When she first came to New Haven three years ago, Michelle Mayorga ’03 was not very interested in politics. But on March 5 of this year, she, Victor Corona ’03 and Shonu Gandhi ’03 became the first three Yale students to be elected local leaders of New Haven’s Democratic Party.
Mayorga and Gandhi ran together for co-chair of Ward 1, which includes downtown New Haven and most of the Yale campus. Victor Corona ran with incumbent Nadine Wall for co-chair of Ward 7, which includes Pierson, Davenport and parts of the Dwight and Hill neighborhoods. The registered Democrats of each candidate’s respective wards elected the three co-chairs.
As co-chairs of ward committees, each of the three students are responsible for registering residents to vote, bringing out Democratic voters on Election Day, serving on the Town Committee, serving as delegates to nominating conventions, and assembling a ward committee that makes endorsements for alderman.
“I’m proud to be one of three Yale students who are co-chairs, as well as the first Mexican-American ward chair,” Corona said. “I think this precedent shows that positive and responsible Yale student involvement can meaningfully contribute to progressive organizing in New Haven.”
Corona first got involved in New Haven politics when he began canvassing the colleges for Ward 7 Alderwoman Esther Armmand’s 1999 campaign. Later, he worked with Julio Gonzalez ’99, then Ward 1 alderman, on his child poverty referendum.
Gonzalez is now chief of staff to New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr.
During the summer of 2001, Corona worked on DeStefano’s re-election campaign, where he met his eventual running mate and co-chairperson Wall. In addition to his co-chairship, Corona also works part-time at the New Haven Office of Economic Development, where he hopes to get a full-time position after graduation.
Like Corona, Mayorga has worn many different hats on her road to becoming Ward 1 co-chair. In the summer after her sophomore year, Mayorga became a White House intern, which changed her perspective on political involvement.
“It just made me realize the bigger picture of political involvement,” Mayorga said. “I came back and got involved with the Yale College Democrats and started working on election day events, getting people to become more interested in New Haven politics.”
She was later appointed to the Ward 1 committee by former co-chairs Bruce Blair and Jerry Streets. In 2001, Mayorga, like Corona, participated in Mayor DeStefano’s re-election campaign, where she served as the on-campus chairperson. In fall of 2001, Mayorga assumed the role of interim president of the Yale College Democrats.
Gandhi, who has had a relatively limited amount of experience with politics, became interested through her work as the co-coordinator of Harmony Place, a community center in New Haven, and as a public school intern at Hillhouse High School.
“I wanted to understand who was making policy and why they were making such poor decisions,” Gandhi said. “Being on the Ward 1 Democratic Committee was the first real political thing I have ever done — I met other students involved in city politics and when I was around over the summer, I asked if I could work on the mayor’s campaign.”
Although the three students took different routes to the co-chairship, all three agree on the role their election has had on increasing student involvement in New Haven politics.
“Hopefully, the Ward 1 committee can play a large role in helping more students get involved because I believe there is definitely a high level of interest, just confusion about how we can actually make a difference and be effective,” Gandhi said.
“I think that we are at a really interesting crossroad in New Haven politics,” Mayorga said. “For a long time, students were only nominally involved. Now we have some Yalies who are invested in city politics and that is a positive thing for town-gown relations.”