By Ann-Marie Adams, Staff Writer
Updated: 8:32 p.m.
HARTFORD — Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra wants a mandate.
“I need for voters to go on record and say, ‘this is your mandate,’” Segarra said softly on a June morning in the sun-lit room that sits on the second floor of the west wing in city hall. “When you fill in a mayoral vacancy, it’s definitely not the same as when you have an electoral mandate.”
So he’s running for that approval from city residents.
That quiet yet burning desire has fueled Segarra’s trajectory from a seemingly meek and “nice” mayor to a Machiavellian marvel in Hartford’s political arena.
Thirteen months ago former mayor Eddie Perez resigned after six jurors found him guilty of corruption. Segarra, who was city council president, replaced Perez. Since then, the social worker, turned prosecutor, turned self-employed lawyer has emerged as the endorsed mayoral candidate going into the city’s September primary. He is the most palatable Democratic candidate among Hartford’s elite politicos.
On Thursday at Buckeley High School’s auditorium, Segarra was primed for the spotlight. The Hartford Democratic Town Committee endorsed Segarra with 51 votes. His opponents Edwin Vargas and J. Stan McCauley received six and four votes respectively. Five Committee members abstained.
Dressed in a white shirt and crimson tie, Segarra thanked everyone and gave a special mention to Shawn Wooden, whom he maneuvered out of an enviable position as a formidable opponent. He thanked Wooden for “putting aside his political ambitions” to work in unity “for the good of the city.”
Not everyone in the party bought that, though.
“Who does that? No one that really has any ambition does that,” said Frank Barrows, a former Hartford State Senator who served from 1985-1993. “That’s the kind of nonsensical rhetoric people aren’t buying into.”
That rhetoric came from a man who in the last year has treaded lightly on Hartford’s political minefields, namely the board of education search for a new superintendent. Observers said Perez’s camp engineered the board’s brouhaha earlier this year to make the mayor look weak.
When asked about the board’s snub of his call for a national search for a new superintendent, Segarra said there’s nothing in the charter that says board members appointed by another mayor had to listen to him.
He acknowledged resistance to his leadership. Like the board, others in city hall have openly defied him. A city employee said he didn’t have to listen to Segarra because he was not an elected mayor. That man is no longer employed with the city, Segarra said.
The story illustrates other dimensions of Segarra. He was a prosecutor in the State Attorney’s Office from 1988-1989. Before that, he was a social worker at Hartford Hospital. But his political career in Hartford began when former Hartford Mayor George Athanson appointed him to the Hispanic Advisory Council shortly after Segarra’s arrival to Hartford in 1975. Segarra moved from Puerto Rico at age seven to New York. At 15, he arrived in Hartford.
The seed of Segarra’s political career was planted, perhaps, in one of his political science classes at Greater Hartford Community College, now Capital Community College. His current supporter, former deputy mayor Nicholas Carbone, taught that class. Carbone allegedly engineered Wooden’s withdrawal from the mayoral race. The pay off was an endorsed city council with three African Americans, two Hispanics, and one White, it seemed.
Carbone thinks Segarra is brilliant and speaks five languages. Actually, Segarra speaks two languages fluently, English and Spanish. He knows enough of three languages to have basic conversations: Portuguese, Italian and German.
“I make an attempt to reach out to a lot of people without being deceitful about being a polyglot (a person that speaks many languages),” Segarra said.
Learning another person’s language and culture is a sign of respect. It’s also a means to break through barriers of communication. And it’s a transferable skill Segarra uses to forge relationships with players in all quarters.
Besides that skill, he has the experience of a social worker, a prosecutor, and one year as mayor to tackle city issues stemming from poverty, inequality and social injustice, he said.
Since June, he has formed several relationships, most notably his relationship with Malloy, corporate Hartford and other “big fish.” More importantly, he laid the groundwork for an impressive endorsement and an impending victory.
His first move was key. He wrote an op-ed piece and placed it in the largest circulated paper in the state. Next, a profile in a suburban magazine portrayed him as a pleasant, openly gay mayor who would make the city safe for them.
Other moves included accepting invitations to almost every neighborhood and non-profit organization’s function, as well as hosting town hall meetings on various issues afflicting the city.
He was also selected for the governing board of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
“That’s quite impressive for a rookie mayor,” Segarra said.
Those moves have impressed many supporters. But his opponents are still unimpressed.
“The endorsement is still limited,” Vargas said. “It’s the people who will decide who the next mayor will be.”
Stan McCauley’s Campaign Manager George Milner agreed.
“This is a bunch of bullshit,” Milner said after the Hartford convention Thursday. “Come September 13, the people will speak.”
McCauley seemed resigned with the process that elevated Segarra.
“I fully expected Pedro to get the nomination. This is the machine at work. These people are responsible for the way the city is,” McCauley said. “It is what it is. The machine is so corrupt and so incestuous.”
While his adversaries advance their political agendas for a primary, Segarra continues to quietly shore up his support among neighborhood leaders and agencies to address “more pressing issues” in the city and within his political circle.
A majority of Hartford voters are not in tune with Segarra’s political circle, however. So the question the mayor will be ruminating on as Sept. 13 draws near is this: will these “more pressing issues” and “important relationships” impress voters enough to give him a mandate?
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