This is not the first time Ward 1 Alderman candidate Nick Shalek ’05 has been an underdog.
A hockey enthusiast who got into Yale more for his academic merits than his brilliance on the rink, Shalek was not one of the better players on the hockey team when he arrived in New Haven. In fact, the walk-on spent most of his freshman year warming the bench while he watched his more talented teammates play.
But Shalek did not quit, and by his senior year, he became team captain, winning over his teammates with his work ethic, determination, and charisma, said head coach Tim Taylor.
Walking on to city politics may be a different matter, however. Shalek has virtually no political experience under his belt and had not registered in Ward 1 until July. Nonetheless, he will try to unseat Democratic incumbent Rebecca Livengood ’07 as an independent challenger this November.
Shalek, a political science and economics major from Purchase, N.Y., said he wants to provide Yale students with a more moderate alternative to Livengood.
“I talked to people and they felt that Rebecca was representative of a very small part of the Yale population and [the Graduate Employees and Students Organization] and the [Undergraduate Organizing Committee] and some of the activist groups on campus,” Shalek said. “They wanted the option of someone who seemed more practical or someone who was willing to look at both sides of an issue.”
For Shalek, the impetus to run for office came during a packed public hearing on the Yale-New Haven Hospital Cancer Center in July. As he sat at the Board of Aldermen meeting that night, Shalek said he first became aware of what he said was the strength of interest group influence in New Haven politics.
“It was the first time it really hit me that the cancer center could actually be delayed for a considerable amount of time or possibly not be approved at all,” Shalek said. “And I felt very strongly that Yale students wouldn’t want union politics to stand in the way of a project with such economic and health benefits. At that point, if somebody didn’t run, then the Ward 1 seat would continue to represent the view that it was OK to play politics with the cancer center.”
Although Shalek said he shares the same positions as Livengood on social issues like environmental sustainability and gay rights, he portrays himself as a more moderate Democrat who is less tied to special interests.
“One of the reasons I’m running is because I do have independent perspective,” Shalek said. “I think it’s important for the Ward 1 alderman who’s trying to represent so many distinct views to have a value set … but also to be independent of the various institutions who play a role in [New Haven politics].”
According to the registrar of voters, Shalek only registered to vote in New Haven in July, filing as an independent in the same month he announced his candidacy. He switched his party affiliation to Democratic in August. Though he lived in Wards 22 and 7 while a student at Yale, he said he chose to run in Ward 1 — where he moved this summer — because the ward is comprised almost entirely of students and representing Yale students is Shalek’s primary concern.
Shalek said he did not register to vote in the city sooner because he thought it was important to vote in New York. He also conceded that he had been unaware of city politics for much of his time on campus, a problem he said is common among students and that he wanted to change.
Livengood supporter Ted Fertik ’08 criticized Shalek for being virtually absent from the New Haven political scene until he announced his candidacy.
“I have no idea [what Shalek is all about], and that deeply concerns me,” Fertik said. “I certainly don’t know everyone involved in New Haven politics, but I know quite a lot of people, and I had never heard of Nick Shalek until he announced he was running for Ward 1 alderman sometime late this summer.”
Shalek said that a fundamental part of his platform is his emphasis on economic growth in New Haven. Shalek, who first became interested in New Haven’s economy through his involvement with the Yale Entrepreneurial Society and his coursework, regards the city’s biggest problems as its high unemployment and poverty rates. By encouraging private business development, providing affordable housing plans, and bringing new industries such as biotechnology to the Elm City, Shalek said he hopes to strengthen New Haven’s economic base and alleviate homelessness and poverty.
However, opponents have criticized Shalek for what they said is a vague, insubstantial program and called into question his dedication to environmental issues and unionization. Although she agrees that economic development in New Haven is important, Livengood said she still has not seen any concrete economic proposals from Shalek.
Livengood also said she had never encountered Shalek at any New Haven political events in the past and does not consider experience in economic development to be substantial background for city office.
“I don’t think that a background with YES constitutes an intimate connection with New Haven economic development,” Livengood said. “I don’t think that the YES gives Nick experience in New Haven politics. It’s impossible to tell whether he would do well in New Haven politics from that.”
But Shalek’s supporters, including former Yale College Democrats Vice President Brett Edkins ’06, who now serves as his campaign manager, said they do not see his political experience as a problem and point to his experience with economic development as an asset.
“You can show your dedication in many ways,” Edkins said. “He’s shown aptitude in getting things done economically through YES. It gives him a clearer sense of what his job is in Ward 1.”
Livengood also said she was skeptical of Shalek’s independence from interest groups’ influence, especially since Shalek is an employee of the Investments Office.
“I think that there is a question of conflict of interest when one is getting a paycheck from Yale and they’re a huge developer in the city,” Livengood said. “A number of decisions on the board are directly related to development in New Haven … I do question the objectivity of someone who’s getting a paycheck [from Yale].”
Shalek said that he has taken no money from any person or groups affiliated with Yale and is financing his campaign with donations from family and friends at home. The Yale Investments Office declined to comment on the race.
Additionally, Shalek said he sees no conflict between protecting the environment and encouraging business growth in New Haven.
“Economic growth can be a force of significant progress when it’s coupled with appropriate attention to responsible development, environmental sustainability, and the concerns of New Haven citizens,” Shalek said.
Although Shalek is running as an independent, the Yale College Democrats are still considering both Shalek and Livengood for endorsement in the Ward 1 Alderman election. Yale College Democrats President Alissa Stollwerk ’06 said she is glad more voices will be heard in the election.
“I think Nick’s entering the race will force Nick and Rebecca and the rest of student body to have strong debates about the issues,” Stollwerk said. “Ward 1 is up for an exciting election.”