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Remembering the Mayor Mike Years

Hartford News

January 15, 2009

A special look back on eight years in the life of a city and the man who gave it hope, humour and something called the Hooker Day Parade.

They came from corporate boardrooms and they came from soup kitchens. They came from the Far Left and the Far Right; from the North End and the South End; from tough city neighborhoods and affluent suburbs.

They packed Saint Augustine’s Church on Campfield Avenue until every seat was filled and even room to stand was getting scarce. They jammed into the pews in no particular order: corporate CEO’s and car mechanics, state senators and police officers, teachers and students, TVreporters and shortorder cooks, city councilmen and dumptruck drivers, nuns and bartenders, the guy with the corner office and the guy whose office is a street corner.

They came to honor a former mayor, pay tribute to a former firefighter but mostly to say goodbye to a good friend. “Mayor Mike”Peters was laid to rest last Thursday in Cedar Hill Cemetery.

This sincere and universal outpouring of grief was a fitting end to the love affair between Mike Peters and the city of Hartford and its people. In death as in life, Mike Peters united Hartford people from all walks of life as no one else could.

The following story about the Peters administration was originally written Latasha Quinones in 2001, shortly before Peters left office. It has been updated and revised with contributions from Andy Hart and Mike McGarry.

Back when he was just “Mike”

A large part of Peters’ popularity was that people could identify with him. He seemed like an average, blue collar, Hartford guy – and in many ways he was. One of five children, he grew up on Campfield Avenue in Hartford’s South End and attended St. Augustine’s Grammar School and South Catholic High School.

In 1971 he became a firefighter for the city of Hartford, a job he held until the day he was sworn in as Mayor. He married his wife Jeanette and they raised three children.

Always a “people person,” Peters naturally drifted into city politics and became an active member of the Democratic party. But the for a long while, the political star of the family was his sister, Geraldine Sullivan, who served several terms on City Council in the 1980’s. Peters was elected to the Democratic Town Committee after a hardfought, doortodoor campaign. He also served on the Hartford Redevelopment Agency and was chairman of the Hartford Civic Center and Coliseum Commission.

But Peters first came to citywide recognition in the early 1990’s when he organized the Hooker Day Parade. Named in a tongueincheek manner after Hartford’s founder, Thomas Hooker, the parade highlighted the city’s lighter side and was a popular annual event until it was discontinued after Peters left office. It was revived this past year, primarily as a tribute to Peters after his failing health became public.

The Watershed Election of ‘93

But to understand how a guy whose biggest claim to fame until then was inventing a kooky parade wound up being elected mayor of Connecticut’s capital city, it is necessary to understand the political situation at the time Peters first rose to power.

Carrie Saxon Perry was then serving out her third term as mayor and seeking a fourth. Hartford’s Republican Party was considered by many to be a thing of the past and City Council was comprised of six Democrats of various political leanings and three members of the far-left People for Change party.

Dynamic and affable, Perry had immense personal popularity and had championed the cause of inclusion for all city residents. This policy of giving everyone a "piece of the pie" had been popular during the boom years of the 1980’s, but seemed out of touch following the economic downturn of the early ‘90’s — when the pie had shrunk dramatically. The city’s population was shrinking and Downtown was in decline. Sage Allen’s Department Store on Main Street had closed in 1990. The Civic Center Mall was beginning to deteriorate. And then, in January of 1993, the unthinkable happened. G. Fox closed its doors. The huge store that had once been the pride of the city went dark and cold. The closing of G. Fox was due to numerous economic factors that were beyond Perry’s control. But many long-time residents saw it as a sign that the Hartford was heading in the wrong direction and some sort of change was needed.

In addition, the unavoidable wear and tear of Hartford politics had taken its toll on the Perry administration (as it would on Peters eight years later). Several members of the slate Perry had swept into office in 1991 had split off from her. These opponents formed a slate of their own under the leadership of Councilwoman Henrietta Milward. Perry, in turn, formed her own slate of likeminded Democrats plus People for Change’s three candidates. In the ensuing bitterness, Peters’ candidacy was all but forgotten.

