The 30 seats in the aldermanic chamber are occupied on the first and third Mondays of each month by a group of men and women who reflect the diversity of New Haven. They are black, white, Latino and Asian, young and old; they represent the palatial houses in Morris Cove and the churches in Fair Haven. But despite their differences, the aldermen are drawn together by the common experience of service to their neighborhoods.
One alderman, however, comes to the Board with a constituency, a basic set of issues to address, and a personal history often very different from those of his colleagues. Because New Haven’s First Ward is dominated by seven of Yale’s residential colleges, the student voters there regularly send one of their peers to City Hall. In the next few weeks, my column will explore the role of this very unique chair, and the part that the Yale students who have held it play in the aldermanic chamber.
The current Ward 1 alderman is Ben Healey ’04, who was appointed to fill the seat when Julio Gonzalez ’99 left in 2001 to take a job in the mayor’s office. Healey comes from a strongly progressive background — his grandmother, Dorothy Healey, was one of the most prominent Old Left writers and organizers of the 1930s — so it seems unsurprising that, as a freshman at Yale, he was interested in social justice. But Healey has done more in his three and a half years as alderman than simply cast the right set of votes. Rather, he has emerged as one of the real leaders both of the Board of Aldermen and of the campus progressive community.
His firm insistence that differences between the individual aldermen matter less than a common vision for change has enabled Healey to take a real lead on some of the most important debates to come before the Board during his time in office. On the Yale campus, his willingness to take courageous stands on progressive issues and, when necessary, to challenge his colleagues, have inspired other Yale students.
I met Healey in 2003 during a critical test of his leadership. Healey had just chosen to reintroduce a bill the BOA had rejected 10 years earlier: the Domestic Partnership Amendment, aimed at providing a limited measure of recognition to New Haven’s gay and lesbian couples. Rather than passing easily, as we expected, the bill set off a heated debate, and ultimately failed by a single vote.
Despite this controversy, Healey played an instrumental role — both within the Board and far beyond it — in building a movement in support of both the amendment and the idea of a New Haven far more welcoming and respectful of all of its citizens. Taking the lead on gay rights was a risky move, not simply because of the strength of feeling on both sides of the issue, but because of the way the bill tested many of Healey’s established relationships with his colleagues and allies.
Susan Voigt, the chairwoman of the New Haven Democratic Town Committee, told me that “Ben has been uniquely able to deal with not being seen solely as the alderman from Yale.” One of the areas in which he has best been able to establish such credentials is in his relationship with the Federation of Hospital and University Employees. But when the fight over the amendment began, the unions and their allies chose to stay out of it, and the next fall threw a great deal of energy and resources into supporting Ward 2 Alderwoman Joyce Chen, who had voted against the amendment.
“Ben recognized that while the moment between two strikes may not have seemed like the ideal moment to ignite a controversy over Domestic Partnership, there is no ideal moment to force a community to face down difficult decisions,” explained Josh Eidelson ’06, who has worked with — and occasionally against — Healey on a number of issues. “There is no excuse for waiting when you have the opportunity to take a stand for equal rights.”
Any differences with the unions that emerged during the Domestic Partnership debate did not lessen Healey’s commitment to economic justice. He has continued to be a strong advocate both for increasing Yale’s financial contribution to the city of New Haven, and for Community Benefits Agreements, a formula for negotiations between developers and community groups. Healey’s actions make clear the breadth, as well as the depth, of his vision for change in New Haven.
The Domestic Partnership Amendment was not a stand he could have taken, or a test he could have imposed upon his relationships at the beginning of his term. Healey himself emphasizes the time it took for him to grow into his role. “It’s hard to overstate the level to which I had no idea what I was doing,” he said. “I hadn’t met Julio — I didn’t know how many wards there were in the city. I thought the seat was a way to keep being an activist with a bigger bully pulpit. I had very little vision of what I wanted the job to be when I started.”
It was the issues he addressed during his first term — especially irregularities at Empower New Haven and homelessness issues — that helped Healey earn the respect of his colleagues. Whether reaching out to a small campus gay rights group on Domestic Partnership, or working with students on election reform, Healey has also given his peers a model for a different way of doing politics. Eidelson said that “he rightfully challenged both those students who believe that change only happens in closed-door meetings or legislative sessions, and those students who believe that elected officials can never play a redeeming role in progressive politics.”
But Healey insists that his work is not yet finished, or even really begun. “I have this grand vision,” Healey told me over coffee. “I would love to do a charter revision that changes the way we do politics. I would love do participatory budgeting like they do in South Africa so you learn that you have to be civically engaged. You have to have a big idea like that, and it takes a lot of time and work.”
Healey’s time to achieve that vision is limited; in January, he will cede his chair to another ambitious activist. But the impact of his work will continue to make a difference in New Haven, whether in a strengthened dialogue about gay rights, the movement towards campaign finance reform, or the relationship he helped to build between New Haven’s economic justice movement and the Yale student body.
“Power comes when you can move votes,” Healey said. “It comes from changing people’s perceptions of the possible.”
Alyssa Rosenberg is a junior in Silliman College and the Democratic co-chairwoman of Ward 22. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.