It was the summer of 1998, and the bad news kept rolling in for Mayor John DeStefano Jr.
As New Haven looked on and the local press had a field day, allegations surfaced of an improper loan to the mayor’s executive assistant. Over $2 million in city-designated funds that had gone to a community organization could not be accounted for.
Rumors of corruption and political favoritism swirled around the city. Federal agents staged a nighttime raid of City Hall.
The situation looked grim for DeStefano. One of the mayor’s critics went so far as to say the administration was unraveling.
But nearly three years later, the 45-year-old DeStefano is campaigning for a fifth two-year term. A new cast of administrators has pointed to economic progress, downtown development, decreased crime, and what it sees as an improving school system as evidence of DeStefano’s ability.
His allies hail him as one of the best administrators New Haven has ever seen.
But another group, including former DeStefano administrators, has rallied around Democratic state Sen. Martin Looney, who is by many measures the strongest challenger DeStefano has faced in any of his five re-election campaigns.
The Looney camp paints a picture of a different New Haven, one of which has missed opportunities and is struggling with patronage in City Hall. This group is openly critical of the new batch of administrators and accuses the mayor of being difficult to work with.
But both sides agree that public perception of the way New Haven and City Hall have changed during his seven-year tenure will play a major role in DeStefano’s chances for re-election.
The early years
DeStefano made his first foray into mayoral politics in 1989, when he was defeated by John Daniels in the Democratic primary. Daniels rode a much-discussed coalition of blacks and progressives to victory over DeStefano, who had served in the administration of outgoing mayor Biagio DiLieto.
Daniels struggled to improve the ailing city, and in 1993 he decided not to seek a third term. DeStefano, backed by many DiLieto allies, easily won in the ensuing election.
In the first phases of his administration, DeStefano faced severe economic difficulties, and he lobbied heavily for increased state funding.
The young mayor lead several municipal leaders from throughout Connecticut in a struggle against the administration of Republican Gov. John G. Rowland. The mayors favored a decrease in property taxes over Rowland’s proposed income tax cuts. DeStefano and others argued that high property taxes placed an undue burden on Connecticut’s urban areas.
James Horan, DeStefano’s current chief administrative officer, said the city has made yearly compromises on property tax levels with the state, but has not been able to win major reforms — although he added that the lack of a victory represented a failure by the state rather than DeStefano.
The mayor said this week that while he still believes New Haven is overburdened by property taxes, his rhetoric has been toned down by an awareness of what is realistic to expect from Rowland and others in Hartford.
He also pointed out that an improving economy has focused the city’s attention on other areas.
Over the next few years, the mayor developed his administrative skills and worked on building relationships, paving the way for easy re-elections in 1995 and 1997. Things were looking rosy.
In July 1997, the New Haven Advocate printed a series of articles under the theme “Renew Haven.” Paul Bass ’82, a liberal reporter who has often been critical of DeStefano, highlighted decreased taxes, lower crime, downtown development and improved cooperation with Yale as evidence that New Haven was on its way up.
But everything was about to change.
Summer of scandal
In June 1998, local media reported that Andrea Jackson-Brooks, DeStefano’s executive assistant, had received a controversial loan from the Livable City Initiative, the mayor’s highly touted anti-blight program.
The zero-interest loan of $58,750, half of which would be forgiven after 10 years, was intended for lead-paint removal on Jackson-Brooks’s house.
Many questioned the appropriateness of granting such a loan to a member of DeStefano’s inner circle who was earning $74,000 a year. The revelation that $2.3 million of city-designated funds that went to the Community Housing Corporation were unaccounted for raised further questions — especially when some of that money was determined to be in escrow accounts controlled by the law firm of Democratic Party Chairman Ed Marcus.
On June 24 of that year, agents from the U.S. Attorney’s office entered City Hall and seized documents related to the city’s loan practices.
The raid, footage of which was played repeatedly on local television stations, highlighted the embarrassment and scandal with which the administration was consumed.
The scandal quickly overshadowed any improvements DeStefano had made in New Haven since he took office, as the media reported other potentially controversial loans to city employees and their families, and critics alleged widespread corruption.
Merle Berke-Schlessel, who resigned as LCI director in 1996 after only six months on the job, said she thought some agencies working with LCI were misappropriating funds. She said that she warned the mayor, but that her warnings went unheeded.
When the scandal erupted, DeStefano and many of his allies denied widespread corruption, first emphasizing the LCI loan was problematic only in perception.
But eventually, the besieged mayor took action. Several weeks later, he fired Jackson-Brooks, LCI director Frank Alvarado and Corporation Counsel Patricia Cofrancesco, who had signed off on the loan.
New faces. Clean slate?
An FBI investigation of the city’s loan practices produced no indictments, but the aura of scandal lingered.
In an effort to rebuild his administration and to distance himself from the old guard associated with patronage and corruption, DeStefano brought in several new administrators, many from outside New Haven.
DeStefano hired Henry Fernandez LAW ’94, who was working at the Yale Law School, to pick up the pieces at LCI as the agency’s new director. Last year, the Poughkeepsie, N.Y., native became the city’s chief economic development administrator.
Horan, who had come to New Haven from Hartford a year earlier to be DeStefano’s legislative liaison, replaced Jackson-Brooks as executive assistant, and is now chief administrative officer.
