New Haven’s political hot seat: the history of Ward 1

Since 1989, five men have occupied the Ward 1 alderman’s seat. While the boundaries of the ward have since shifted along with the most pressing issues of the day, many of the basic challenges of the office have remained the same: building relationships and effective coalitions with 29 colleagues, mobilizing a constituency often more focused on volunteering than advocacy and negotiating the divide between a powerful university and a city seeking to regain its former prosperity. But the characteristics that separate Ward 1 and its alderman from the rest of New Haven also give the person who holds that seat a unique opportunity to work on issues with implications far beyond the city limits.

The former aldermen cite a number of factors that allowed them to widen the scope of their advocacy. Associate Vice President of New Haven and State Affairs Michael Morand, who occupied the seat from 1990 to 1993, explains that, “A student has a little more control over his or her own time. I had an ability to go to meetings during the workday with city staff that those working more traditional jobs or working out of town couldn’t, so I think there’s a little bit of a built-in advantage. The University pays for and does police services, trash pickup, most students don’t drive … Likewise, almost none of the residents of the first ward have students in public schools, so the bread-and-butter issues of constituent service are not as voluminous.”

Josh Civin ’96 LAW ’03, who served from 1994 to 1997, added that “one thing the first-ward aldermen tend to have that’s a virtue is a greater ability to be independent, and bring an independent perspective to local rivalries and politics.” That lack of established allegiance to city interest groups raised questions from New Haven residents and some of Civin’s colleagues during his 1995 campaign. Sandra Astarita, then the Republican alderwoman from Ward 13, told the News at the time that “I have never heard a taxpayer say they were glad Yale University has a position on the Board of Aldermen. Many people feel that the students have no vested interest in the city, and feel that [the position of alderman] should never have been opened to them.”

But both Civin and Morand believe that their independence served them well during their terms. Civin cited his ability to endorse Bill Curry for governor, in contrast to the decision of most Democratic Town Committee members to back John Larson, a less progressive Democrat more closely allied with the state Democratic machine. And Morand said that not having obligations to any specific interest groups was critical to the role he played during New Haven’s transition to community policing under Mayor John Daniels: “It was a bitter political fight both between deeply held notions of what policing was supposed to be about, and intersecting with political loyalties and very strong personalities.”

The fight for community policing is one of many major campaigns Ward 1 aldermen have taken on in the past decade and a half. Their greatest successes, though, have resulted not from back-room deals, but from helping build connections between community groups and their colleagues on the Board.

Civin’s experience with the nascent living wage movement is a perfect example of what Ward 1 aldermen committed to building long-term political movements can achieve. In New Haven, the push for a living wage grew out of the tension between aldermanic support for better wages for Yale employees and the low wages the city paid some of its own workers. Civin explains how his colleagues helped build an effective coalition: “We got together with the unions and Pat Speer [the lead organizer of Elm City Congregations Organized] at the early days of ECCO’s involvement in New Haven, and also with the local NAACP and local clergy. One of our planks was that this would be as important an organizing tool as an ordinance.” The movement’s victory in New Haven helped to encourage other similar organizing efforts.

Other Ward 1 aldermen have focused on issues closer to home. Julio Gonzalez ’99 worked with two of his colleagues on the Board to draft a major anti-corruption proposal in early 1999. Though “A Promise to New Haven” was never adopted, and a number of the changes it proposed are still discussed by advocates of charter reform, it was a case where a Ward 1 alderman could take a stand because of his independence from the political system that he was criticizing.

But as Civin reminded me, the Ward 1 alderman still has some quality-of-life issues to deal with — though, in the right circumstances, these can turn into broader organizing opportunities. One controversy concerned an unexpected subject: “Yale and the New Haven police started, when rollerblading became popular, to fine people under an ordinance that said that after sundown and before sunrise, anybody using any devices with wheels below a certain diameter could get fined up to a certain amount. It was used by the police to target high school students who hang out in downtown, but also to target [Yale] students who were going up Science Hill to their labs.” Civin helped organize college and high school students in support of a change to the outdated ordinance; when the mayor, who was up for re-election, mocked their efforts, the backlash was so strong that he ultimately returned to campus to express his support for the changes they advocated.

But ultimately, none of the men who have held the Ward 1 seat could have succeeded without learning to listen to their colleagues and constituents. Morand recalls a prayer Rabbi James Ponet offered to a class of graduating Yale seniors: “One should always have two ears and one mouth, and listen twice as much as one speaks.” Morand might not have known very much about property taxes during a critical fight over a tax hike, Civin might never have worked for a salary below the living wage and Gonzalez might never before have offered a vision for a cleaner way of doing politics. But the willingness to advance such a vision for change, coupled with a knowledge of when to hold their tongues, meant that over the past 15 years, the Ward 1 aldermen have been able to prove that they not only have ideas for how to make New Haven better, but can achieve them.



Alyssa Rosenberg is a junior in Silliman College and co-chair of the Ward 22 Democratic Committee. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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