Eddie Alberto Pérez: 1957—: Political Leader Biography
In his first run for political office in 2001, Eddie Pérez made history as the first Hispanic–American to become mayor of a New England capital. A native of Puerto Rico, longtime Hartford, Connecticut resident Pérez also broke new political ground by forging a bipartisan coalition of community activists and corporate leaders that contributed to his landslide victory. Elected on a platform of administrative reform, educational improvement, and housing development, Pérez received seventy-five percent of the vote on election day. While he was helped by a $200,000 war chest in the election—the largest campaign fund in Hartford's history—Pérez credited grassroots support for giving him the victory. He also pointed to the reinvigorated sense of citizenship that his campaign had generated in Hartford's Hispanic community. "There was no sense of building social, economic, and cultural capital as Americans,"he told the New York Times shortly after his election, "We have to begin to rebuild that foundation."
Eddie Alberto Pérez was born in 1957 in Corozal, Puerto Rico, where he spent most of his childhood. In 1969 the Pérez family moved to Hartford, Connecticut, which had a growing number of Puerto Rican immigrants already living there. Puerto Ricans had first come to central Connecticut in significant numbers in the 1940s to work in the region's tobacco fields. Although many continued to work as seasonal agricultural help in the state, by the late 1960s many had settled permanently in Hartford, Waterbury, Bridgeport, and other cities throughout New England.
After their arrival, young Pérez, his mother, Felicita, and his two brothers, Nelson and Noel, settled into Hartford's north side. With a large Hispanic population, the life of the neighborhood was centered around the Roman Catholic Sacred Heart Parish. As a low—income area, however, Hartford's north side also had a reputation for being a tough and sometimes, dangerous place to live. Although he stayed out of trouble, the future mayor had some experience with the tougher side of the streets. As Pérez recalled in an interview with El Extra News, "My involvement with the youth gang the Ghetto Brothers responded in those times to a search for a peer group and personal protection in areas where there was a lot of violence. In those times the hold on drug trafficking by the gangs was minimal and in my case, my participation responded more to the sense of control and territorial security, and I gained a sense of belonging."
After graduating from Hartford Public High School, Pérez worked in the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program, part of a local community development effort sponsored by the federal government. His work with VISTA in 1978 marked the beginning of Pérez's more than twenty years in the non—profit sector before running for public office. After completing his term at VISTA, Pérez helped to found Organized Northeasterners/Clay Hill and North End (ONE/CHANE), a non–profit group that worked in the areas of housing development, community organizing, job training, and youth activities. He remained with ONE/CHANE for the next decade and retained the title of director. Based in Pérez's familiar north side neighborhood, ONE/CHANE gave the young activist the chance to develop his organizing, development, and community building skills while he completed his associate's degree at Hartford's Capital Community College.
In the late 1980s Pérez joined the Make Something Happen (MASH) project sponsored by the Urban League of Greater Hartford and the Connecticut Puerto Rican Forum. He stayed with MASH, a welfare-to-work program, for two years before taking a position with Trinity College around 1990. In the next decade, Pérez took on the role of associate vice president for community and government relations for the college while he chaired a non;profit group affiliated with Trinity, the Southside Institutions Neighborhood Association (SINA). Pérez also earned his B.A. in economics from Trinity College in 1996.
Pérez's work as an administrator made him the college's liason between the campus and the surrounding community. As the area around Trinity College deteriorated, however, the challenge to integrate the campus into the community seemed daunting. With the arrival of new president Evan Dobelle in 1995, Trinity College committed itself to a massive new program of community development to serve its Hartford neighborhood. Using SINA as its lead agency, Pérez, Do-belle, and the college put together a collaborative effort among local community development corporations (CDCs) and corporate sponsors, drawn largely from Hartford's major employers in the insurance and health care industries. Pooling their ideas and resources, the group envisioned a 16-acre Learning Corridor that would encompass four new public schools, recreational centers for children and families, and space for other public arts and recreation projects.
In addition to its focus on education, the SINA project also attempted to increase home ownership in the community by arranging federally subsidized down payments and lower interest rates. Working with the Hartford Areas Rally Together (HART) CDC, SINA also sponsored job training, housing redevelopment, and community policing efforts. By the time SINA's efforts came to fruition after six years of hard work, it was hailed as one of the most innovative and comprehensive urban renewal projects in the nation. Yet Pérez did not forget the challenges that SINA faced from the beginning. As he told U.S. News and World Report, "I've been part of the war for the last thirty years. And it is war." Early in 2001 Hartford Mayor Michael P. Peters announced that he would not seek another term in office. Pérez had been encouraged to run for a seat on Hartford's City Council in the past, and he once again declined the opportunity to enter the political arena. Eventually, however, Pérez decided that he stood a good chance of being elected to office. Although Hartford's Hispanic population was only about forty percent of the total, he quickly demonstrated his appeal beyond mere ethnic lines as he amassed a $200,000 campaign fund drawn mostly from Pérez's long standing contacts with the city's corporate leaders.
As a Democratic candidate, Pérez breezed through the primary with over seventy percent of the vote. During the final weeks of the campaign, Pérez pledged to follow a platform of housing redevelopment, educational initiatives, and administrative reform. To Pérez, each of these areas would play a crucial role in the city's future. As Hartford had lost about thirteen percent of its population between 1990 and 2000, Pérez believed that reviving the city's residential neighborhoods was the first step in ensuring its stability. He thus pledged to increase home ownership in Hartford by thirty percent in five years. Next, Pérez pointed to the success of the Learning Corridor in making Hartford an attractive place to raise a family. To encourage more families to move back from the suburbs, strengthening the city's public school system was a necessity. Finally, Pérez hoped to change the city's charter to give more power to the mayor's office. Because the city was run on a city council-manager plan, the mayor's post was something of a ceremonial one without any real political power to see projects through to completion.
Pérez made headlines as the first Hispanic mayor elected to lead a New England capital. He continued to forge new ground by shaking up Hartford's political establishment after taking office. In a showdown with the Democratic Party leadership on city council in his first months in office, the new mayor insisted upon appointing his own choices to the offices of deputy mayor and council majority leader. Crossing party lines for his new appointees, Pérez demonstrated that he would not be bound by tradition in carrying out his duties. As Pérez, the father of two with his wife, María, told the Puerto Rico Herald on election night, "It's a new beginning for my family. A new beginning for Hartford."
El Extra News, December 2001.
Hartford Courant, December 2, 2001.
New York Times, November 18, 2001.
Planning, April 2000.
U.S. News and World Report, April 2, 2001.
Puerto Rico Herald, November 7, 2001, http://www.puertorico-herald.org/issues/2001/vol5n45/SenorAlcalde-en.shtml
City of Hartford Web Site, http://www.ci.hartford.ct.us/government/mayor
Trinity College Web Site, http://www.trincoll.edu/depts/tcn/Community_Organizations/1chane.htm
American Planning Association Web Site, April 2000, http://www.planning.org/planningpractice/2000/apr200.htm