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I. Charles: Past and Present

July 18 - 25, 2007
By The Hartford News

I. Charles Mathews has his own Sept. 11.

On Sept. 11, 1991, his political career crashed when the nominated Democratic Town Committee City Council slate he led as Deputy Mayor with mayoral candidate Robert Jackson suffered an electoral defeat at the hands of petitioning-candidate Mayor Carrie Saxon-Perry and her untested council team.

Mathews himself finished 11 out of 12 candidates in primary voting. It was a tough day for a man the New York Times once suggested might run for Congress.

But it was a different Hartford then. About 140,000 people lived there, and the deputy mayor ran the city under the council-manager form of government.

Now 16 years later, Hartford has about 127,000 people, and a strong mayor. Is I. Charles the man for that position?

A look at about 18 stories from the Hartford Courant (written by six different writers – oh for a fully funded newsroom!) and a few from the New York Times, ranging from 1985 to 1992, paint a picture of I. Charles and how he operates in a political landscape.

In a story on Sept. 13, 1991, Courant writer Anita Seline covered Mathews’ defeat. She quoted I. Charles: “You grow weary of people calling you names in 28 different languages. It's like a cross has been lifted from me.”

He may have been speaking literally. At about 8 a.m. June 13, 1991, I. Charles shed blood when a man named Enrique Ayala pummeled him with a three-foot pipe as he walked into a Bloomfield radio station.

Mathews postulated a political motivation in the assault, but didn’t speculate who ordered the hit in a Feb. 12, 1992 Courant story by Jack Ewing.

The bruising 1991 primary reminded old timers of past campaigns, according to Rick Green’s July 28, 1991 piece in the Courant. “There's a sense of Democratic deja vu in Hartford politics these days, as party members prepare to face off in a divisive Sept. 11 primary,” Green wrote.

“Democratic Mayor Carrie Saxon Perry's challenge to the party status quo is strikingly similar to events in 1979 and 1985, when the Democratic leadership faced primary battles,” Green wrote.

In 1979, the people’s candidate George Athanson sunk the titanic Deputy Mayor Nick Carbone. Last year, Carbone worked hand-in-hand with Minnie Gonzalez for Ned Lamont, and Carbone is likely backing her for Mayor.

Green quoted former Mayor Thirman Milner as faulting I. Charles and the council-manager system for the animosity in 1991. Milner backed Perry. Now a declared (deluded) independent candidate for November, I’ll deduce he doesn’t fancy Mathews.

In 1985, Councilman Francisco Borges put together a renegade council slate – “Democrats for a New Direction” – with Mathews and John Fonfara, when union boss/council leader Al “Malaprop” Marotta nicked Mathews off the ticket.

The beef? Mathews’ corporate job kept him from attending daytime budget meetings.

Malaprop’s machine assailed the Borges-Matthews partnership on the radio and in the mail for “their support of commercial development of the city's downtown business district and accepting campaign contributions from developers,” according to a New York Times story from Sept. 8, 1985 written by Pete Mobilia, now the PR director at St. Francis Hospital.

“Mr. Mathews said he believed his style as chairman of the City Council's Operations, Management and Budget Committee, and his opposition to a tax increase, led to his rejection by the Town Committee,” Mobilia wrote.

Mathews’ fiscal conservatives lost the primary. So, then, what exactly was Mathews’ management style? It was good enough for the New York Times to speculate in October 1989 that he could run for Congress in 1990.

A Tom Condon column from July 28, 1991 offers this insight: “[Matthews’] critics charge he uses power dictatorially, for the benefit of some neighborhoods over others. ‘Everything's for the West End and Blue Hills. The South End doesn't exist,’ said a South End pol who asked not to be named.

“In trying to balance the citywide ticket, Mathews is criticized by some, such as state Rep. John W. Fonfara, for naming the South End council candidates,” Condon continued, and his further observations merit a wholesale quote:

“The primary will be a genuine test for Mathews. I like Mathews; he is tough, honest, smart and hard-working. He's in a difficult position; he has to lead, yet share power. It isn't easy, and again it's partly the system.

