city's Latino population, the large majority are Puerto Ricans.

Negron's agency is funded by the governor of Puerto Rico. Its role is to increase voter registration among Latinos, promote economic development partnerships between Connecticut and Puerto Rico, and increase cultural awareness.

``In order to galvanize people, you really need a candidate that excites,'' Negron says. ``But that's true for all people. The last [local] elections weren't very sexy. People were running unopposed. There was no motivation to vote.''

Convincing businesses to expand to Hartford is job one for a city trying to close a $46 million budget deficit. As jobs come in, they may provide the impetus to make Perez's aggressive home ownership goals a reality.

``If Hartford can become a clearinghouse or hub for Latin American products for New England, that will be a major gain from an economic development standpoint,'' says businessman Juan Morales of Hartford. ``And if you do have businesses from Puerto Rico, to establish here, it becomes a `win-win' situation [politically for Perez].''

Under the ``weak'' mayor government, ribbon-cuttings for new businesses were derided as a tired symbol for a purely ceremonial job. But in a weak economy, a strong mayor cutting ribbons has a whole different vibe.

It's one Perez may start grooving to.

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