Joel Schiavone ’58, the man who once owned downtown New Haven, is hunched in a portable camping chair, propped against the wall of a public housing unit.
He has come to Newhall Gardens, a complex that he describes as “inhuman conditions,” a tag line not quite applicable to the cluttered but cozy living room.
A coffee table has been pushed out of the way to make room for the gathering, which consists of Schiavone, four reporters, two campaign staffers — and five actual residents.
Schiavone listens as the tenants describe their troubles with underheated apartments, where turning on the hot water turns off the regular heating system and where insulation means stuffing towels into the mail slot to keep out the cold air.
As they become increasingly emotional, he interrupts to clarify some facts.
“Wait a minute, let’s talk about what happened,” he says repeatedly.
He gets particularly hung up on the story of a 91-year-old woman who was late with her rent and given an eviction notice. “But what happens to her?” he repeats, until someone assures him her friends would take her in.
This is not a “feel your pain” sort of politician moment. This is an inquisitor trying to distill facts from emotional outbursts. This is the man who once had $12.5 million dollars to lose trying to grasp the problems of a public housing project.
And it is another stop on the campaign trail for New Haven’s highest office by one of the city’s most idiosyncratic characters.
He is a self-described Democrat running as a Republican in a heavily Democratic town, avoiding what he calls the entrenched party apparatus.
He is a former real estate mogul who has been to bankruptcy and back, but prefers to call himself a banjo player.
He is one of the city’s most colorful caricatures, who has not even thought about the possibility of not being the next mayor.
And Schiavone makes it clear he does not want to be a politician. At a mayoral debate this summer, he drew the most attention for declaring, “Thank God I’m not a politician!”
When he walked into the Newhall Garden unit Friday afternoon, a woman hands him a magazine featuring Lyndon LaRouche, the perennial third-party candidate.
“I’ve heard of Lyndon LaRouche,” he tells her, smiling. “He’s crazy. But you have to be crazy to be a politician.”
Schiavone’s beginnings were, to say the least, inauspicious. He’ll be the first one to say so.
“I graduated from Yale and I realized that I had no skills for the world,” Schiavone said. “So I decided to acquire some skills. I learned to play the banjo.”
“I must have been smart because I went to Harvard Business School afterward,” he added. “But of course, that’s the same thing as George W. Bush, right?”
Upon graduation he returned to New Haven to work in his father’s scrap iron and steel business, only to leave nine months later to pursue a career in nightclubs. He grew to own 11 clubs in the United States and two in Europe, taking the stage himself as often as he could.
It was a lifestyle he relished.
“What did I like best? The women,” Schiavone said. “Am I supposed to say this? Because of the women.”
But by the early 1970s, the nightclub business had begun to decline, and Schiavone was married with a child. He returned to New Haven to take over his father’s business.
But the city he returned to was not the college town he recalled. Instead, it had gone the way of urban decay, with neighborhoods destroyed and a downtown that was nearly deserted.
He spent the next few years trying to help revive downtown.
“Finally, in 1979, it was clear that downtown was not going to be done, that it would not get done unless I went out to do it myself,” Schiavone said. “So I did.”
The crusade that ensued eventually won him the nickname “Mr. Downtown.”
Schiavone bought and renovated the property around campus on College and Chapel Street, the Palace and Shubert theaters. He insisted on tree-lined streets and decorative touches such as iron streetlamps to provide a “college town” feel.
“In renovating downtown he saved New Haven, which used to be boarded up,” said Chip Croft, the president of the United Merchants Association and owner of Seychelles on Chapel Street.
But business has not always been kind to Joel Schiavone. As he tells it, it wasn’t his fault.
In 1992, First Constitution Bank, which held Schiavone’s $12.5 million mortgage, folded. His mortgage was turned over to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which spent nearly four years negotiating with him before he turned over the properties.
Schiavone blamed it on what he called the depression of the late 1980s.
“It was great,” he said. “Until the world fell apart.”
In 1993, he also defaulted on an $8 million loan for Connecticut Limousine, which he also owned. He blamed the depression for reducing ridership by nearly 75 percent.
Some of Schiavone’s tenants think his managerial failings render him unfit to be mayor.
“I have questions about his bankruptcy,” said Bill Kalogeridus, owner of the Copper Kitchen on Chapel Street, part of Schiavone’s former properties. “How can a person lose all this and lose Connecticut Limo? Now he’s gonna become mayor?”
Kalogeridus said he had trouble with Schiavone in the late 1980s when Schiavone asked him to pay the property taxes on the space that he was renting. Kalogeridus refused, and said Schiavone did not renew his lease when it expired. After going to court, Kalogeridus’ lease was renewed.
