Democrat domination must not stifle debate

On Tuesday the Democratic machine was back in action, out on an Election Day rampage that resulted in the election of 28 Democrats to the city’s 30-member Board of Aldermen. This year, however, it was more than the Democratic machine that scored a sweeping victory; many of those Democrats who were elected were endorsed by New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr., creating a board that seems more lopsided than ever.

This outcome worries us. In the past, even the traditionally Democrat-dominated board has shown itself capable of heated debate. But we worry that a Board of Aldermen that has grown even more unbalanced, and is filled with aldermen who won in uncontested elections, may not foster the debate necessary to create the legislation that is best for the city.

When the new Aldermanic term begins in January, the Democrats will increase their presence from 26 to 28 representatives, while the Republican Party and the Green Party, which each had two representatives last term, will hold only one seat apiece. But more important than this small increase in Democrats is the increase in support for DeStefano. In nine of the wards with contested elections on Tuesday, seven victors were Democrats with an official mayoral endorsement. Some of the mayor’s most vocal opponents — including incumbent Brian Jenkins, chairman of the board’s Black and Hispanic Caucus — did not even appear on the ballot, having been defeated in this fall’s Democratic primaries.

We recognize that the Democratic machine often represents the views of the people. A board controlled by Democrats reflects the city’s politics and does have some clear advantages — the Domestic Partnership Amendment, and other legislation that we believe is important to the city, now seems likely to sail through the board, which may be better able to build consensus among its members. But monopoly politics can be scary, regardless of how well it reflects the majority.

It’s healthy to have to answer to criticism, and we worry about a political system than seems unlikely to foster much. Thirteen Democratic incumbents — nearly half the board — ran unopposed on Tuesday. Just as we believe that Dan Kruger’s campaign challenged Ben Healey in ways that will make Healey a better alderman, challenges from an opposing party could push the board’s many Democrats to be more effective legislators. But aldermen on next term’s board must push each other. They must, themselves, fill the role an opposing party would by providing a critical analysis of policies and proposed legislation.

Even more than that, however, the aldermen need to be willing to speak out against and stand up to the mayor when they believe the needs of their constituents or the city are not being fulfilled. Jenkins was willing to speak out, questioning DeStefano’s spending priorities and challenging his commitment to creating equal opportunities for minorites. The new aldermen must not be afraid to look critically at the mayor and must ensure he remains accountable to the city.

Just because for many, this year’s race was not hard-fought does not mean the views of their constituents don’t matter, and we hope the aldermen do not become complacent. The board has a number of complex issues before it that merit debate — we hope they get the thorough discussion and critical analysis that they deserve.

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