Jan. 22, 2008
By Ken Krayeske • 9:45 AM EST
City Council aide Andrea Comer listens to a visitor at City Hall, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2008.
Tongues have been wagging across the city the past few weeks about the curious hiring of Andrea Comer as council aide for newly-elected Councilman Matt Ritter.
It piqued my interest, too, so I set out to learn a bit more.
I'll start with Comer's political history. She used to work for Mayor Eddie Perez, campaigning for him in the fall of 2001, and then joining his mayoral staff. She left his office in August 2002 and claims there was no bad blood between them.
She transferred to the school system for a short period of time, exiting her job as spokeswoman when former Superintendent Tony Amato departed. Comer then went to the city's Health and Human Services Department.
In October 2005, Comer took a leave of absence from HHS to care for her father, Thomas Burton Jones. Shortly after that, she was elected in November 2005 to the Board of Education, chaired by Perez.
When Mr. Jones passed away in December 2007, Mayor Perez attended the funeral and issued a proclamation commemorating Mr. Jones' passing.
Comer has also been president of the North End African American Alliance, worked for New Haven mayor John DeStefano and before serving Ritter, she was a project manager for the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven.
And last year, she launched an ill-fated primary challenge for City Council. After she was disqualified on petition technicalities, Comer volunteered for the campaign of I. Charles Mathews in his quest to unseat Perez, and she was a vocal critic of the Mayor and his management style.
So, in the loyalty-oath climate fostered by Perez and his chief of staff Matt Hennessy, astute watchers have characterized the hiring of a former staffer turned Mayoral opponent as an overtly hostile act against Perez.
Yet while the Mayor never issued an ultimatum, Ritter acknowledged that Perez expressed reservations about hiring Andrea Comer as his council aide.
"He mentioned the Board of Education thing," Ritter said. "He did mention not only her running for Council, but that she worked against him. But he never gave me an ultimatum. We had an honest conversation and he ultimately said 'It's your decision.'"
For North End power broker and former city councilor Steve Harris, the partnering of Ritter and Comer is about good government.
Harris admits that he suggested to Ritter to hire Comer because she has a passion for all things Hartford, and her encyclopedic knowledge of the school system is a major asset.
It's not about challenging or defying Mayor Eddie Perez, Harris said, it is about building a government that works.
Perhaps, though, Ritter put a Harris ally in a political patronage position because in four years, Ritter will need the electoral support that the camp led by Harris and former City Councilman and Fire Chief John Stewart can bring.
So I questioned Ritter: Is hiring Comer the opening salvo in the Mayor's race of 2011?
"I would disagree with that," he said. "Andrea was hired because we have a great relationship. There is no message to be sent. There is no statement to be made."
Ritter and Comer said they began conversing on the campaign trail. She was working for Mathews, and Ritter said she told him, an opponent, what events to campaign at across the city.
Gestures like that led to conversations about shared policy interests like early childhood education. Then to interview candidates, Ritter enlisted former Hartford police chief Bernie Sullivan (who served as Chief of Staff to Ritter's father Thomas when the elder Ritter was Speaker of the House of Representatives).
Comer emerged as the best person for the job. Harris said Ritter was the only one who interviewed candidates for his position.
While Comer’s hiring may seem like old news now to hardcore Hartford political junkies, I only found out about it recently, around the same time I learned that former Sabanera barista Brendan Mahoney is the aide for new father Luis Cotto (congrats!), and Jennifer Cassidy, formerly Councilor Bob Painter's aide, works for James Boucher.
Down the corridor in City Hall, Sarah Barr, who kept her position as the Mayor's press maven, said that with Comer, bygones are bygones.
"We move forward," Barr said. "Everyone pulls together after the election and we move forward."
With confidence, Barr proclaimed that Comer is knowledgeable of city and school affairs and Comer will work hard for the city. After a month, "Everything is working out quite fine," Barr said.
But the tests have yet to come. Ritter promised that he and Comer would keep executive session business from the respective elective offices apart.
"If private matters arise, we simply won't discuss them," Ritter said. "We will do everything to keep them separate."
Nor does Ritter imagine that Comer's position on the Board of Ed shifts the gravity of the school system too far south on Main Street.
"The Superintendent (Steven J. Adamowski) is the final authority," Ritter said. "That's not to say the Mayor and the Council and Councilman Boucher haven't been involved. Council is not going to step into Board of Education business."
When I asked Comer how her position in City Hall would impact her role on the Board of Education, she paused.
"I don't know," she said. "I guess from one standpoint it makes me busier. But if someone comes through the council offices with an education issue, it makes access easier."
In previous columns, I have called for Mayor Perez to resign from his position as chair of the Board of Education and as chair of the School Building Committee because his assumption of those roles vests too much power in the executive office (a call which still stands).
Comer said that her case is distinguishable.
"There is a big difference when you are talking about the chief elected official of the city and a council aide," Comer argued. "I don't have the same weight of responsibility."
With that understanding, she has never seen herself as a critic of the Mayor, even after working for Mathews.
"I am an honest person. I said what I felt," Comer said. "I don't think my new position says I can't speak out. I don't think Matt would ask me not to. My job is to help Matt be the best and most effective council person he can be. Whatever gets him there, I'm going to do."
And so she echoed Barr's sentiments about everyone being unified after the election, and that hopefully, everyone has learned their lessons on this journey.