Democratic Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez began his talk with the Yale College Democrats on Wednesday by briefly outlining his life.
“As a member of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church youth group in Hartford, I was exposed to social issues in Central America. I also worked with the civil rights movement in the African-American neighborhood in Hartford,” Perez said. “Then I turned four years old.”
While Perez’s sense of humor was appreciated by the students — who met with him for dinner in Timothy Dwight College — his joke foreshadowed the impressive career Perez would share with the group.
As the first Latino mayor of a New England city, Perez — who was born in Corozal, Puerto Rico but moved to Hartford at an early age — said his path towards politics was a road less traveled.
“I didn’t come at politics the traditional way,” he said. “I got engaged early on in my life with social justice work.”
While many politicians may preach the importance of social issues in their campaign, Perez lived a life surrounded by those issues. Raised in a poverty-stricken neighborhood of Hartford, Perez quickly became active in community groups, which aimed to improve the housing and economic conditions in Hartford.
Perez spoke about the personal rewards he received from his work in promoting better public housing.
“The reason I was an organizer was I really saw the fruits of my labor,” he said. “I saw how you could take someone — either a drug addict or a single mom, anyone in need of help — and empower them and help them take the first couple of steps.”
As an activist early on, the mayor was not uninterested in politics, but he was not warm to politicians either. Nonetheless, he would soon find his dissatisfaction with the unorganized Hartford political system too overwhelming to ignore.
“I didn’t want to wonder what if,” Perez said. “I’m usually the guy who takes risk. I never went to a town committee, never wrote anyone a check. But I decided to run [for office].”
Not abandoning his activist beginnings, Perez — a major advocate for improving education with plans to raise over one billion dollars in school funding in the next few years — expressed the need for the Democratic Party to revive ties with activists and ethnic communities.
“We [Democrats] need to rebuild relations that we destroyed,” he said. “We took the Latino base for granted. Democrats need to make room for the Latino community, the African-American community, the Asian community. Democrats need to open the door and take a chance.”
John Coggin ’05, a member of the Yale College Democrats, said Perez’s background and progressive ideals appealed to the organization.
“His politics fit the College Democrats’ agenda perfectly,” Coggin said. “We’re trying to find ways to unite the activist community with the Democrats.”
Vice President of the Yale College Democrats Andrew O’Connor ’05 spoke briefly about his group’s intentions to have Mayor Perez come talk to the political group.
“This is part of a larger effort by the Dems to bring in prominent political figures who can provide our group with insight and how they got [to] where they are today,” O’Connor said. “In addition, we talked about poverty and education. These are core Democratic issues which are salient on the local, state and national level.”
Perez is currently serving his second term as mayor of Hartford.