A wild and raucous Democratic convention in the summer of 1993 failed to heal the steadily widening breach in the party and, to further add to the confusion, Councilwoman Yolanda Castillo announced that she was running for mayor at the head of an allHispanic slate.

The Democratic primary in September proved to be the turning point.

On the surface, it seemed like another triumph for Perry. She herself had been the top vote-getter among the four mayoral candidates (Peters, Milward and Castillo). Results of the primary for City Council were mixed, with four Perry supporters and two opponents garnering enough votes to win the party’s six endorsements. But, in an ironic flip-flop of the political axiom “divide and conquer,” Perry had conquered and united.

For, to virtually everyone’s surprise, Peters had finished a strong second in the Mayoral primary. Now a suddenly viable candidate, all opposition to Perry gathered behind Peters.

Peters endorsed a group of candidates, known as the "A Team,”\" comprised of Perry’s two Democratic opponents who had won the endorsement and the three Republican candidates for council. The "A Team" soon gathered popular and financial support from all those who felt a return to a more middle of the road policy was the only way out of the city’s current difficulties.

Peters’ time on the campaign trail had paid off. Funny, down-to-earth and eternally upbeat about the city’s future, his personal popularity was rapidly approaching Perry’s.

In the end, Peters won the election by 6,000 votes. Of equal importance, the five members of his team also all won, giving him a majority on the city’s nine member council.

What “Mayor Mike,” as he soon became known, would do with his unlikely victory, however, remained to be seen.

The Early Years

Once in office, Peters became a fixture at virtually every ribbon-cutting, ground-breaking, community meeting and other event in the city.

Hartford realtor Dave Chozick recalled that Peters even took time out of his schedule to meet with an elderly woman and her 27 cats and talk her into moving from an unsafe building that would eventually be torn down for a new Walgreen Drug Store on the corner of Park and Washington streets.

Through these countless appearances, Peters uplifted people’s attitudes about the city and began to change its image.

Peters also played a major role in linking Hartford to the suburbs and in getting the corporate community to join in the city’s revitalization.

“You can’t pay for an education like this. It’s been a great honor to serve as the mayor. It’s the partnerships you create that make things happen,” said Peters shortly before he left office.

Firefighter Becomes Crime Fighter

Although the mayor does not have statutory power, Peters used his experience and friendly personality to lobby the federal government for money to decrease crime and improve housing.

In 1993, the year Peters was elected, a total of 18,341 crimes were committed in Hartford, including 34 murders. Gang violence was at an all-time high. Peters realized that any revitalization of the city had to begin with making it as safe as possible for residents and visitors.

“People were literally running from the city?Peters knocked on the feds and congress people’s doors to get the resources necessary to reduce crime,” said councilwoman Veronica Airey-Wilson.

During this time, then-president Bill Clinton had pledged to fight crime by enlisting 50,000 new police officers in urban areas.

Peters was concerned that while Hartford did not receive any federal funding for policing programs, nearby Manchester received $275,000. Barely one month after being sworn in as Hartford’s 64th mayor, Peters met with then-attorney general Janet Reno and succeeded in getting over $8 million to reduce gang activity.

Peters also attacked the causes of gang violence. Realizing that many teens were joining gangs because they didn’t have anything else to do, Peters created Mayor Mike’s Companies for Kids, an all volunteer, non-profit organization that matched small and medium sized companies with city youngsters ages 16-21. Peters raised $1 million and gathered 195 local businesses to donate time, equipment and $760,000 in cash to the program. Youth were exposed to career opportunities while companies enhanced public-private partnerships.

Enter John Wardlaw: The Transformation of Public Housing

Another of Hartford’s biggest problems when Peters first took office was the rapidly deteriorating condition of the city’s many public housing projects.

