Eddie Perez: Mayor of Hartford

From Yankee Magazine June 2006 The trees and shrubs of Bushnell Park in Hartford, including a Chinese mahogany, are in full bloom in June. Green fields slope up to the gold-domed Connecticut capitol, a child’s fairy-tale confection of marble and granite. On a 1914 carousel, children straddle antique hand-painted horses, striving for the brass ring. […]

By Mike Stanton

May 02 2008

From Yankee Magazine June 2006

The trees and shrubs of Bushnell Park in Hartford, including a Chinese mahogany, are in full bloom in June. Green fields slope up to the gold-domed Connecticut capitol, a child’s fairy-tale confection of marble and granite. On a 1914 carousel, children straddle antique hand-painted horses, striving for the brass ring.

There was no brass ring for Eddie Perez. Growing up just a few miles away, in Hartford’s North End, Perez cast his eyes downward at the junkies who littered the hallways of his tenement and outward at urban decay and destruction.

One night last year, Perez returned to the North End as mayor of Hartford and stood onstage at Weaver High School, facing a crowd of students and parents assembled for a talent show. Hours earlier, the mayor had stood at the hospital bed of a 15-year-old boy fighting for his life, a bullet lodged in his right frontal lobe.

Lorenzo Morgan Rowe, a 10th-grade honors student who loved football, computers, playing Xbox, and listening to 50 Cent — and wanted to be an engineer — had been shot in a burst of gunfire the night before while walking home from a Weaver basketball game with a group of friends. Rowe, who would die two days later, wasn’t the intended victim — just a kid caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Today has not been a good day for Hartford,” said Perez, who had once been in these students’ shoes on these streets. “I was with that student and his family today at the hospital, and it was not a good thing. I would rather have been here, watching all of you show off your talent.”

In trying to create better days ahead for Hartford, Perez draws on his own unlikely journey to city hall. He sits in the regal mayor’s office and speaks of his mother, on welfare with nine children; tenements so desperate that the family moved 21 times in eight years; junkies in the hallways; riots in the streets; friends who died; brothers addicted to drugs and sent to prison; his own involvement with a gang called the Ghetto Brothers.

“I model the behavior I want [kids] to follow,” he says. “I’m an example of the reality that it can be done.”

Perez went on to find salvation in education and became a community organizer. He fought poverty and racism, slumlords and city hall. Then, in 2001, after just about everyone had given up on Hartford — one of America’s poorest cities in one of America’s richest states — Perez became the first Latino mayor in Hartford history.

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.”

Even when Perez ran with the Ghetto Brothers as a teenager, he recognized that there was more power in knowledge than in a gun. His nickname was “The Professor.”

“I was the only gang member carrying books around,” he says. The students laugh. “That’s right, guys. Carry your books and you’ll be a dangerous guy.”

In 1623, the Dutch built a trading post where Hartford stands and called it the “House of Hope.” After the Civil War, Yankee ingenuity made Hartford the richest city in America. In the summer of 1868, visitor Mark Twain (later a local resident) wrote that Hartford was the “handsomest” American city he’d ever seen.

A century later, in 1969, Eddie Alberto Perez moved to a city near anarchy. Most of the whites had fled to the suburbs. The Puerto Rican community erupted after a city firefighter was quoted as calling them “pigs.” As rioters threw Molotov cocktails at state troopers, young Eddie watched from a nearby rooftop.

Perez was the second oldest of nine children, eight of them boys. He was born in Corozal, Puerto Rico, at that time a rural village without running water or electricity. The family moved to New York when he was 8. By the time he was 12, his father was drifting out of the picture; his mother, Felicita, moved the family to Hartford, where she had two brothers who had come to Connecticut to pick tobacco and then moved into other jobs.

They lived in the slums of the North End, moving frequently. The pipes would freeze, or the city would condemn the building. Perez helped his mother raise the other kids, translated for her at his school, took care of the paperwork at the welfare office. The responsibility may have helped keep him out of trouble, which was never far away.

“Four of my brothers developed drug-dependency issues and are still struggling,” Perez says matter-of-factly. “They’ve all done time in prison, mostly for possession. We’re still very close.” Eddie grew accustomed to stepping over the bodies of junkies who had overdosed in the hallways.

“After awhile, you accept it as a way of life,” he says. “When I was in the ninth grade, I had a friend who asked me to help him shoot up, because he was too shaky to do it himself. It was pretty scary. He told me never to do that to myself.”

In the eighth grade, Perez was assigned to Room 318 at the Barnard-Brown School. “Before that, I’d been stuck in a regular class. Then an adviser said to me, ‘You belong in Room 318.’ That’s where the sharper, cooler kids were — the high achievers, the jocks, the hall monitors. That’s the first time I was challenged. If not for Room 318, I wouldn’t have graduated from high school.”

In 1973, when Perez was a sophomore at Hartford Public High, he and some pals started the Ghetto Brothers — “six cool guys who could dance.” The group grew quickly and soon had 400 members, says Perez, who emerged as the treasurer and strategist.

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.

“If we get them at the right time,” he says, “magic happens.”