Sunday, September 02, 2007

Politics In The Capitol City

Some of Mayor Eddie Perez’s former supporters, notably among them Geraldine Sullivan, now running the mayoralty campaign of Democrat challenger Charles Mathews, have fallen away.

Concerning Perez’s clumsy movements in the China shop of Hartford Democratic politics, Sullivan says, “This is a reign of terror.”

Before Hartford moved from a city manager to a strong mayor form of government, the mayor, little more than a political decoration, was less terrible to factious Democrats who ran the city without ever having had to assume responsibility for their astounding stupidities.

The new strong mayor came on like gangbusters. By flexing a little political muscle, he got himself appointed chairman of the Hartford board of education. His influence was apparent in the appointments of the police chief, city council, school superintendent and housing authority. Along the way, ever in a rush, Perez stepped on some corns, kicked some shins and broke some eggs. But you can’t make an omelet, as Walter Duranty used to say, without breaking some eggs.

Before Perez, political power was shared among a crowd of people all of whom luxuriated in their irresponsibility. Perez, at least, has accepted responsibility for his triumphs and failures, and his political opponents just now are determined to hold him responsible for his shortcomings. Politics, among other things, involves stealing glory and assigning blame. Success is everyone’s child; failure is an orphan.

Perez’s most abject failure involves his inattentiveness to a sea change in the business of state politics. The change actually began with the diminishment of political parties and the rise of the politically moderate, unattached, independent politician.

Perez, when he assumed the responsibilities of his office, certainly seemed to be a party unto himself, and in this regard he does not differ substantially from other powerful Connecticut politicians who are independent from their parties.

It was Perez’s misfortune that he entered the political ring when the old-boys rules were still being methodically observed by old guard Hartford politicians like Abraham Giles. In the process of building a party around himself, Perez sought to scratch Giles back in the hope that Giles, grateful for the mayor’s generosity in throwing some political chits his way, would in turn scratch Perez’s back come election time and round up some votes for the mayor.

Of course, it didn’t – and couldn’t – work out that way. In the new politics, back scratching is looked down upon as an antique form of political corruption, and endorsements are less important than moral unction. The good you have done will lie buried with your bones if you slip up; the evil you have done will live long after you have been buried in mountains of hypercritical political stories and commentary. In the new politics, one hand does not wash the other, and good works are not redemptive.

If it were possible for Perez to reform public education to a point where a sizable majority of Hartford students graduated from high school literate and mathematically proficient and non-pregnant, years after he had shucked off his mortal coil, people would still be talking about his biscuit colored bathroom tiles. Better an incompetent saint than a competent and repentant sinner: That’s the new governing rule, and politicians had better get used to it.

It will be objected that the either/or here proposed is a false paradigm. What Hartford needs, it will be said, is a saintly, competent administrator.

It would be a miracle to find such a paragon of virtue at the helm in Hartford. In moving away from political parties towards a politics of interests, we are not moving in the direction of virtue. We are gravitating towards a Darwinian universe in which organized interests prevail over the public interest. Parties that have dominated politics in urban centers for long periods of time also move in that direction. But the answer to strong political parties cannot be a strong and unchallenged single party state or city. It is often said that two heads are better than one, even when the heads but each other. For the same reason, two parties are better than one, because they check and correct each other.

Hartford is suffering from all the disabilities of a one party town. Its single party is nothing more than anarchy of disparate interests. The ambitions of its politicians are unchecked by a healthy and real rivalry. It has no goals because it has no end in view, other than to rule. It is a government of the governors, by the governors and, indisputably, for the governors. And Mayor Perez’s biscuit colored tiles, his overtures to politically connected ward healers, and his chummy relationship with contractors doing business with the city are the least of its problems.
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