After four years making controversial votes on the Board of Aldermen, Ward 2 Alderwoman Joyce Chen ’01 finds herself in a primary battle against a candidate backed by Mayor John DeStefano Jr.
Chen, twice elected as a Green Party candidate but now a registered Democrat, asserts that the mayor feels threatened by her and is trying to replace her with someone who will not challenge his proposals. Chen’s opponent, Gina Calder ’03, is a DeStefano supporter with connections in City Hall.
“The reason why they’re trying to get rid of me is that I’m an independent voice, I’m honest, and I don’t kowtow to people,” Chen said.
Chen’s record provides support for her claims of independence. Last year, she ran for the state legislature as a Green Party candidate against Democratic Rep. Toni Walker, a popular, liberal incumbent who was endorsed by the unions that had backed Chen for alderwoman. During debate over the mayor’s downtown development proposal earlier this year, she repeatedly criticized the mayor and her colleagues on the Board of Aldermen for not considering alternatives to demolishing the Coliseum, and though she voted in favor of the overall proposal, she symbolically voted against the Coliseum demolition.
Perhaps most noticeably, in 2003 she disappointed many of her Green Party colleagues by voting against a Domestic Partnership Amendment that would have recognized same-sex couples in New Haven.
“I don’t think we ever voted the same way on a major issue,” said former Ward 1 Alderman Ben Healey ’04, a Democrat who served alongside Chen for nearly four years and sponsored the domestic partnership bill.
Chen said she has been an independent advocate for issues relating to homelessness, mental illness, minority contracts and the environment — all topics that are close to her personally. Chen became involved in the community during her time at Yale, starting an elderly services program called “Adopt a Grandparent,” conducting research on mental illness, and helping set up Harmony Place, a community center where students interact with the homeless. These issues remain among Chen’s priorities: As examples of her achievements on the Board of Aldermen, Chen cites her efforts to keep several emergency homeless shelters open during a time of budget cuts, as well as her work to maintain city funding for Fellowship Place, a mental illness recovery center where Chen worked as an Urban Fellow while at Yale.
While Chen said she is focused on working for her community members — a Harlem native, she is proud of developing relationships with her neighbors and local children — her political moves have often stirred controversy on a broader scale. In particular, her recent move from the Green Party to the Democratic Party was met with surprise from leaders of both camps, since Chen did not notify either of her decision and at the time offered no explanation for her action.
Chen said she made the move to gain a stronger position as an advocate for her constituents, since becoming a Democrat enables her to join the Board of Aldermen’s Democratic caucus.
“In terms of my ideology and beliefs, they haven’t changed at all,” she said.
New Haven Democratic Town Committee Chairwoman Susie Voigt said she was disappointed in Chen’s failure to inform her colleagues, Democrats and Greens alike, of her decision, as well as her “cynical” reasoning for becoming a Democrat.
“When I tell people I’m a Democrat, it’s not because it puts me in a more powerful position,” Voigt said. “I’m disappointed in that response on her part, but she is entitled to her own beliefs and certainly welcome to be a Democrat.”
Among liberals on Yale’s campus, Chen has come under fire for her vote against the Domestic Partnership Amendment, which would have created a city registry of same-sex couples, providing documentation of their relationship status.
But Chen said her vote against the bill should not be taken to mean that she does not support benefits for same-sex couples. She said she felt the bill lacked the legal status to effect meaningful change.
“That amendment was happening at a time when we were laying people off in our city,” she said. “Setting up a registry meant we would have to take more resources to do it. And at the time, it really had no impact on any couples because it was not a legal mandate.”
Healey acknowledged that the bill was in some sense symbolic, but he said it nonetheless provided an opportunity for incremental change that could be instrumental in bringing about an eventual solution like civil unions or full marital rights.
“A vote against it was a signal that we’re not interested in granting recognition to gay couples,” he said.
Another controversial aspect of Chen’s political image is her affiliation with the Community Organized for Responsible Development, an organization that has posed objections to Yale-New Haven Hospital’s Cancer Center expansion project. CORD has been linked by some with the hospital’s unions, but Chen said that while she supports unionization at the hospital, CORD’s concerns about the Cancer Center are primarily focused on other issues.
“CORD is concerned about some really legitimate things, like being able to get to your driveway, like being able to park in front of your house and not having some patient’s car blocking your car so you can’t get out,” Chen said.
The Democratic primary in Ward 2 — which comprises the Dwight neighborhood west of Park Street, including parts of Goffe Street, Whalley Avenue, Elm Street, Edgewood Avenue, Lynwood Place and Howe Street — will be held tomorrow.