Keeping an eye on city, with sights set beyond it

For a man who has been campaigning for governor for just over a year now, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. still has a long way to go. He does not yet know who he might face in the Democratic primary, and the 2006 general election is still 21 months away. But with the state slowly starting to think about its first gubernatorial election in the post-Rowland era, it is worth taking stock about what a DeStefano run will mean for New Haven if — as his words and actions have suggested — the mayor is in the race for good.

Depending on whether popular and well-known Democrats like Attorney General Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 or U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd enter the race, DeStefano could face a difficult path to even win the nomination, let alone beat Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell. But while DeStefano’s current post limits his political appeal — he is nearly unknown outside the New Haven area — it also provides the best rationale for his candidacy. In a city where the mayor dominates local politics, DeStefano has been held responsible for the city’s welfare — and more often than not, he has come out with positive marks in areas ranging from fiscal discipline to urban development to town-gown relations. Even if we often find DeStefano uninspiring, the fact that a New Haven mayor is even a viable candidate for governor is a testament to how much the city has changed for the better under his watch.

And if a Gov. DeStefano would leave a leadership vacuum in New Haven, he could also bring to the Governor’s Mansion a clear understanding — missing in recent years — of the problems facing Connecticut cities. Property tax reform, the big idea DeStefano has tackled on a statewide level during his tenure, is a thorny political issue that is difficult to condense into a sound bite, but it could offer a promising solution to controlling sprawl and improving Connecticut schools. On other issues ranging from campaign finance reform to investing in the state’s rail system, the mayor has admirably drawn attention to what he plans to do in office, offering policy stances seldom seen this early in a campaign.

Still, running for governor and running a city are both full-time jobs. The mayor has responded to questions about his focus by pointing out that because Connecticut voters will judge him on his record, he has extra incentive to do well by his home city. That may be true, but it does not change the fact that any candidate — and particularly one without a widespread power base — must spend an enormous amount of time crisscrossing the state to run a competitive race for governor.

A long campaign creates a distraction for the mayor and a target for his local political opponents at a time when DeStefano’s job has gotten tougher due to budget troubles, an outcry over police shootings and an emerging debate about downtown development. With DeStefano up for re-election this fall, a real mayoral campaign could provide an opportunity for much-needed local discussion about these issues. But with so much focus on the mayor’s statewide ambitions, that dialogue is unlikely to happen — and DeStefano’s job as mayor is likely to get much more difficult.

In the past 11 years, John DeStefano has shown why he might be a good governor of Connecticut. For the next 21 months, we hope his ambitions do not prevent him from being a good mayor of New Haven.

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