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Globe Newspaper Company

Hartford's 'Strong Mayor' Has A Tough-Guy Past

By Brian MacQuarrie, Globe Staff

January 20, 2004
Copyright ©2004 Globe Newspaper Company. All rights reserved.

HARTFORD -- Fraying, overlooked, crime-plagued Hartford is getting a wake-up call from a peripatetic mayor who speaks the bottom-line language of the boardroom as well as the tough-guy talk of the barrio. His name is Eddie A. Perez, a 47-year-old native of Puerto Rico who is the first Hispanic mayor of Connecticut's capital city. He's also a former Hartford gang leader who cut his teeth in group politics with a band of buddies called the Ghetto Brothers.

Perez was inaugurated on Jan. 5 as the first "strong mayor" in Hartford history. Now, his friends and rivals alike predict that the old city had better be prepared for an overhaul of how business gets done in a City Hall more known for inertia than innovation.

Failure, Perez says, "is not a possibility."

Those are strong -- some might say quixotic -- words for a city that lost a greater percentage of its population than any other in the country last decade. For a city that has the second-lowest rate of home ownership in the nation. And for a city whose drug-stoked crime has kept the middle class away, curtailed tax revenue, and hampered improvements to a long-suffering school system.

But to Perez, tackling Hartford's seemingly intractable problems is just another step in a ladder of increasing responsibility that began when he negotiated rents for his single mother when they moved a dozen times from run-down apartment to run-down apartment during his high school years.

And the challenge does not carry any of the dangers that he faced as "The Professor," a scrawny gang leader in Hartford's tough North End who would mediate disputes with rival gangs, shuttle friends to Chicago and New York until tempers cooled, and somehow survive in a world of drugs, violence, and poverty.

"On the street, you've got to be tough, you've got to be soft sometimes, and you've got to be smart," said Perez, leaning back from a polished conference table in his plush City Hall office.

"You've got to know when to use these strengths of the street, whether you're in an alley or a boardroom or a City Council chamber. You've got to stand up and get it done."

Perez said the influence of his mother and the neighborhood's Catholic church steered him from the destructive path that led 90 percent of his adolescent peers to lives of drugs, jail, and premature death.

"I've been blessed with opportunities," he said.

Perez already has served a two-year term as mayor under the former, ceremonial definition of the job. But since voters approved sweeping changes to the city charter, Perez is embarking on a four-year term with the hiring and firing powers of a no-nonsense chief executive.

In the run-up to his inauguration this month, Perez used the looming hammer of his new authority to force out the schools superintendent and the police chief.

"I scan the environment and look for strength, and have very little tolerance for normal politics, normal egos, and normal posturing," Perez said.

But where he sees strength and pragmatism, some observers see a headstrong, one-track mindset. Former city councilor Marilyn Rossetti, who disagreed with Perez over a prospective city manager, said the mayor's style can be "either the way I do it or no other."

Perez seems to want his finger on all aspects of city government, said Rossetti, who added that she still considers the mayor a friend.

"You have to learn to delegate and keep people a part of the process, and not the same people all the time," she said.

"I've seen changes at City Hall" since Perez became mayor, Rossetti said. "It's not as open as it used to be. There are locks on the doors, key codes, and all that."

The perception of Perez as a strong mayor was echoed by Clyde D. McKee Jr., a political science professor at Trinity College in Hartford. McKee concurred that Perez has a reputation as someone who will say, "If you get in the way, I'll run over you."

"I have some admiration for that," McKee said. "I think he's doing a great job. I think he has insights and understandings that come from deep experiences."

Hernan LaFontaine, the City Council president and an ally of Perez's, said outside observers do not see the in-depth discussions that the mayor holds with other elected officials before decisions are made.

"When we're working on a difficult issue -- with ideas going back and forth -- sooner or later a decision has to be made. That's what a leader does," LaFontaine said.

"Some people are getting afraid," said LaFontaine, a former Hartford schools superintendent. "They're afraid of leadership, and they don't know how to handle it."

Perez is not afraid to flex his new muscle. He has pledged to increase home ownership from 25 percent to 30 percent and to add 500 new or renovated housing units each year for five years. A few days after beginning his second term, Perez authorized a newly appointed commission of high-profile educators to create a road map to increase the number of Hartford students who attend college.

"I'm going to make a difference wherever I am," he said in an interview.

From his teenage beginnings as a neighborhood organizer, Perez steadily expanded his portfolio of community causes as well as his reputation. Eventually, he became community liaison to the Trinity College president and took a leading role in transforming a derelict site near the college into a Learning Corridor with four new public schools.

Now, all of Hartford is his rebuilding site.

"Hartford is known for eating its own and not doing well," Perez said.

"Before, we were ashamed of where we were and pointing the finger externally -- whether it was the press or the economy or something else.

"I think we're getting to that adolescent stage where we know we control our own destiny."

And Perez, who arrived in Hartford as an impoverished 14-year-old, has no qualms about wielding that control.

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