And Thayer Baldwin Jr., who was not new to the city but was a newcomer to the DeStefano administration, replaced Cofrancesco as corporation counsel.
This week, Fernandez was quick to praise the team assembled by DeStefano over the past three years.
“The mayor has continued to bring in top-notch administrators at many levels of government,” Fernandez said. “This administration has aggressively fought against corruption, and has put in place professionals who were hired because of their creativity and intelligence, and not for any other reason.”
DeStefano said he did not think the LCI scandal showed a pattern of corruption, but he said the episode made him realize that he should bring in people who were less personally involved with him, and less involved with the politics of the city.
“At a certain level there was too much familiarity,” DeStefano said. “The politics should exist to serve the governance. The governance should not exist to serve the politics.”
But not everybody in the city was as excited about the new team of administrators, especially because many of them hailed from outside New Haven.
“You certainly first have to reward the people in the city who want jobs,” said Alderman Robin Kroogman, who said she had not decided who she will support in the mayoral election, but who has been highly critical of DeStefano. “With all due respect, just because you went to Yale or Harvard or a great school, that doesn’t mean you are the best person for a job.”
Kroogman said the job performance of Fernandez in particular was hurt by his lack of knowledge of New Haven.
Many of DeStefano’s critics question the amount of actual reform that has been made since the new team was brought in. They disagree that the mayor has distanced himself from the city’s corrupt elements, saying the firing of three people does not clean up an administration.
“When we talk about corruption, it’s pervasive throughout the administration,” said Jason Bartlett, Looney’s campaign manager. “There are no clear guidelines. There’s no real ethics ordinances, no real ethics commission.”
Alderman Vincent Mauro Jr., a Looney supporter, echoed Bartlett’s sentiments.
“We should be holding ourselves to the strictest standard possible,” Mauro said. “I think there are times when setting the bar is not a top priority in terms of ethics for this administration.”
But Horan defended the mayor’s record.
“He has addressed actual problems and certainly problems of perception that existed from an earlier time in the administration, but he has always held himself and his workers to a very high standard,” Horan said.
Old faces resurface
As the new-look DeStefano administration campaigns for re-election, Cofrancesco and Jackson-Brooks, along with other former City Hall staffers, are supporting Looney.
Both Cofrancesco, now with a private law practice, and Jackson-Brooks, now an alderman, declined to comment for this article, but Mauro said the two were unfairly treated in 1998.
“They were forced out. I don’t think anyone was proven guilty in any way,” Mauro said. “Those two people have dedicated a long time to this city, and I know them both to be extremely dedicated, good people.”
Cofrancesco has said in the past that she was a scapegoat, and Kroogman agreed.
“If Patty signed off on something that a staffer gave her, is that any different than the mayor signing off on something Patty gave him?” Kroogman asked.
Ward 1 Alderman Julio Gonzalez ’99, a member of the DeStefano campaign, said the support of former administrators could be damaging to Looney.
“It’s hard for Looney to distinguish himself as a different kind of politician when he’s surrounding himself with people who are not in it for him, but to get back at the mayor for perceived blights,” Gonzalez said.
Bartlett said the Looney campaign should not be attacked for drawing support from people who have been accused of corruption, primarily because the campaign should focus on the candidates themselves.
He added that Looney has a cleaner ethical record than DeStefano.
Looney’s campaign chairman, Vanessa Burns, was the city’s public works chief under the Daniels administration before leaving a few months into DeStefano’s first term. She disagreed with Gonzalez’s characterization of Looney’s supporters as people with vendettas against the mayor.
She said Looney’s supporters simply care about the city and feel it is not going in the right direction.
Gonzalez said he thought the mayor is gathering a coalition similar to the collection of blacks and progressives who supported Daniels in 1989, although he added that he expected DeStefano to receive support from a broad range of groups.
But Burns, Kroogman, and Douglas Rae, a Yale professor who served as chief administrative officer during the Daniels administration, disagreed. All three were allies of Daniels and are now backing Looney.
Looney had a different way of describing DeStefano supporters.
“The mayor’s campaign will primarily consist of people who have some sort of patronage ties to the city,” he said.
Personality and progress
Throughout the campaign, Looney has criticized DeStefano for having an abrasive personality and an inability to develop critical relationships.
“His approach is to blow up bridges rather than destroy them,” Looney said.
Burns said the mayor has a desire to control everything that happens in City Hall, but DeStefano disagreed.
“If you look at the people on my staff, these are not people who are afraid to tell you what’s on their mind or challenge your point of view,” he said.
Fernandez said the mayor’s style, while it may be aggressive, pays off.
“What is most important is that you have a strong a mayor, a strong leader, someone who is willing to stand up for the average citizen,” Fernandez said. “I very much like that we have a strong mayor who doesn’t mince words.”
But even more important than personality to the Looney camp is the assertion that DeStefano failed to capitalize on good times to the fullest extent possible.
“The mayor has been in office during extraordinarily good times for the state,” Looney said. “I think it has been a history of missed opportunities.”
DeStefano agreed with many Looney supporters that the election will be decided by the opinions of the voters about which direction New Haven is heading. But unlike them, he says that direction is up.
“Crime is cut in half, schools are more and more in demand, test scores are up, you see less blighted housing, more rebuilt housing,” DeStefano said. “Streets are cleaner, libraries open longer, parks greener and downtown is a more interesting place.”