Yale University, which bought the Chapel Street properties from the FDIC in 1999, also apparently had problems with the mayoral candidate’s Schiavone Management Company, which is now run by his ex-wife, Craig Schiavone. Last spring, University officials fired SMC, citing their mismanagement of properties.
Schiavone is something of a legend to his campaign staff.
“When I did the research on Joel, I read a lot about his business history and some of the things he’s done, which kind of made him seem a little off-beat,” said Ted LeVasseur, Schiavone’s campaign manager.
LeVasseur came to New Haven to work for Schiavone in March after running campaigns and political actions throughout the country.
“He’s probably the most intellectual politician I’ve ever worked with,” LeVasseur said. “He really thinks things out a lot which makes for a great leader but not necessarily a great politician.”
Even if he does not want to be a politician, Schiavone is still an enthusiastic campaigner. He is fond of dispensing “Schiavone for Mayor” hats to people he meets, returning to his staff members several times a day to restock his hat supply.
As he reaches the end of his third bid for elective office, he still fancies himself more of an entertainer than a politician.
At a recent campaign fund-raiser, Schiavone was urged by a friend to sing a song about New Haven. Schiavone did not like the song he had written, but sang it nonetheless.
“I said to the audience, ‘My friend is insisting that I sing this; I think it’s the worst song ever written, but I’ll let you judge,’” Schiavone recalled.
As he told the story from a desk in the back of his College Street campaign headquarters, aides perked up and shrieked at the mention of the song.
“You’re NOT singing that one again!” one yelled, interrupting a phone call to give her warning.
LeVasseur forcefully gave the thumbs down sign.
“I’ll do more singing, just not that song,” Schiavone said.
“I’ve been onstage since the 1960s,” he added. “I’m used to the lights, the spectacles, singing and dancing and showbiz. A political campaign is showbiz. A successful campaign can create a sense of excitement. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
And Schiavone has been known to thrive on spectacles. On Oct. 5, he drew attention when he spent the night in Prescott Bush homes, a public housing project known for its problems with drug dealers.
And before running for office, Schiavone was no stranger to public displays for other causes. In the 1970s, Schiavone owned the New Haven Nighthawks, a local hockey team. With the team’s following in trouble, Schiavone attempted to increase ticket sales by camping out on the roof of the New Haven Coliseum, the team’s venue, for six nights.
After subscriptions for season tickets increased from 100 to 500, Schiavone said, he came down from the roof –Êin a helicopter.
His less-than-understated tactics have won him a place in New Haven lore.
“I may ask to be his running mate,” Mayor John DeStefano Jr. told the New Haven Advocate last fall, before Schiavone declared his candidacy. “For the pure entertainment value of seeing him be mayor.”
But to Schiavone, the spectacles do not undercut his more serious missions.
“I’m a Democrat, but who has time to work myself through that process with that group?” Schiavone said of the city’s Democratic establishment. “They’re so entrenched. They don’t want any outsiders. So in a sense, if I had wanted to run I had to run as a Republican candidate.”
Even as a Republican, Schiavone fully intends to win by capitalizing on the support of the city’s independents and the disaffected Democrats who voted for DeStefano’s challenger, state Sen. Martin Looney.
Asked for his plans if he does not win, he said, “That’s not in my thinking.”
Still, to some, it appears to be an uphill battle. The campaign appearance in Newhall Gardens was organized by resident Grady Reynolds after he read about Schiavone’s night at Prescott Bush.
But even Reynolds has a “Martin Looney for Mayor” business card taped to the wall above where Schiavone sits, and posters from his own failed bid for alderman line the wall.
As Schiavone wraps up his appearance at Reynolds’ home, a reporter asks the residents who they plan to vote for.
After a long pause, one woman declares that she does not want to say. Others echo her remark.
A reporter from the Inner City News nods toward Schiavone.
“But who came out to listen to you?” she asks the assembled residents, who had just spent the afternoon complaining about the lack of response to their problems from the mayor’s administration.
“Nobody!” Reynolds declares loudly.
He walks halfway across the room before realizing the point of the question.
“Oh!” he says to himself as he leaves the room.
Schiavone seems not to mind as he continues to mingle with the residents and reporters. Before leaving, he tells the four women who had shown up, “Ladies, we’ve tried. I can’t guarantee what’s gonna happen, but we’ve tried.”
He gives Reynolds the “Schiavone for Mayor” hat from his head, then walks out to his car.
He waves to his smiling campaign aides as he drives off in his gold Saturn, sporting a “Schiavone for Mayor” bumper sticker and one less “Schiavone for Mayor” hat.