Facing Charges, Can Eddie Perez Still Run Hartford?

The Hartford Courant

He's still the mayor.

There was Eddie A. Perez, off to the side in the high, bright atrium at city hall on Friday morning. He had just finished the coffee, the handshakes and the hugs and was ready to speak about a new mobile medical van that brings doctors to the city's underserved.

When emcee John Motley gave Perez his turn at the microphone, the mayor lowered it — graciously making a short-man joke at his own expense — before hitting his talking points, wishing everyone his standard good and great morning, cutting a green ribbon and getting back to work.

In public, he's not radioactive. He's warm, he's jovial, he's Eddie.

"He's still the mayor," said Motley, a former Hartford school official and former director of the St. Paul Travelers Connecticut Foundation. "He still has the power to act, so he needs to keep acting. He needs to keep being the mayor. The only way he's going to convince everybody he can still act while under this cloud is to keep doing it."

But Perez — a Democratic mayor in his third term who on Tuesday was arrested and charged with taking a bribe — now faces the biggest questions of his seven-plus years in office: What toll will the felony charges against him have on his power to persuade and his ability to exert the city's will, two of any mayor's greatest assets? What price will his certain divided attention balancing the city's business with his criminal defense have on his beloved rising star?

No elected official save the president depends as much on the bully pulpit to get work done, municipal government experts say. City councils do much of the legislating and state governments hold many of the purse strings, so it is left up to a mayor to be the face of the community, to embody and promote its spirit and possibilities.

"That bully pulpit is built on credibility," said John Portz, chairman of the political science department at Northeastern University in Boston. "When that credibility is lost, the pulpit comes down."

Portz knows of Perez. He is aware, as many in New England are, of Perez's emergence from a background as a street-level community organizer.

"His image is that of pulling himself up by his bootstraps," Portz said. "This doesn't help."

Lennie Grimaldi, one of former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim's closest allies during Ganim's heady ascent to statewide prominence, said his former boss simply couldn't govern after his indictment for taking kickbacks.

Part of it, Grimaldi said, was that Ganim spent a lot of time crafting his defense. Ganim ultimately was sentenced to 108 months in prison.

"And when he tried [to run the city], it was more of a personal public- relations campaign — two or three press releases a day," said Grimaldi, who pleaded guilty to charged in the same case and was sentenced to 14 months. "He stayed popular for a while, but as more came out, he lost the electorate. And then, because he hadn't sucked up to the politicians around him, they weren't there for him when he had to reach out."

The effect of Perez's criminal case on Hartford's prospects might be hard to measure — it could express itself in opportunities lost: A potential investor takes his project elsewhere; a person with an idea keeps her mouth shut.

But the effect on the mayor's style, the way he exerts power, might be more discernible. Some city politicians and Perez critics say they see a mayor long harangued for dictating consensus instead of building it who now — because of his circumstances, even if he does everything right — may need to bend.

State Rep. Marie Lopez Kirkley-Bey said it's crucial that Perez delegate some of the authority he has amassed and work much more closely with the city council than he ever has.

"If he's working on education, then he needs to bring Jim Boucher up to speed," Kirkley-Bey said, referring to the city councilman who chairs the panel's education committee.

That may not be Perez's first instinct.

Asked Friday if he'd be willing to delegate some of his public functions and let others in elected office be the city's public face, Perez was clear.

"I have responsibilities by the charter, the council has responsibilities by the charter," Perez said. "We're going to lead together."

For Kirkley-Bey, the eight-term Democrat from Hartford's North End who is also a deputy speaker in the House, the Perez saga is, first and foremost, a sad story.

"I feel very saddened by the indictment," said Kirkley-Bey, who has had her differences with the Perez administration.

"The mayor's story is one of rags to riches," she said. "He is a role model for Latino youth — and I'm very much concerned about his wife's health."

The mayor's wife, Maria, has had continuing treatment for brain aneurysms.

Kirkley-Bey said she didn't think the criminal allegations would affect the Hartford delegation's efforts to bring money and resources into the city.

