by Jeff Cohen
Steve Harris sees a Hartford in trouble. There aren’t jobs for people in his neighborhood, there’s no economic vitality in his neighborhood, the city is facing a $40 million deficit next year, and, in April, its mayor will go on trial on corruption charges. It’s enough to make Harris – who left politics nearly a decade ago – get back in.
“Let's be realistic. When you have your political figures being arrested, it certainly doesn't bode well in terms of the image. And let me say this. You know, if Hartford goes down the tubes, the folks that don’t live in Hartford that kind of partake in what bounty we have left – they’re going to see that kind of fizzle away.”
As the city deals with its problems, the organization that has the most influence over the city’s future leadership is in the midst of a political fight. In March, the city’s Democrats will elect a new town committee – the group made up of roughly 70 people drawn from six districts throughout the city. The fight is already underway, as some are alleging that candidate paperwork was improperly completed.
But here’s why the town committee is important: in a one-party, Democratic town like Hartford, it’s the town committee that endorses candidates. Those endorsed candidates stand the best chance of winning. And two of those districts that have recently been bases of support for the mayor are facing challenges from people like Harris and Marc DiBella.
“At least in the city of Hartford, there’s always fights. But, but this one is very important, because it will determine potentially what happens two years from now. That fact is not lost on certain people, I’m sure.”
DiBella’s district, which runs from downtown to the poorer North End, is now run by Abraham Giles – the politician who, along with Perez, is accused by the state of trying to extort a city businessman. Mayor Perez didn’t want to be interviewed for this story. But between meetings at city hall Thursday, he said that town committee fights are “democracy in action” and, frankly, nothing new.
But former City Councilman John Kennelly says there’s something different about this year’s challenges.
“Why these are real dogfights is that they’re these are good candidates, making their move at a time when the leadership of those areas of the city is definitely under siege, and that there is a general feeling that this is a time for change. And that this is a time ripe for realignment.”
Keep in mind…Kennelly’s considering a run for mayor himself. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he looks at the city’s Democratic party and he sees frustration.
“It’s a sign that the culmination of the last year and a half of allegations of corruption, allegations of mismanagement, of kind of top-down management have created a real dissatisfaction with the Democratic voters.”
Rebecca Wareing is a downtown resident who is running for town committee for the first time. She voted for Perez in the last election, but she says she's looking for a little accountability. If that means a leadership change, then so be it.
“Somebody has got to take responsibility for things going the way they are, and I think there has been something of a political machine in the Hartford area and I don’t necessarily feel that everybody’s voice is well represented. It will send a message that the old ways are not acceptable anymore.”
Not everyone sees it as Wareing does. rJo Winch, a Perez supporter who is the second-ranking Democrat on the city council, says one or two districts isn’t enough to upset the current balance of power. Besides, Winch says what’s happening now is nothing more than opportunistic politicians seeing a weakened mayor… and a chance.
“When a person is down, that’s when people want to go in for the kill. It’s more personal than it is about Hartford, than it is about the residents, than it is about what the residents in the city of Hartford need."
Steve Harris agrees.
“It’s not about the mayor. This is about the survival of the city of Hartford and the people that live in it.”
That survival depends on good leadership, and, Harris says, Hartford is at a leadership crossroads.
For WNPR, I’m Jeff Cohen.