Students play novel role on New Haven’s political turf

Sitting behind his own desk in his own three-room office suite in New Haven City Hall, Julio Gonzalez ’99 grins as he rocks back in his chair and stares out the window.

Through the huge floor-to-ceiling picture windows, Gonzalez — the chief of staff to Mayor John DeStefano Jr. — can see most of the New Haven Green.

But just five years ago, Gonzalez was a sophomore in college, preparing to enter New Haven politics through the office of Ward 1 alderman. The path he has followed is not uncommon among Yale students — but it is virtually unique to New Haven.

Several other recent Yale graduates also serve as aides to DeStefano. And since the early 1980s, at least one student has served — as Gonzalez did in 1997 — as a member of New Haven’s city council, the Board of Aldermen.

But few college students in cities the size of New Haven — including Cambridge — ever have the opportunity to serve as city councilors or rise so rapidly through the ranks of municipal government.

Because of differences in the way voters in the two cities elect their officials, and because of distinct differences in political culture, students at Harvard and Yale do not always concentrate their political energies in the same place.

The Ward 1 phenomenon

Since the early 1980s, the New Haven Board of Aldermen has accepted, if not always welcomed, at least one Yale student into its membership each election year.

The way New Haven’s 30 city council seats have been apportioned for almost two decades, an entire ward — Ward 1 — has been dominated almost entirely by Yale students.

For Gonzalez, his predecessors and his successor — current Ward 1 Alderman Ben Healey ’04 — winning a spot on the board meant appealing to a familiar constituency.

The same is not true in Cambridge.

In 1999, Erik Snowberg, an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, mounted a massive campaign for a spot on Cambridge’s nine-member city council.

He lost.

The voters of Cambridge, which has a population smaller than New Haven, only elect nine city councilors, less than a third as many as in the New Haven. To make matters worse for would-be student politicians at Harvard, Cambridge elects its city councilors at large, meaning candidates must campaign for and win votes throughout the city.

As a result, Harvard students stand little chance at running a successful campaign.

Off to Beacon Hill

Of course, students in Cambridge do participate in politics. But at Harvard, political energy often moves out of Cambridge and across the Charles River to Boston.

Joe Kaplan, a Cambridge city elections official, said students — even those who are politically active — generally do not register to vote in Cambridge because they tend to gravitate toward the many political opportunities available in the state capital.

“Most [Harvard and MIT students] are registered voters, but they’re not registered in the city of Cambridge,” he said. “I think a lot of students are active in student politics and national or state politics.”

Daniel Schlozman, a Harvard junior, is one of the few students at either of Cambridge’s two elite schools who is directly involved in city politics. As secretary of the city’s Democratic Party, the 21-year-old Schlozman helps direct what he says is one of the most liberal local political organizations in the country.

At Harvard, Schlozman is not alone in his affinity for political activism.

“I’m not the first Harvard student people have seen here,” he said. “There are plenty of Harvard students who are doing things in the schools and working for state legislators.”

But Harvard students said those like Schlozman distinguish themselves by concentrating their political energies locally.

Rohit Chopra, a sophomore who serves as chairman of the Harvard student council’s student affairs committee, said activists either stay on campus or head to the Statehouse in Boston.

“I wouldn’t say that people are die-hard Canterbrugians, but they do care about what’s going on,” said Chopra, who sits on a Cambridge city committee that is redesigning Harvard Square. “The involvement in the city is mostly through public service.”

Still, Chopra said he has noticed the lack of local political involvement.

“There hasn’t been much political activism. It’s mostly community stuff. I don’t think people are registering to vote here so they can get somebody elected,” he said. “I sort of think people here feel that their vote here doesn’t really make a difference.”

Opportunities in the Elm City

At Yale, the lack of a nearby state political scene and the relatively low barriers to entry into local politics means students and the city share a unique, if often contentious, relationship.

Gonzalez said both his experience as Ward 1 alderman and the city’s open-minded party organization helped to produce the political interest that carried him into his current position.

“There’s a component now, as there was then, of students who are involved in city things,” he said. “But only a small group has a sense of citizenship.”

Gonzalez said the fact that Ward 1 has been represented by a student has made it easier for campus political activists to register voters and keep undergraduates interested in politics generally.

“I can see how in a place like Cambridge, without a built-in structure, these people just aren’t on the voter rolls,” Gonzalez said.

For Healey, serving as Ward 1 alderman means striking a balance between representing the interests of Yale students and the interest of the city as a whole.

“It’s just such an incredible way to translate ideals into actions,” he said. “One of the most important parts of my role is giving student activists access to city decision-makers.”

Ultimately, however, there are few concrete measures of political activism.

According to statistics compiled by New Haven’s Registrars of Voters in October 2001, 43 percent of Yale students who live on campus are registered to vote in the city. Similar statistics are unavailable for Cambridge.

Still, Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93, the associate vice president of Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs and himself a former Ward 1 alderman, said New Haven’s political idiosyncrasies yield benefits for both students and officials in City Hall.

“The mayor of the city of New Haven has dozens of students who he knows by name,” he said. “And the same is true of department heads.”

Healey also said the Ward 1 position affords students a true opportunity to influence government, whereas in Cambridge Harvard students stand little direct chance of involvement.

“Yale students as an organized interest can really effect change,” he said.

Yale students and graduates play a unique role in New Haven's governance, particularly through the office of Ward 1 alderman. Such opportunities are more difficult to come by in Cambridge, so Harvard students tend to look across the Charles River to Boston.
Left: CourtesyHarvardUniversity;Right:SarahMarcus
Yale students and graduates play a unique role in New Haven's governance, particularly through the office of Ward 1 alderman. Such opportunities are more difficult to come by in Cambridge, so Harvard students tend to look across the Charles River to Boston.

Comments