Story By Ken Krayeske • 11:30 AM EST
In full disclosure, I consider Hartford City Councilman Luis Cotto a friend. And when I walked out of the City Council meeting Tuesday night, February 3, 2009, my friend confused me.
Cotto voted his conscience and sank the attempt oust sitting council president Calixto Torres, an ally of he-who-pled-not-guilty, Mayor Eddie Perez.
I was proud of Cotto, yet I wondered why he didn't play ball and make a deal. We long for elected officials to vote their conscience, and indeed, this column stands in some small way as a record of the search for such truth in politics. Yet when they do, we wonder why they took the difficult, high road that has no immediate gain.
This tension begs the question: Can a politician vote their conscience and still be an effective representative for their constituents?
The case of Cotto, backed by the Working Families Party, will answer this query, because when Cotto was the swing vote, and so much of Mayor Perez's feeble grasp on power rode on Cotto's decision, he followed his conscience, and left Perez unharmed.
Wearing a clean white t-shirt, perhaps indicative of his ethical state of mind, Cotto waltzed into the stuffed Council chambers a few minutes late because of the traffic from the light snowfall. But he strode with confidence, and sat writing furiously during everyone else’s speeches.
At his turn, Cotto agreed that Council leadership needed to change, that the city was in trouble, but he didn't see the city emerging from trouble with this move. He refused to cast his ballot to remove Torres because the ends of fresh direction didn't match the means of a sneaky, backroom deal-making.
In rejecting the plans made by the triumvirate of Pedro Segarra, Ken Kennedy and Matt Ritter, Cotto cast a vote for a Gandhian vision of Hartford where the means are the ends. Cotto argued essentially that transparent means of self-government equal honest and forthright ends.
Cotto drew an audible gasp from the crowd when he slapped his hands on the desk after denying that he answers to voters. He pronounced that he answers only to his flesh and blood – his two children and his 13 nieces and nephews – ostensibly the future generations of Hartford.
The cynical side of me accuses Cotto of naivete in the face of big boy politics. Leopards don't change their spots. Torres can't run a council meeting, so he inspires no confidence in his ability to run the city. Forces will regroup and go after Torres again unless Torres resigns.
So why didn't Cotto wheel and deal? His constituents could've gotten something out of this. Why didn't he make any demands? He could've gotten a new playground on an empty lot for his children, their cousins and their friends.
He could've guaranteed himself a position of power. He only demanded that council behave within the bounds of an ethical society, and not castrate a man burdened by a troubled, but very powerful friend.
Cotto pleaded with Cal Torres to simply resign, to do the right thing, in the face of the majority vote of no confidence in Torres' leadership. Will Torres resign? Doubtful. I see him as too proud, too loyal and too attached to the accoutrements of power to walk away.
Council needs real leadership, and Cotto showed such leadership in rebuffing the attempt to change leadership. If Mayor Eddie Perez must resign, a Latino will be the next mayor. Of the three Latinos on Council – Torres, Segarra and Cotto - who comes out the winner?
Perhaps Cotto's call to conscience instructs us to look for leadership without seeing winners and losers. Raw political ambition combined with Martin Luther King's drum major instinct speech tells me that anyone on city council wants to be mayor. Could Cotto be that person?
Critics may say he couldn't run a coffee shop, so how could he run the city? But suppose we see him as a visionary who set up the third space that is La Paloma Sabanera and moved on to bigger challenges, like voting his conscience on city council.
Clearly, Mayor Perez's malfeasance and its shock waves test Hartford’s emotions. It seemed like Pedro Segarra, after spending the weekend fending off phone attacks from former friends, verged on tears at the end of his speech Tuesday night.
And who can blame him? Segarra has given a lot to the city, and he made it pretty clear that the $754 a month he receives as a council stipend isn't worth the aggravation. Segarra only made this move because he thought it was the right thing for the city. And he made a convincing argument.
But it's easy to imagine the backroom shenanigans that lead to Cotto's "no" vote. I'll bet one of the triumvirate, or perhaps all three, counted the votes out to Cal Torres, taking Cotto's vote for granted without telling Cotto of their plans, suspecting Cotto would go along with it. If I were Cotto, I wouldn't like that.
Or maybe they had a deal, and Cotto went back on it. If so, I can't imagine Cotto will have too many friends on Council. If there wasn't a deal, will Cotto marshal any muscle on Council in the future? Council had an opportunity to shed some of Eddie Perez's baggage and they missed it because of one man's nagging truth.
Can Cotto be effective? Or will he be viewed as a loose cannon whose word is not viable? The skeptical side of me wonders if Cotto's plea for honesty on City Council will be ignored. Mayor Perez needs an ally in Torres holding the presidency of the City Council, lest Council go to the state legislature for permission to impeach.
Council likely needs an enabling act from the state legislature to remove Perez and undo his tainted election. Councilman Matt Ritter's father Tom Ritter was a three-term Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Tom Ritter retains enough political clout to have most of Hartford’s state legislative delegation line up behind his son Matt’s council campaign announcement in 2007. My guess is that such a bill would fly in today's state house.
Torres might have gone quietly, but he was clearly insulted by Ken Kennedy's insinuation that Torres might be ensared in Perez's wrongdoing. He probably suspected that they didn’t have the six votes, and add to this the backing of the Mayor's office.
While Sarah Barr denied writing Torres' letter last Friday, and said that she often helps City Council members release information, the appearance of Mayoral assistance lingers. Torres didn't put corporation counsel John Rose, Jr. up to write a suspect, last-minute brief telling council it was illegal to remove the president without a due process hearing.
Without even reading Rose's brief, I can't think of a property or liberty interest Torres can demonstrate in his retaining the presidency which merits cross-examination of witnesses. That is one of the bells and whistles of a due process hearing that the Supreme Court doesn't often afford.
Torres' demand seems out of left field, and Cotto's WFP peer on Council, Larry Deutsch, showed very clearly why Cal needed to go. One minute, Torres said he will respect the democratic process, but ten minutes before that, he stated he would ignore any vote to remove him without a hearing.
Deutsch, who got the loudest applause of all Tuesday night, said that the council meeting was Torres' hearing. Despite the human drama that played out on Main Street Tuesday night, the real trials are yet to come for Hartford, and let's hope that the city wins with a conviction of conscience, and that yes, a politician can vote their conscience and be effective.