The Mayor As Showman: Putting personal popularity to work to bring a city back from the brink
Michael P. Peters
Mayor, Hartford, Connecticut
It would be a stretch to say that Hartford, Connecticut, has turned its ailing economy around. It would even be a stretch to say that it is safely on its way to doing so. Poverty and joblessness, abandoned housing and neighborhood distress are still too prevalent throughout Connecticut's capital to boast of certain rejuvenation.
But the city's disposition is something else again. Over the past few years, its spirit and sense of confidence have undergone a striking revival. City government, Hartford's residents, its neighborhood groups, its business leaders and, most notably, its suburban neighbors--all have been overtaken by an almost buoyant belief that reversing the city's decline is possible.
The man responsible for this mood swing is Mike Peters, Hartford's mayor. Part fixer, part showman and part civic conscience, Peters was elected in 1993 at a time when it appeared Hartford was destined to lose itself in the civic chaos and community indifference that are the hallmarks of cities going down the tubes. The city hated the suburbs, the suburbs despised the city, the neighborhoods resented the business community, the business community ignored the neighborhoods--and everyone vilified City Hall.
In the years since Peters took over, though, Hartford has begun to gather its forces. Peters has little formal power as mayor: The city council, on which he doesn't even have a vote, sets policy, while the city manager oversees the operations of government. But Peters' immense popularity has given him great sway, if not outright control, over city government. Together, he and the city council have cut the budget every year since he took office; they have tried to drive hard bargains with Hartford's public employee unions; and they have tackled head-on Hartford's role as a regional social-service reserve by preventing the siting of new facilities in residential neighborhoods.
Even more notable, however, has been Peters' success at persuading many of the people who have a piece of Hartford's fate in their hands to feel obliged to do something constructive with it. He is a genuinely funny man, with a homespun, up-from-the-streets charm and dynamism that have given him the ear of everyone from the city's black leadership and neighborhood groups to insurance conglomerate CEOs and suburban bluebloods.
This has yielded tangible accomplishments. The business community has stepped up to fill in funding gaps on youth programs and summer jobs, and to work with the city in crafting some job programs for welfare recipients. Suburban politicians have not only lent their resources--detailing road crews, for instance, to help Hartford fill its potholes--but have helped the city try to boost its state funding and have rallied around its efforts to keep the National Hockey League Whalers in the city. Perhaps most important, suburbanites no longer view Hartford as an alien landscape to be avoided at all costs. "When people are talking good about the city they live in," Peters says, "people on the outside hear about it. Good things start to happen."
It has become commonplace to say that city governments cannot tackle urban problems alone, that salvation lies in communal effort. This is, however, difficult to organize in the best of circumstances; it is near impossible when the city ranks among the poorest in the country. If Hartford under Mike Peters has yet to boast a new set of downtown monuments, a la Cleveland, or a major infusion of corporate largesse, a la Detroit, it may have something equally valuable as it continues to struggle against great odds: a model of political leadership that puts a premium on mustering the good will and energy of its citizens and neighbors.
— Rob Gurwitt
Photo by Peter Glass