Facing Charges, Can Eddie Perez Still Run Hartford?

"We're going to lead together," Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez said when asked if he would cede any duties to council members. (PATRICK RAYCRAFT)

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.