Yale students impact Elm City politics

Four years ago, Julio Gonzalez ’99 was elected as Ward 1 alderman to represent Yale undergraduates in a city known for its town-gown divide.

When Gonzalez leaves office in December, it will be the end of a period that has seen a stronger connection between Yale students and city politics than ever before. Many students say the past few years have brought a greater recognition of students as a political force within New Haven, a deeper sense of belonging to the city among students, and a changing relationship within a city once known for its antagonistic relationship with the University.

Gonzalez said those students involved with campus politics have been able to break down the identity of Yalies as solely students, giving them a “heightened awareness as citizens of New Haven.”

Students said the presence of several undergraduates in Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s re-election campaign, the mayor’s selection of Gonzalez as campaign manager, and the crowded field of contenders for the Ward 1 aldermanic seat are proof of the impact made by Gonzalez and fellow aldermen Jelani Lawson ’96 and Gerald Garcia ’94 SOM ’01, known as the “Yale Three.”

“Julio has done an excellent job in making students feel they are not just a part of Yale but citizens of the community,” said Ben Healey ’04, who received the Democratic endorsement for the Ward 1 seat and will likely succeed Gonzalez. “Right now I would say more than any time in the past several years, students in are in a place where we can have an impact on New Haven politics.”

Shayna Strom ’02, who has been active in Ward 7 politics, said students have emerged as a significant force in local politics.

“The past few years have shown that students can be an important electoral force,” Strom said. “People in the city are beginning to realize that in certain wards students play an important role and can sway the vote one way or the other.”

But with Gonzalez, Lawson and Garcia all leaving office in the coming months, as well as the graduation of several politically involved undergraduates, some question the future of student involvement within local politics. Strom said many students wonder whether the absence of the Yale Three will impact student involvement in politics.

Some say that the influence of the Yale Three won’t die away anytime soon. Many students who have been involved in local politics said their experiences have created lasting changes in the way Yale students are viewed by community members.

“A lot of community residents have seen there are some students who want to become involved in campaigns and efforts to make a difference, not just out of boredom or because they are naive about the city,” Victor Corona ’03 said.

Corona is serving as campaign manager for Dolores Colon ’91 in her bid for Ward 7 alderman.

Rob Smuts ’01, a DeStefano campaign worker who has worked extensively in city politics, said the increased interaction between students and the city will lead to more Yalies staying in New Haven after graduation.

Smuts pointed to the mayoral race and next year’s contract renegotiations for Locals 34 and 35 as crucial opportunities for continuing to increase student clout in local politics.

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