Fortunately, John Wardlaw, Executive Director of the Hartford Housing Authority, had a revolutionary plan to demolish many of the existing projects and replace them with more comfortable and less dense housing.

Wardlaw found Peters to be a willing and helpful ally in both obtaining funding from the federal government and in overcoming some politically-motivated opposition to the plan.

Peters and Wardlaw headed to Washington, D.C. and won a $46.5 million grant to demolish the Charter Oak Terrace housing projects and thin out others.

“You’ve got to understand,” Wardlaw said in a 2001 interview, “at that time there were a lot of industries that had an interest in seeing things remain as they were [in the public housing projects]...Mike put his political career on the line and came out strong in support of me and the transformation of public housing.”

Wardlaw’s plan became a national model. “Can you imagine what Hartford would be like today if Charter Oak, Stowe Village, Bellevue Square and places like that were still the way they used to be? I don’t think it could have been done without Mike’s help. Hartford will owe him a debt of thanks forever,” he said in 2001.

King of the City

Peters’ tireless efforts to improve Hartford, his accessibility and his obvious love for the city made him one of the most popular mayors in the city’s history. In two years he had gone from a virtual unknown to one of the most well-known and well-liked figures in the state.

He was later named “Public Official of the Year” by Governing Magazine and was profiled by nationally syndicated columnist George F. Will (a graduate of Trinity College).

In recognition of this popularity, Peters was re-elected in 1995 without opposition.

In 1997, Peters again swept to victory, this time against former councilwoman Elizabeth Horton-Sheff.

In the meantime, Peters, working with his allies on City Council, reduced taxes several years in a row.

Reduced taxes were evidence of the improving relationship between the city and its business community.

“The previous administration had a hostile environment to businesses. Peters has improved that relationship,” said councilman John B. O’Connell in 2001.

One result of this improved relationship, Airey-Wilson said, was that the business community stepped up to help improve schools by financially supporting computer training, mentoring and tutoring. Libraries were also given the boost they needed to help with renovation and modernization.

Mike Meets Adriaen and Friends

By restoring faith in Hartford, Peters helped to bring developers, corporations, institutions and the State Government into the overall revitalization of the city.

In March, 1998, Connecticut Governor John Rowland announced the State’s ambitious, $300 million plan to revitalize and rejuvenate the capital city. Dubbed the “Six Pillars of Progress,“ it included a renovated Civic Center, a highly developed waterfront, a downtown higher education center, a convention center and sports megaplex, the demolition and redevelopment of vacant buildings and the creation of downtown housing units.

Two months later, Phoenix Insurance Chairman Robert Fiondella announced plans for Adriaen’s Landing, a 1.3 billion plan to revive the riverfront in Downtown Hartford.

Plans for a new Hartford rose to dizzying heights in November, 1998, when New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft announced that he was moving his team to a new stadium that would be part of Adriaen’s Landing.

It sounded too good to be true – and it was. The Patriots deal fell through at the beginning of 1999.

A stadium was built – but in East Hartford at Rentschler Field. The massive Connecticut Convention Center was built, however, along with an adjoining hotel at Adriaen’s Landing. In a few months, the new Connecticut Science Center will open next to the hotel. Not only will it add another attraction to the Adriaen’s Landing site, but it will also connect the complex with Riverfront Plaza and the Connecticut River itself. Construction on Front Street, the retail/residential/entertainment component of Adriaen’s Landing has finally begun.

Most of the other Six Pillars were completed in the 10 years after they were announced. A new municipal garage opened on Market Street. The Civic Center Mall was demolished and the residential tower known as Hartford 21 built in its place. Several other Downtown residences have also opened up, one of which is located in the former Sage Allen Department Store. And in the Fall of 2002, the G. Fox building finally came back to life again, not as a department store but as an office building and the new home of Capital Community College.

“[The city] was in desperate need of a voice telling people that Hartford can make it through a difficult time. [Peters] was the right guy at the right time,” said Matt Fleury in 2001, when he was Director of Communications and Marketing at Capital City Economic Redevelopment Authority (CCEDA).

