Doug Hardy photo
Mayor Eddie Perez, left, Hartford Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, and I. Charles Mathews, right. (Doug Hardy photo)

With Election Day just weeks away, all five of Hartford’s mayoral challengers found it hard to pass up a chance to question Mayor Eddie Perez’s record on ethics during a mayoral debate Tuesday at the Hartford Public Library.

Political columnist Bill Curry asked Perez if the city has the tools it needs to eliminate pay-for-play politics and corruption when Perez himself is being investigated by the chief state’s attorney. Curry was referring, of course, to the no-bid contract Perez gave North End political broker Abraham Giles to manage a city-owned parking lot, and his acknowledgement in August that state investigators had searched his home following a $20,000 renovation project done by a city contractor.

Mayoral candidate and state Rep. Minnie Gonzalez was the first to stand up to challenge Perez on the question, which he fumbled the first time he was given a chance to respond. Reveling in any opportunity to criticize Perez, Gonzalez said one of the first things she would do as mayor would be to remove the power to appoint the city ethics commission from the mayor’s office. The audience of more than 100 applauded.

Doug Hardy photo
Gonzalez responds to a question. (Doug Hardy photo)

Next up was I. Charles Mathews, who received about 29 percent of the vote in September’s Democratic primary. Mathews said the city does need a strong ethics commission and, in addition, someone needs to look at all the no-bid contracts and Perez’s campaign donations from construction company executives working under city contracts, he said. “The city has a sense that this administration is corrupt,” Mathews said. “At the end of the day elections are all about trust.”

Republican J. Stan McCauley said the voting system is designed to keep elected officials in check. “Do you want a system that’s out of control? Or do you want someone who you can trust?” he asked.

Independent candidate and former mayor Thirman Milner said he agrees the city must have trust in their elected officials. He said it should also be a system that works for everyone.

Political newcomer Raul DeJesus, a Hartford police cadet who formerly worked in Perez’s office, said no single person is responsible for the perception of corruption. “Everyone does mistakes and a mistake is okay if it only effects you,” DeJesus said before turning to Perez and thanking him for admitting his mistake. Perez supporters latched onto DeJesus’ comment and started chanting “Eddie, Eddie!”

At this point in the debate Hartford Courant columnist Tom Condon, who was moderator, interrupted DeJesus to remind Perez’s supporters in the front row that “your behavior reflects on your candidate.”

After Dejesus wrapped up, Perez was allowed to respond to the mostly harsh words from his challengers. “It is about trust,” Perez said, recalling statements made by his opponents. “I’m asking you for that trust for all of my record,” he said, describing himself as someone who does not run away from his mistakes. Later on in the debate he said that as the campaign continues, his opponents are starting to sound a lot like him. McCauley debated that, saying Perez is beginning to sound just like them. McCauley accused Mathews of stealing the “trust” thing from his web site.

Toward the end of the debate Ned Lamont, who challenged U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman for his senate seat last year, showed up to get to know the candidates. “What better way to learn about the candidates than attend a good old fashion debate,” he said. Lamont has given money to several municipal candidates who supported his candidacy against Lieberman. Based on campaign records from July, Lamont gave $250 to Milner and $250 to state Rep. Art Feltman, who dropped out of the race for mayor after receiving only 13 percent of the vote.

Also in attendance Tuesday was a documentary film crew run by Jason Pollock, Michael Moore’s former personal assistant. Pollock came to Hartford this week to follow 20-year-old DeJesus’ campaign for mayor. Mr. Pollock is making a documentary about teenagers running for political office in America. He has chosen DeJesus to be one of the stars of his film.

“I have met young candidates for months now, but no one’s story is as inspiring as Raul’s. I think he has the potential to be a huge leader in this country,” Pollock said in a press release.