Anyone who was harboring misguided doubts about the health and vitality of New Haven’s Democratic Party can probably relax after the Nov. 4 elections. Much attention has been lavished on the further consolidation of Democratic power in town; 28 of the Board of Aldermen’s 30 seats are now held by Democrats, many of who were endorsed by Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. But a key element in the Democratic Party’s continued rise has been largely ignored; the Democratic Party built an organization and a slate of candidates that offers a more compelling vision of New Haven than any of its competitors and has the power to actually make that vision a reality. It’s a simple deal; the Democrats listen before they act, and on Election Day, voters go to the polls and reward them with another two years in office.
Many commentators have noted that the Democratic Party in New Haven has become more progressive in recent years, with DeStefano frequently leading the way. Some of these policy stances were undoubtedly inspired by political challenges. After a fiercely contested 2001 primary election in which State Senator Martin Looney (who won the endorsement of workers at Yale-New Haven Hospital) criticized the mayor for his close relationship with Yale, DeStefano moderated his stance and built his connections with the Federation of Hospital and University Employees. The Democratic Party mostly followed suit in choosing its aldermanic candidates, and the result is a board substantially more sympathetic to the needs of working people.
The Green Party’s increased presence in city politics has also pushed the Democrats to take stronger stances on a number of issues, especially the environment. The most direct evidence of this is the primary TV ad that featured DeStefano and his staff biking around the city, but the Democrats have also committed themselves to the 2010 Campaign, which will increase the amount of renewable energy used in New Haven. Politically, the Democratic Party’s decision to adopt Green issues was largely successful — only one Green, Ward 2’s Joyce Chen, remains on the Board of Aldermen — but more importantly, party members’ choices are an investment in a better environment for a city with staggering child asthma rates.
And of course, on some issues the Democrats have demonstrated impressive leadership of their own accord. DeStefano and other members of the Democratic leadership have jumped to the forefront on gay rights issues by declaring the Domestic Partnership Amendment one of their top priorities, and by strongly encouraging Democrats who were running on the mayor’s team to support it. Passing the Amendment would set a state-wide precedent; Hartford is the only other city in Connecticut with similar legislation. In New Haven, that’s a stance that takes both courage and conviction, especially given the virulent opposition to the Amendment last spring, and the homophobia that was evident at the polls in certain wards on Nov. 4.
Despite the strength of this vision, many observers have questioned whether the increasing dominance of the DeStefano Democrats is ultimately a bad thing for debate in New Haven. While it’s true that some of the more vocal critics of the mayor will not be back in January, the Board of Aldermen is not significantly more likely to simply act as a rubber stamp for DeStefano-backed initiatives. Jorge Perez, the Democratic president of the board, staunchly opposed the Domestic Partnership Amendment, and shows no signs of retreating from that stance. A number of new aldermen, including Michael Smart, Sergio Rodriguez and Barbara Gorham-Walker joined the mayor’s team only after beating candidates endorsed by the Democratic Party in the September primaries. While Brian Jenkins, perhaps DeStefano’s most visible and dramatic detractor, will not return in January, his departure opens up space for a new chairman to unite the Board’s Black and Latino Caucus and make it a more effective and constructive voice for change. And, in case anyone’s forgotten them, Chen and Arlene DePino are unlikely to remain silent as the sole Green and Republican voices on the Board of Aldermen.
New Haven may be a Democratic town, but Democratic Town Committee Chairman Susan Voigt is no Boss Tweed, and DeStefano is not trying to re-create Mayor Richard Lee’s “Kremlin on the Green.” The Democrats are winning because they are pushing, and have been pushed to support, a progressive and practical agenda for New Haven, and because their strength can make that vision a reality. It’s lucky that the Democratic Party has decided to make constituent service their central strategy for re-election; New Haven can only benefit if the Democrats continue to realize that what’s good for the city is what’s good for the party.
Alyssa Rosenberg is a sophomore in Silliman College. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.