For much of 2004, Shonu Gandhi ’03, the campaign manager for New Haven Mayor John DeStefano’s nascent gubernatorial bid, was also the campaign’s only staff member.
“For the first three months of the campaign, I was doing everything myself,” Gandhi said. “I was working on all parts of the campaign at the same time.”
Gandhi is not alone anymore; she has since hired five other staffers, all relatively recent college graduates enthusiastic about making an impact on a campaign involving a local politician.
Droves of Yalies and college students from all over the country worked for both candidates in the recent presidential election. Students often volunteer for national campaigns, canvassing districts and manning the phones as Election Day approaches. But Gandhi and other DeStefano staffers said working on DeStefano’s statewide campaign — a far cry from impersonal, national party machines — nearly two years before the election provides them with a genuinely hands-on political experience.
“The further out you are from the election, the more involved you become, the more ownership you can take in an election,” Lauren Gelmann ’04, the finance director for the DeStefano campaign, said. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for everyone involved, a chance to do finance and politics and gain a greater amount of background knowledge than you would entering a campaign at the last possible moments.”
DeStefano, who as mayor has fostered a close relationship with Yale, has a number of Yale undergraduates and alumni working both in his office at City Hall and on his campaign. Several Yale undergraduates interned for his campaign last summer.
DeStefano declared his candidacy for governor as early as February 2004. Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz ’83 and Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy have also entered the race for the Democratic nomination, and U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd’s name has appeared frequently as a possible contender. But at this point even Gov. M Jodi Rell, the popular Republican incumbent expected to campaign for re-election, has not yet officially declared her candidacy for the election to be held in November 2006.
“It’s unusual for anyone [from Yale] to be involved in an election campaign this early — A lot of people don’t even know who’s running,” Alissa Stollwerk ’06, president of the Yale College Democrats, said. “It’s great for [the people already involved] because there’s not a lot of people there, but they have a lot to do.”
Gandhi has been working for the DeStefano campaign since 2003 when he asked her to serve as his campaign manager. She said she has no regrets about agreeing to the commitment.
“I have friends all around the country who don’t feel like they’re making an impact working on campaigns,” Gandhi said. “I’m making an impact.”
Dan Weeks ’06 worked as an intern for DeStefano last summer, helping the Mayor’s fund-raising efforts and researching policy. Although Weeks said he admires DeStefano, he was a little discouraged by the inevitable preoccupation with fund raising.
“I was disappointed with the tremendous emphasis on fund raising,” Weeks said. “This is not a product of DeStefano but a product of the system itself. But that’s part of the reason for my support of DeStefano, because he is fully behind throwing out the system, and supporting people like him is the only way to change this.”
A recent poll showed DeStefano running on par with other declared Democrat candidates but trailing Rell by 26 points. However, Rell’s current popularity has not fazed the DeStefano campaign. Having entered 2004 with less money than any other Democratic challenger, DeStefano raised $1.4 million during the year and currently leads all candidates in fund raising.
Scott Caplan ’06, who also interned for the campaign over the summer, said DeStefano raised a lot of funds at the local level.
“The campaign worked primarily with people who know DeStefano and know that he’s an all-around good guy,” Caplan said. “Most people who contributed had met him and were happy to be giving money.”
Becky Bombero, the deputy director of financing for DeStefano’s campaign, said the energetic, youthful office perfectly complements DeStefano’s own “inspiring” dynamism.
“Political campaigns are often driven by young employees,” Bombero said. “This is no exception. It is the most exciting campaign I’ve ever worked on.”