“Fonfara said Mathews understands some problems philosophically, but doesn't translate the understanding into action. For example, Fonfara said, Mathews understands the importance of keeping a middle class in the city. But, Fonfara said, that understanding hasn't motivated the city's licenses and inspections department to aggressively stop housing decay and deterioration.

“Mathews will disagree and point to such things as conservative fiscal control, which has middle-class appeal,” Condon wrote.

Yet Condon offered a solution. He called regularly for a charter revision to create a strong mayor and a council elected by neighborhood districts. We got half of that, and Condon got shuffled off to cover sprawl.

On Sept. 13, 1991, then-Courant columnist Don Noel attributed Mathews’ loss to his “brusqueness – some call it arrogance” that negatived Perry’s “Have a Mellow Day!” campaign.

Noel’s wife, Elizabeth Brad Noel, currently sits on the school board and supports Perez. It must be noted that Noel contributed to the Free Kenny Defense Fund earlier this year.

Post 9/11/91, Noel rhapsodized: “Governing in hard times demands hard choices, Deputy Mayor I. Charles Mathews told more than one Hartford resident who criticized a City Council decision. He had to make hard decisions on how to vote every week, he liked to say; if his votes proved unpopular, ‘You get your vote in November.’”

Perry’s campaign focus, Noel said, “was that leaders should listen to the people, reach out to neighborhoods and let the people participate in hard choices.” Sounds more genuine than Mayor Eddie Perez’s “I’m listening” approach.

Perry chastised Mathews for embracing business, pointing a the privatization scheme cooked up by I. Charles and then-City Manager Gene Shipman.

As part of a massive budget cut to keep taxes low, Mathews and Shipman pared jobs in Parks and Recreation and at the last minute, farmed the summer youth programming work out to businesses, and many children didn’t receive services that year.

The capitalist criticism may still stand, as an I. Charles press release from March 2007 embraces good relationships with business, and slaps Perez for failing to prevent MetLife from leaving the city. The final graph of the press release mentions “corporate” twice.

“An experienced and respected corporate attorney, I. Charles Mathews has worked for Quaker Oats and United Technologies,” it said. “He has spent decades helping corporate and governmental businesses strengthen their capacity by finding common ground. As Mayor, he’ll use those skills to bring all Hartford’s stakeholders to the table.”

At least he’s selling inclusion, whereas in ‘91, Perry complained that Mathews excluded her from vital policy deliberations. I. Charles, in turn, railed on Perry for being too liberal.

After her victory, Perry tried to aggregate power and foster a strong mayor climate in a weak mayor system.

"Leadership should be allowed to flourish," Perry said in a Sept. 16, 1991 Courant story by Debra Adams. "What was crippling was that two or three people thought they had it all. The city of Hartford needs a leadership style that's inclusive."

That critique transcends administrations. And Mathews’ influence reverberated, too.

In December 1991, the City Council ditched Shipman. The Courant editorial board derided the move, saying 16 months wasn’t enough time for Shipman to impact the dysfunction.

Mathews helped bring Shipman from Kansas City after a public works’ scandal that featured stolen city goods in the homes of a state representative and the previous city manager, John Burke.

Burke resigned after affidavits accused him of having hot city property at his abode. A Courant story by Mary Otto on Aug. 29, 1991 explored the charges that Perry was soft on corruption.

“A severance package for Burke worth more than $30,000 was signed by Perry's political rival, Deputy Mayor I. Charles Mathews, after the criminal investigation began. But Mathews was rebuked and the payment withdrawn. Burke finally received about $44,000 in unpaid sick leave, vacation and holiday time from the city.”

Mathews seemingly was vindicated there. Yet once Mathews lost his job, so did Shipman, even though Mathews’ ally, then-Council Major¬ity Leader Geraldine P. Sullivan, wanted Shipman to stay.

Sullivan today lines up behind Mathews, as does her brother, Mayor Mike, although they have disagreed on issues before. Stan Simpson seemed to think back in June that Mayor Mike’s endorsement was enough to topple Eddie.

Others claim these age-old criticisms of Mathews are irrelevant because Perez is so bad, which sounds like the anybody-but-Bush mantra.

Others say if I. Charles wins, the city will trade one bully for another. I’m not sure. I want to vote for a candidate I respect and think is the best man for the job, and I’m still looking.

Reprinted with permission of the The Hartford News.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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