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The Hartford Courant

'Strong Mayor' Celebrates, A Touch Early

MARK PAZNIOKAS, Courant Staff Writer

December 21, 2003
Copyright ©2003 The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved.

Mayor Eddie A. Perez has been a man in a hurry since his election two years ago. He did not wait for a new charter to act like a strong mayor, so why wait for inauguration day to hold an inaugural ball?

Perez and 1,700 or so friends filled the Connecticut Expo Center on Saturday night to celebrate his status as the first strong mayor under a new charter that doesn't take effect until New Year's Day.

No one seemed to mind his jumping the gun with a formal party attended by U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd and the state's constitutional officers, with the exception of Gov. John G. Rowland and Lt. Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

Following a Hartford Fire Department honor guard, Dodd led Perez and the other officeholders into the vast exhibition hall down a narrow walkway, marked by curtain-draped barricades. Men in tuxedos and woman in evening gowns reached over the barricade to hug the mayor.

Perez, 46, is Hartford's 65th mayor, the last to serve under an old charter that gave the mayor few formal powers and the first to serve under a new system making him accountable for every aspect of city government.

``He's going to be a great leader for our capital city,'' Dodd said in introductory remarks. ``We need strong, good mayors in the country. We need to have the best possible people at the local level to help rebuild America.''

Perez, a native of Puerto Rico, also is the city's first Latino mayor. Dodd, a former Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic, acknowledged his bilingual audience with frequent jokes in Spanish.

``I'm the only gringo who speaks Spanish here,'' he said in Spanish, to raucous applause. ``That's why you invited me.''

It was a night to celebrate, a night for Perez to reach as many of the 175 tables of 10 as he could for a hug or a handshake. But first, the mayor invited everyone to work with him to govern one of the nation's poorest cities, a place that has repeatedly turned to the state for economic development, education and law enforcement.

``We have a lot of hard work to do. Let's not become complacent. Let's not wait for the other person to do it for us,'' Perez said. ``And let's not apologize for where Hartford is today. Let me say that again: Let's not apologize for where Hartford is today.''

``Rather than apologizing, let's let today's reality become the challenge that motivates us to join together in a mission. A mission that will make Hartford a place of pride. A mission that will make Hartford a place of opportunity. And a mission that will make Hartford the place of choice for all of us.

``Yes, Hartford can and will be a place where big and great dreams are realized, each and every day, in our classrooms, in our workplaces, in our homes and in our places of worship. We can do it Hartford.''

The size of the audience reflected the new political reality: For the first time, one man has his hands on all the levers of power.

The inaugural program was crowded with advertisements from the city's largest corporations, from Aetna to the Travelers. Corporate executives, labor leaders, community activists and politicians who have been with and against the mayor were well-represented in the large, racially diverse crowd. The event raised $35,000 for charity.

The mayor's immediate predecessor, Michael P. Peters, said he felt no regret that Perez will enjoy powers unavailable to him over eight years.

``I knew what I was getting into when I ran,'' Peters said.

His former chief of staff, John V. Bazzano, was one of the council members-elect sharing the stage with Perez. They all will be sworn in Jan. 5 at city hall.

Another celebrant was Rudolph Arnold, a former deputy mayor, who applauded the change.

``It's about time,'' Arnold said. ``Long overdue.''

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