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Eddie Perez: Mayor of Hartford

Carl Hardrick, a veteran Hartford street worker, recalls Perez as a street-savvy kid who stayed out of trouble with the law.

“In a gang, you’re going to have 20 percent of the guys who want to sell drugs and do drive-bys, 60 percent who are on the fence, and 20 percent who work, go to school, go to church, and want to do something positive for the community,” he says. “It’s always a struggle, a fight for the hearts and minds of the ones on the fence. Eddie was in the 20 percent trying to pull the middle to the good side. Then things began to happen — shootings, things Eddie didn’t agree with — and he peeled away.”

It was around this time, says Perez, that he found his way to the Sacred Heart community center. “I wanted to play basketball, but the hook was that you had to attend youth group meetings on Sunday. Sacred Heart was the Puerto Rican church. Everything was happening there.”

Father Tom Goekler, now a missionary in Central America, taught Perez about liberation theology and helped steer him away from the gang and toward a career in community organizing.

Over the next decade, Perez organized rent strikes, took on slumlords, led marches on city hall. As a community organizer, Perez jokes, “I picked when I had to march. Now, the march finds me. I would organize, target the opponent, get to pick what I wanted to do,” he says. “Now, I’ve got to cut ribbons and make speeches and put budgets together.” Yet governing is like organizing, he says — it’s all about bringing people together.

Perez’s journey through the looking glass began in 1989, when Trinity College hired him as director of community relations; five years later, he became an associate vice president. Then, in 1999, he was tapped to lead an ambitious revival of the deteriorating Barry Square neighborhood that surrounds the campus, an oasis of pristine architecture. At the heart of this public-private partnership is the $112 million Learning Corridor, a 16-acre complex of four new magnet schools, a theater, and several community programs. Perez, who had also earned an economics degree from Trinity while supporting a wife and two children, knocked on doors, persuaded owners to sell their land, lobbied business leaders to contribute, cajoled contractors into meeting deadlines.

The Learning Corridor stood in stark contrast to the inertia surrounding city hall. People started talking about Eddie as mayor. He had shied away from public office in the past — offers to run for the school board, city council, state legislature. “But Hartford was giving up on itself,” he says. “There were fewer opportunities for kids. There was no one else to step up. I left a six-figure job in an ivory tower. I’m trying to bring more respect to Hartford.”

Perez served on a charter commission that advocated a strong-mayor form of government. The Old Guard tried to kill it, but Perez and the reformers ultimately prevailed. In 2004, Perez was sworn in as the most powerful mayor in Hartford history.

Change can be difficult. There has been friction with Connecticut’s Republican governor, M. Jodi Rell, as Perez tries to assert his new power, claim a seat at the economic-development table, and push for more state aid. Critics are few, in part because the mayor can freeze out those who disagree with him. Councilman Kenneth H. Kennedy says that there is too little dissent, particularly on the council. And with the insurance industry retrenching, Hartford continues to lose jobs.

Still, the street-educated mayor has shown he can deal with the insurance executives, the bankers, and the developers. That’s a far cry from the years that followed the ’60s riots, when Hartford’s insurance barons, known as the Bishops for their hold over the city, contemplated a secret plot to move the blacks and Puerto Ricans out to planned communities in the suburbs. The plan fell apart once word leaked out, deepening neighborhood mistrust of the establishment.

Recently, Perez took on another challenge when he appointed himself to the school board and was elected chairman. Critics say the move shows that Perez’s greatest strength may also be his greatest weakness — trying to do everything himself. But Perez considers himself an educator. Being mayor is “an exercise in empowering people.” New turf wars for an old gang leader.

A year later, the death of Lorenzo Morgan Rowe still hurts. “It’s a burdensome thing,” says the Reverend James Lane, founder and pastor of the Northend Church of Christ, who works with kids in that community. “Morgan didn’t fit the profile of a kid who dies because he made the wrong decision, hung around the wrong people. Here’s someone who did the right thing, and he was still taken out of this world. What else can we tell these kids after that?”

Lane’s son attended school with Rowe. Lane also knew one of the boys arrested in the shooting, Anthony Allen, a 17-year-old student at Weaver. When Allen was 9 years old, he had participated in a Buddy Breakfast program that Lane ran for fatherless boys — “a nice kid,” Lane recalls.

Allen was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, without parole. He is appealing. He has a 1-year-old son, born two months before Rowe’s death. Allen’s mother, Crystal Faust, who drives a school bus in a suburb, visits him in prison three times a week. Mother and son talk through a pane of glass. Allen’s life has gone the way that Perez’s might have.

Perez speaks with frustration about getting the resources in place to help the Shooters before it’s too late — to connect them to the American dream that he found among the ruins. But he isn’t about to abandon hope for Hartford. He will try to reclaim his city, one life at a time if necessary.

Updated Friday, May 2nd, 2008

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