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Eddie Perez: Mayor of Hartford

Eddie Perez: Mayor of Hartford
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He was reelected in 2003, this time to a four-year term, and handed a new city charter that strengthened the mayor’s powers. Years of weak-mayor/city manager government had failed miserably. One city manager, in the early 1990s, had commuted from Chicago. Hartford had ceded control of its schools, its economic development, even its downtown parking, to the state. Hartford had been in free fall for decades, symbolized by the night in 1978 when the roof of the Hartford Civic Center collapsed under heavy snow just hours after a college basketball game. The city’s lone professional sports franchise, hockey’s Whalers, left town. Football’s New England Patriots spurned a generous offer to move into a new riverfront stadium. Hartford, the nation’s insurance capital, was mockingly called “America’s File Cabinet” by a Boston newspaper columnist.

Now, in the early summer of 2006, Perez presides over a city that bills itself, optimistically, as “New England’s Rising Star.” New buildings and skyscrapers rise at a dizzying pace throughout the once-ghostly downtown: Adriaen’s Landing along the waterfront, a convention center, the science museum, hotels, upscale condominiums, apartments, offices, shops, pubs, and restaurants. The hope is that this investment of more than $2 billion will boost tax revenues, reclaim more affluent residents, and draw more people to the city’s cultural offerings — the Wadsworth Atheneum, one of the country’s oldest art museums; the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts; the Hartford Symphony; and a refurbished Hartford Civic Center, which serves as a second home for the national powerhouse University of Connecticut men’s and women’s basketball teams.

West of downtown, Park Street’s bustling shops and restaurants pulse to a Latin beat in a city that, per capita, has more Latinos than any city north of Miami and east of the Mississippi River. To the south, Franklin Street is the main artery of Little Italy, its bakeries and markets flanked by new establishments run by recent immigrants from Bosnia.

Perez immerses himself in the details, a micromanager who uses workmanlike metaphors — “plumber” and “bridge builder” — to describe his approach to governing. But building a bridge is an exercise in futility if you can’t get the people across — if you can’t bridge the gap between the ghetto and the downtown skyscrapers that loom nearby, like a mirage.

One day last year, Perez addresses an auditorium full of students at an urban magnet school for the arts in nearby Waterbury. He is an awkward yet endearing speaker, a short, paunchy man of 48 who wears wire-rimmed glasses. With his jutting jaw, sloping forehead, and receding hairline, he resembles the actor George C. Scott in the movie Patton. Told that the students had requested him, he jokes, “I guess J. Lo wasn’t available.”

He talks about how reading allowed him to explore worlds beyond his neighborhood in Hartford, how his interest in science satisfied his curiosity about how things worked, how school helped lift him out of the ghetto. He wanted to be a lab technician, “but I chose the people business instead.”

“I live the American dream every day,” he says. But too many in Hartford don’t.

“In 2003, we should have graduated 1,600 students from high school,” he says. “We graduated 800. And only 83 went to a four-year college, and only half of them will graduate…. To survive in this city, you need … a job that pays $40,000 a year. Forty percent of my people are below poverty level. They’re left out of the American dream.”

His biggest challenge as mayor, he says, is dealing with the rash of violence by “youngsters against youngsters — showing them that there are means to solving a dispute without resorting to guns and weapons.” The city has identified high-risk teens, whom Perez calls the “Shooters” because they could be the ones shot or the ones doing the shooting.”

The mayor tries to meet individually with the Shooters and their families, but his message doesn’t always sink in. Shortly after one such meeting, the teen was arrested with a gun. Now, says Perez, “he’s going to ‘juvie’ for a couple of years, where he’s going to get tougher instead of smarter.”

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