If history is any guide, the next Ward 1 alderman will be chosen on March 23. Election Day is not for another eight months, of course. And, no, students in Ward 1 — which includes Old Campus and eight residential colleges — won’t be going to the polls the Wednesday after Spring Break. But when the Ward 1 Democratic Committee endorses an aldermanic candidate two days after Yalies return from vacation, it will likely be picking the winner of November’s election, too.
That may be a strange way to hold an election, but it is nevertheless how Ward 1 politics typically work. Democrats who fail to earn the Ward 1 endorsement almost never take the rather easy step of petitioning to enter a primary. As a result, the endorsed candidate — despite the occasional challenge from an independent or a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic ward — is all but ensured victory. In fact, the winner of that endorsement often doesn’t even need to run in an election: The two aldermen preceding current incumbent Ben Healey ’04 resigned months before their terms ended, allowing the mayor to appoint the Ward 1 endorsee as their replacement.
Ward committee endorsements are not unique to Ward 1. But Ward 1 itself is unique in New Haven, because it is comprised almost entirely of voters who have spent no more than four years in the Elm City. Many of these students care about New Haven, but without a competitive election, they have little reason to care about New Haven politics.
In that sense, what people often cite as the committee’s greatest strength — its ability to bring together the students most active and most informed in city politics — may also be its greatest weakness. To begin with, those students are far from representative of Ward 1 at large, increasing the possibility that candidates tailor their campaigns to a narrow set of interests rather than broader opinion. But even more importantly, elections are an opportunity for citizens to engage in a real conversation about their community’s future. By both design and tradition, the chance for Ward 1 to have that conversation is often lost.
That point has been made very clear in recent weeks. As the two declared candidates, Daniel Weeks ’06 and Rebecca Livengood ’07, campaign for the votes of committee members, they have neither sought nor received the attention of the rest of the campus — and they have had little reason to do so. One of these two candidates may emerge two weeks from now as the overwhelming favorite to serve as the next alderman, but few of the constituents they hope to serve will even notice.
If an independent or Republican runs in November, a contested election may spark slight interest. But in an overwhelmingly Democratic city like New Haven, the real political battles are fought in the primaries. We do not expect the Ward 1 Committee to voluntarily give up its own power in favor of a more open process. But the candidates could effect change on their own. If both Weeks and Livengood pledged to run in the Democratic primary later this year — no matter what happens March 23 — the committee’s choice might not count for much. But at the very least, the votes of Ward 1 constituents would.