Part of the reason, she said, is that Perez hasn't had any desire to cultivate a relationship with Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, so he didn't have much to lose on that front.

Also, she said, "We do our own thing here."

State Reps. Minnie Gonzalez and Kelvin Roldan share the same view.

"As far as I know, this has been going on for years," said Gonzalez, referring to the cloud over the mayor's head. "We've managed to bring in a lot of resources to the city, and that won't change."

Roldan said the accusations have been known "for 17 or 18 months. Obviously, the recent events are all very disappointing for the mayor, his family, and the people of Hartford. But my colleagues and I are going to approach this as we always have, putting the needs of the people of Hartford first, regardless of what might be going on in the personal lives of some people."

Kirkley-Bey said she does have one fear that relates to the criminal case against the mayor.

"The one area where I'm concerned about negative perceptions [is] when the stimulus package comes in from Washington. How will that money be divvied up among cities? I'm confident, though, that our congressmen — and the mayor — will talk about it, and make sure Hartford gets it's fair share," she said.

City Councilman Matt Ritter says Perez is going to need to delegate.

"I really believe that the mayor needs to have his day in court and the facts will come to light," Ritter said. "But you do have to ask yourself, are there certain responsibilities right now that he cannot perform until these allegations are either cleared or proved? ... Is the mayor the best person to go meet with the speaker of the House and the governor right now? I would say no."

"You have to understand," Ritter said of Perez, "that you're a strong mayor with an asterisk next to your name until you get the charges cleared. I hope we can have that discussion amicably. Because if we don't, Hartford begins to suffer."

R. Nelson "Oz" Griebel, head of the regional MetroHartford Alliance business group, said business leaders are normally cautious about business dealings with politicians — they come and go all the time, for whatever reason. So Perez's arrest isn't necessarily a game-changing event.

Developer and Perez supporter Phil Schonberger agrees that Perez's arrest may not have a big effect on business in the city. Even though Carlos Costa — the contractor who told state investigators he worked for free on Perez's home because it was the "cost" of doing business in the city — said he had to pay to play, Schonberger said he has had a different experience in the city. Hartford is not known as a place where businessmen have to do things they don't want to in order to make money, he said.

"It's his problem, but it's not a community problem," Schonberger said. "He shouldn't wither up and resign if he's innocent, and I believe he has the good sense to see that if it's impeding his ability to govern, he'll do the right thing."

At city hall last week, several city workers were asked about the mood of the workforce in the wake of their boss's arrest. Their responses were mixed, ranging from the view that the mayor's plight had no bearing on them or their job performance, to a feeling of outright betrayal.

"It hasn't affected us," said one worker, standing with two of her colleagues in the great center hall during lunchtime. "We're still moving forward, we're still positive. I just think it's going to blow over — eventually."

On the ground floor, a worker was eating her lunch from a white Styrofoam box and thumbing through a magazine. She wasn't so sure that the storm clouds would pass quickly.

She added, though, that she felt the mayor "is out there on his own. We continue our jobs. Life goes on."

Then there are people like former Councilwoman Marilyn Rossetti, who are in the community and hear the talk on the street and in the bank lines, and who wonder what to do with a mayor who has admitted a lapse of judgment, says he's committed no crime, and on Tuesday has his first day in open court.

"I don't think he's a criminal," said Rossetti, executive director of Hartford Areas Rally Together. She ran with Perez on a ticket years ago; he sidelined her after they won. "But, from the Eddie that I knew and ran on a ticket with because I believed in him, to what has happened, it's pretty sad."

That said, while there's an elephant in the room, the city has to work around it.

"We have a fundraiser coming up and he's one of the celebrity waiters," she said. "And, as far as I'm concerned, he's one of the waiters. He's the mayor of the city."

Motley agrees.

"I would think that nonprofits have to give a pause when they're thinking about how to include him, whether to include him," said Motley, now a consultant. "Do we disinvite him? It would be rude, it would be un-American. He's innocent until proven guilty. He's still the mayor."

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