Story By Ken Krayeske • 9:45 AM EST
In the hallway overlooking downtown Hartford, outside ballrooms 21-23 of the Connecticut Convention Center, more than 150 people created an exciting breakfast din, mingling and networking at the MetroHartford Alliance Rising Star Breakfast, Tuesday morning, January 13, 2009.
Inside the large empty conference room, rows of empty seats sat waiting for the crowd to migrate in to hear the keynote speaker: Mayor Eddie Perez. Perez stood alone talking with Oz Griebel, chairman of the MetroHartford Alliance. Mayor Perez chewed on his fingertips, listening to Griebel. After a few minutes, Oz gave me an opening.
Mayor, I said, I missed last night's city council meeting, do you know if council voted to hire Nancy Johnson as a lobbyist?
He didn't know whether the council voted for his $13,000 a month proposal to hire a federal representative, but during the conversation, he talked as if it was a done deal.
"We've hired a lobbyist," he said.
Turns out it was a done deal. Council voted 7-1-1 - seven in favor of hiring the former Republican Congresswoman from New Britain, with one no (Luis Cotto) and one abstention (Larry Deutsch).
"There is a little thing called federal support," Perez said, noting that the city has a dike system that needs $50 million worth of fixing. "We can't do that locally."
So Perez delegated the responsibility of hiring a lobbyist and running the search process to his Chief of Staff.
"Matt Hennessey represented the Mayor's office," Perez said. Perez took Hennessey's recommendation to hire Johnson and her new firm, the Tennessee law/lobbying firm of Baker Donelson. Perez then sent it to City Council for a rubber stamp.
"I think you'll see why," Perez promised. "Many communities have lobbyists. We want to show Washington, D.C. what our priorities are on a 24/7 basis."
Our interview concluded, and the morning's program began. The schedule was packed. Griebel listed new members of the MetroHartford chamber, then he took a moment of silence for Mayor Mike.
Next, he gave an award to outgoing Hartford librarian Louise Blalock. Finally, Griebel plugged one event sponsor, the Hartford Courant, and turned the podium over for a few words from the sponsor, United HealthCare's Mike Matteo, CEO of National Accounts.
Matteo took a few too many minutes to pull the equivalent of greenwashing for the healthcare industry. He showed an in-house video praising UHC's foundation that "gives grants to families who can’t afford procedures otherwise."
Who doesn't love a Fortune 25 company that helps poor children? Or is it inappropriate to ask if corporations should profit from the pain and suffering implicit in medicine, and then pretend its community service to offer a lottery for access?
The powerful went for their blackberries when Matteo explained step one of UHC’s in-house action analysis: "Does it increase access?"
Maybe 45 million Americans, or is it 20 million – who knows the number anyways – don’t have health care. "We as a society need to advocate for everyone," Matteo said. Trust United HealthCare, he said in so many words.
Once Matteo ran out of corporate claptrap, he introduced Mayor Eddie. I know that some day, all my criticisms of El Alcalde may haunt me. But I've seen tree stumps with more charisma and better public speaking skills than Mayor Perez.
He gave the same presentation he has been giving since December about Hartford's $70 million ask to Obama, which could create 1,300 or so jobs in Hartford, and he still had to read it off the PowerPoint presentation.
"Dear President Elect Obama," Perez read from a screen that showed an image of Perez, his wife and Obama. Perez sounded like he was in a seventh grade civics class. "What better place to jump start the economy? Why not Hartford? Hartford is one of the poorest cities in the richest state in the country."
Painfully, Perez plowed through the request for $25 million for the public safety complex; $18 million for school construction; $10 million to "green" buildings; $10 million more for streetscapes; and $7 million for a jobs training program.
It seems cheaper to just give people the money than create the few jobs that Perez brought up here. Using Obama's shovel-ready language, Perez pitched like he had a direct line to Obama's transition team, as if we should expect the pork delivered on a silver-platter sometime next week.
But he doesn't have an in with the presidency. His connections in DC are so tenuous that he had to hire a lobbying firm with a washed-up Republican and nothing but the promise of a big-name Democrat to work on federal funding requests. Why?
Perez is a Lieberman guy. If all politics is local, remember Obama came to Hartford in February 2008, and Perez snubbed him? Many state Democrats willing to take a chance showed up for Obama, like John Larson, Chris Murphy, and Rosa DeLauro. But not Perez.
He missed the ride on history's wave. After the wooden Mayor completed his attempt to rally the business leaders of Hartford, Oz Griebel asked the audience for questions.
No one raised their hand. I was embarrassed for the Mayor, and for the timid room full of citizens. Maybe they just wanted to end the Mayor's presentation with some mercy. Not me. I volunteered.
Mayor, I asked, since you didn't support Obama back in February, what makes you think he is going to remember Hartford now? Some nervous giggles twittered across the room. To think for a second that Obama doesn't remember who backed him early is to be naïve about the American political process.
"I'm going to be going to Washington, D.C. for the Inauguration," Perez said. "He's made a commitment to the cities. He's been to Hartford three or four times." Reaching for a joke, Perez said maybe his wife would help him.
Griebel couldn't let the Mayor end on a downer, so he begged the Mayor to talk about public safety. It seems an issue. I have city friends whose suburban friends won't come to Hartford because they fear it like Baghdad.
Perez spun for a moment, and then the meting ended. Hartford Courant publisher Steve Carver was polite about Mayor Perez.
"I think he is right on on a lot of things," Carver said. "A strong Hartford is important to the region."
P.S. – Just for the record, I sat in the front row next to Superintendent Steven Adamowski. He promised me that he is not interviewing for any jobs, and he is not considering resigning or leaving anytime soon.