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Anguish, Anger In City Over Perez

Vanessa De La Torre, Christine Dempsey, and Hilda Muņoz

June 19, 2010

This crowded, busy stretch of the city works. It breathes with life and commerce. And Elizabeth Romani, who lives on Park Street, knows exactly whom to thank: Mayor Eddie A. Perez.

"He put the bricks on the sidewalk. He put the trash bins out here," Romani, 38, said Friday when told that a jury had just found the mayor guilty of five felony corruption charges.

More trees have been planted on her street, Romani continued. "We have more police protection now. More police officers who walk the beat."

It could be said that Perez's political career started on Park Street, often called the heart of the state's Latino population. And it also could be said that his political career ended here. His months-long criminal trial was launched by his relationship with contractor Carlos Costa, who, in 2003, won the bidding for the $5 million Park Street streetscape project.

But some Park Street residents - and people elsewhere in the capital city - had a more complicated reaction to the news of Perez's conviction.

Jose Correa, 38, a street vendor, stood near the corner of Park and Lafayette streets. "He didn't steal anything," Correa said of Perez, although a passer-by couldn't accept that reaction. "He was using our tax money to take care of his house!" shouted the man, who asked not to be identified.

Correa went on: "People in power do anything they want until they get caught."

Has Correa voted for Perez? "Of course," he said, "Like I said, everything is fine until you get caught."

Hartford resident Jonas Cage, 72, was sitting on a low brick wall in front of Walgreens in the Park Street area when he heard the verdict.

"Oh, he did something like [former Gov. John G.] Rowland," Cage said. "When you do something wrong like that, you deserve to be punished, especially since he's the mayor. If I did that, he'd punish me."

But Cage soon grew less critical. "Everybody makes mistakes in this world, and I hope he learns some lessons from this," he said. "I hope he turns out all right."

Armando Soto, 62, was very animated. "Perez is a good guy!" Soto said, "The people are jealous because he is Spanish."

Stephanie Comer, 23, couldn't agree less with Soto. "Good, I'm glad," she said when told of the verdict.

Comer sat outside the Hartford Public Library, next door to Hartford City Hall on Main Street. Perez refused to help her when she was homeless and sick with bronchitis, Comer said, adding that the mayor literally closed the door on her when she went to his office for help.

Politicians "forget where they came from," Comer said.

Hernan LaFontaine, a former superintendent of Hartford schools, was the only person who showed up at Sacred Heart Church for a tentatively scheduled prayer service that never happened.

"I say in my heart that he is innocent," LaFontaine said of the mayor. "He never looked for favors, for special deals."

"I'm devastated. I personally think it's a horrible miscarriage of justice," he said, arguing that the prosecution had twisted the facts to make it look as if Perez were guilty.

But Tichina Marshall of Sigourney Street said that she "wasn't too surprised" at the verdict. She said that the evidence against Perez was compelling.

"I think it kind of gives Hartford a bad reputation," she said.

Jason Polayes, of Middletown, who works at The Travelers in Hartford, also said the verdict didn't surprise him.

"I don't put anything past anyone," he said as he walked past city hall. "This certainly isn't the first political person or elected official to take advantage of something."

Polayes said he had met Perez.

"He's an engaging speaker," Polayes said. "I thought he was trying to do well."

New Britain resident Crystal Cole, 29, was visiting a relative in Hartford when she heard of the verdict.

Perez "knew what he was doing," she said. "He's got all these people thinking he's a good person, and, you know, he's not."

But Elizaette Lopez, 19, was more in the Elizabeth Romani school of thought about Perez: "I don't think he's a bad man," Lopez said, and pointed to Park Street, which she described as "a little bit cleaner now. Not like before."

In fact, Elizabeth Romani argued Friday that Perez shouldn't be punished.

"I think he deserves a lot more credit than reprimand," Romani said. "It's really hard to run a city like this."

Meanwhile, two friends, Jaiden Figueroa, 25, and Alex Roman, 22, were walking down Park Street on Friday afternoon.

Perez's conviction "makes our city look bad," Figueroa said.

Roman quickly agreed. Perez "was supposed to show an example for us, for Latinos," the younger man said. "He did for a very long time."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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