During the 1970s, Democratic Party Boss Arthur T. Barbieri used to brag that he could take any bum off the street and turn him into the Mayor of New Haven.
Many joke that he proved this to be true when he brought to power Mayor Bart Guida in 1969. Before being elected mayor, Guida made a name for himself by staunchly opposing the desegregation of New Haven’s public schools as East Rock’s alderman. As mayor, he established himself as a misguided reactionary until 1975, when he was challenged by progressive Frank Logue in the closest primary New Haven had seen in over 20 years.
As the Logue campaign anxiously awaited returns on election day, they found themselves a few hundred votes short of victory with only Ward One — the Yale Ward — left unaccounted for. Throughout the day, students working on the campaign had been busy grabbing fellow students and dragging them to the polls as they climbed out of trains and cars, returning for the fall semester.
While the vote throughout the city was sharply divided, Ward One voted overwhelmingly in favor of Logue and his promise of progressive Democratic politics. Yale students transformed his small deficit into a triumph, beginning Logue’s two terms as mayor. He would remain an unwavering supporter of the labor movement and advocate for New Haven’s poor despite a tremendous economic downturn.
The students of Ward One have a history of making positive change happen in New Haven, not just as Yale students doing one of their 8,000 extracurricular activities, but as citizens of a city which they feel passionately about.
In 1996, Locals 34 and 35 were forced to engage in a bitter fight with the Yale administration as it attempted to subvert the unions’ power by sub-contracting to non-unionized workers. Students found themselves playing a small but significant role in establishing a living wage at Yale.
Ward One Alderman Joshua Civin ’96 joined other aldermen, the NAACP, the New Haven Labor Council, Elm City Congregations Organized, labor unions, the clergy and other groups in a coalition to demand a living wage for Yale employees, insisting that Yale serve as a model employer in New Haven instead of reducing itself to the lowest common denominator.
Then, when the administration called New Haven’s aldermen hypocrites because of the city’s own sub-contracting policies, the coalition expanded its agenda to include establishing a city-wide Living Wage Ordinance. Civin recalls large meetings of students at the restaurant formerly known as XandO, where members of Dwight Hall, the Student Labor Action Committee and the Ward One Democratic Committee met to discuss how they could best support the coalition.
Students didn’t lead the movement by any means, but they definitely helped it succeed and were one of the many forces leading to the institution of the city’s Living Wage Ordinance in 1997, which mandates that all workers sub-contracted by the City of New Haven be paid a living wage.
The projects of electing a progressive mayor, of working toward labor-friendly legislation, of changing environmental laws and how the city responds to homelessness are all projects which engage the interface between social justice and politics that we have to engage if we ever want to build a brave new New Haven.
By radicalizing the city’s politics and its political parties, not only can we change who is empowered by these political parties, but we can change the agenda of those empowered.
The Ward One Democratic Committee has tremendous potential to be a force for good in the city’s politics by bringing the excitement, energy and vision of young people to New Haven’s Democratic Party, along with their free time and access to Yale’s resources.
Issues such as Connecticut’s draconian welfare reforms, the city’s public schools, its increasing numbers of new immigrants and its underpaid service sector workers all urgently demand attention and political action that students have the resources and passion to successfully engage in.
A progressive and active ward committee will help build the radical Democratic Party that will help New Haven inch closer to becoming a truly livable city.
Shonu Gandhi is a junior in Saybrook College. She is running for co-chair of the Democratic Ward Committee of Ward One.