"Go Hartford!"

As part of his constant effort to push Hartford, Peters took up ending virtually all his speeches with the catch-phrase, “Go Hartford!”

Peters also used his salesmanship techniques in a videotape for the Greater Hartford Convention and Visitors Bureau. He successfully pitched delegates in securing Hartford as the site for the national State Games of America for 2003 and 2005.

“Peters was always a positive voice for Hartford’s local residents, as well as to the people we pitched outside of Connecticut. He was willing to accompany our sales staff to get a group to visit Hartford and welcomed them once they arrived,” said Scott Phelps, President of the Greater Hartford Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Peters continued to support community-business partnerships in what would be his fourth and last term. He had won re-election in 1999 against virtually no opposition. By that time, Hartford had seen a major drop in crime since 1994, partly due to a declining population, but also because of Peters’ efforts to fight crime.

While Adriaen’s Landing and other major projects had focused attention on Downtown, revitalization was also proceeding apace in the city’s neighborhoods.

In the fall of 1999, Peters and others officially opened the Learning Corridor. Located on 14 acres of land in the Frog Hollow/Barry Square neighborhood, adjacent to Trinity College, the Learning Corridor houses an interdistrict public Montessori elementary school, a middle school, a science, math and technology school and the existing Greater Hartford Academy of Arts. Child and family support services are also available as part of a community-based urban renewal strategy.

The Learning Corridor is supported by the state, city and federal governments, corporations, foundations, local residents and community organizations. Its creation was spear-headed by Trinity College along with its partners in the Southside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance (SINA): Hartford Hospital, Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, the Institute of Living and Connecticut Public Television and Radio.

“It’s about teamwork,” said Peters in 2001, referring back to a theme that had been a major part of his administration since the beginning. As one of his 1993 campaign brochures read: “Leadership is the art of convincing people with different strengths, agendas and backgrounds to give their best for a common good.”

Peters is credited with helping to get numerous other projects off the ground, including the presidential debate in 1996, the Fleet/Burgdorf Health Clinic, MetroHartford Millennium Project, the Hartford Public Library Expansion and the renovation of the Colt complex.

In his fourth term, Peters also tried to get Hartford’s 1967 charter changed in a reform that would give the city a strong-mayor form of government. It failed in a city-wide referendum in December, 2000. Charter Reform was finally approved in 2002.

Life After City Hall

In 2001, Peters announced that he would not be seeking a fifth term but he retained the nickname “Mayor Mike” by common consent.

After 22 years as a firefighter and eight years as mayor, Peters did slow down a bit for a while, but was back in the news again in 2004 when he and his family opened up Mayor Mike’s Restaurant on Asylum Street in Downtown Hartford. While Peters’ son Chris handles the day-to-day operations of the eatery, Peters was a familiar sight at the restaurant.

Peters also served as an unofficial ambassador for Hartford, working with the Greater Hartford Convention &Visitors Bureau and the MetroHartford Chamber of Commerce.

Peters had supported Mayor Eddie Perez in both the 2001 and 2003 elections, but in the 2007 campaign, he openly supported one of Perez’s main opponents, former Deputy Mayor I. Charles Mathews.

It was to be his last campaign. In the fall of last year, Peters’ failing health became public when the Hartford Courant reported that he needed a liver transplant due to cirrhosis. The transplant was completed successfully on October 7, but his health continued to deteriorate. Peters passed away on the evening of Sunday, January 5, 2009, surrounded by his family.

Flags were flown at half staff all over the city. The firehouse were he worked at the corner of Fairfield Avenue and New Britain Avenue will be named in his honor. A craftsman will etch his name in stone over the firehouse door, so that he’ll be remembered by generations to come.

But for the many of us who had the fortune to know the man, his sincerity, his humor, his hard work and his dedication to the city he loved will forever be etched in our hearts.

So long, Mike, and Go Hartford!

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