By Ann-Marie Adams, Staff Writer
HARTFORD — This Wednesday in Hartford Superior Court Mayor Eddie Perez will begin a legal battle rife with politics, but he has reasons to smile. Seemingly relax in his sunlit office tucked in the west wing of city hall, Hartford’s first Latino mayor brims with optimism.
“I feel the love,” Perez says in the last of a two-part interview with The Hartford Guardian.
That’s because he goes where he is loved. Perez, 53, bounces from one neighborhood to the next to partake in community clean-up campaigns, to anniversary galas and to church gatherings. In addition, he can list several accomplishments since taking the helm in 2001. In 2007, Perez announced that the crime rate was reduced to the lowest level in 30 years. Last year, the city became home to a nationally recognized school, Capital Preparatory School. And overall, school district test scores have increased. Moreover, the city has a solid bond rating—all good news.
But that doesn’t put a dent in the hardened hearts of one political faction, some of whom outwardly relish the possibility that the mayor might be convicted of one or all six federal charges against him: conspiracy to commit larceny, attempt to commit larceny, bribe receiving, tampering physical evidence, accessory to tampering physical evidence and conspiracy. In this particular political pen, the mayor “is not welcome.”
“There’s no love for the mayor in this part of town,” said Thomas Armstrong, a Windsor resident and a businessman in Hartford. “Look around you; do you see anything happening up here? He doesn’t care about people up here.”
Up here, as Armstrong calls it, is the Northeast section of Hartford, which is bounded at the south by Spring Grove Cemetery at Capen and Main streets and stretches up to Keeney Park at the Windsor town line. It constitutes voting district 22, which is the poorest section of the neighborhood. Except for the bright spots of new housing on Ridgefield, Capen and Barbour streets, the area is filled with blighted buildings and many people with bleak dispositions. Only about 5 percent of residents have a college education. The poverty rate is close to 40 percent. The area has the highest unemployment rate in the city and the highest crime rate.
The palpable frustration evident in Armstrong’s voice is a part of the larger issue associated with poor sections of urban areas, an incubator for discontent. In Hartford, this discontent has been spurred by years of neglect stretching back to the 1960s, observers say.
“Anyone who walks into that meeting at Rajun Cajun can hear the frustration,” said I. Charles Matthews, chair of the Neighborhood Revitalization Zone program in the Northeast. He is talking about the African Alliance meetings. Matthews was the mayor’s political opponent in 2007.
Vanessa Williams, a small business specialist with the city’s economic development department says she hears the frustration, too.
“But I also hear it in the South End and downtown,” she says. “But they don’t have the blight that’s in the North End….You can clean up one building but that’s not going to be a benefit because of the overall development that needs to take place. The plan should be to change the overall landscape. It has to do with the bigger issue of blight.”
That blight affects businesses in the North End is evident.
What was also evident in 2007 to any reporter who would listen was the smoldering discontent. And some reporters did listen, including Jeff Cohen who broke the story of the state’s investigation of possible corruption in the mayor’s administration. Cohen is now named as a witness. Armstrong and others had vowed there would be arrests “coming soon.” Shortly afterward, state police made four arrests in 2009 for incidents that happened in 2007.
This story of discontent among a few people in the Northeast is important because at the heart of the trial is a bitter rivalry between two factions, which includes Abraham Giles. Giles is the mayor’s former rival until they paired up in the 2007 election. Giles function was to help the mayor cut into the political base in the North End. And he succeeded by cutting into a political strong hold. Perez garnered 195 votes, not far from his opponent’s 243 votes. Even as news about the state investigation swirled around him, Perez was re-elected.
The rivalry went into another gear as grumblings about the mayor not sending money to the North End reached the halls of congress. Congressman John Larson (D) responded. On frigid January morning many small business owners voiced concerns about the lack of economic development in Hartford’s Northeast section –even as economic development plans were being implemented downtown as the country moved toward the worst recession since the 1930s.
“I’m on the board of Metro Hartford Alliance board, and I see a lot of projects moving downtown, but there’s nothing moving up here,” said Yvon Alexander, owner of Uptown Vibz. Alexander was one of about 100 people who packed the backroom of Rajun Cajun for the listening session coordinated by Larson’s office.
“I’m here today because I’m hearing that there’s no money coming to the North End,” Larson says to The Hartford Guardian. He then declares: “All politics is local.”
Councilwoman rJo Winch reiterates Larson’s sentiment:
“I keep telling them they have to work with city hall. You can’t go around city hall. They need to work with the mayor,” she says.
But that’s the problem, some say. The mayor doesn’t want to work with them.
The mayor’s supporters say the problem with the Northeast is a lack of leadership. People are frustrated at so-called leaders in the community who have failed to deliver. Frustrations are also aimed at Sen. Eric Coleman, Rep. Ken Green, Rep. Marie Kirkley-Bey, Rep. Doug McCrory, Councilman Kenneth Kennedy and others. But “the buck stops at the mayor.”
“These people can’t help them with jobs. They can’t help them stop their houses from going into foreclosure. They just can’t deliver the bacon. They’re not supposed to wait for people who are struggling to survive to take the reins, they are supposed to find creative ways to make sure the neediest areas get resources,” Matthews says. “When the city applys for funds, they cite statistics from the poor areas such as Northeast, Clay Arsenal and Frog Hollow. But when the money comes in, it goes to other parts of the city,” he says.
Perez says he recognizes he will be blame for the bad, so he figures he should be credited for the good: his holistically approach to addressing the city issues with his One City, One Plan agenda. He also points to signs of development in Clay Arsenal, Upper Albany, Asylum Avenue and the $20 million being spend on the Parker Memorial Recreation Center in the Northeast. He said he has shown that he’s willing to work with anyone who has a solid plan.
“People have the right to ask for more,” he says. “[But…] politics is politics.”
James Wright had a plan and wanted more. He has been working with the mayor and has had success, he says as he stands in the newly built building on Main and Westland streets that houses the Philips Methodist Episcopal CME Church. Wright, who was honored for his 25th year as lead pastor last fall, invited the mayor, who is “a longtime friend.” Wright says he understands the frustration in the community, but if people have a good plan, the mayor “will work with them.”
“We don’t have a problem with the mayor,” Wright says.”The mayor is working with us.”
When asked how much money has been funneled into the Northeast, the mayor directs The Guardian to his staff, which has yet to furnish that information because the budget is not parceled out to different sections, they say.
Winch says she has asked for money spent on the youth programs around the city and she has yet to receive that information.
“They sent me some vague response,” she says.
Politics is who gets what, someone once said. For those who are not politically connected, they realize they’re not getting much, especially from the Comunity Development Block Grants, a federal program aimed specifically at depressed communities. Some have resigned themselves to that idea and have been fending for themselves.
Anthony Rojas, who runs the Five Corner Spanish American store at Westland and Love Lane, can be seen on certain days sweeping the street corners and sidewalks in front of his shop because “the city doesn’t send anyone to clean the streets,” he says.
“I notice that the only time they [politicians] come around is when they want something,” he says. “When we want something, they don’t come around.”
He interrupts his conversation with a reporter and serves several customers. He continues:
“Who’s going to help us? Not the mayor. He’s in court right now.”