History repeats itself. For the second time in a half-century, we have a big-ideas mayor with a vision for a revitalized downtown. After a brief respite, Yale’s unions and the Democratic Party leaders are once again on uneasy terms. And in Ward 1, a candidate running as an independent is accusing a Democratic incumbent of having ties to special interests.
This last recurrence, the general-election contest between Alderwoman Rebecca Livengood ’07 and challenger Nick Shalek ’05 seems worthy of some attention. At this point, it appears likely that the election will play out in the media and in the challenger’s rhetoric just as the race between Alderman Ben Healey and Dan Kruger ’04 did in 2003. First, the challenger will allege that the incumbent is in some inappropriate way beholden to the Federation of Hospital and University Employees. Next, a certain number of writers and voters with a predisposition to see the mafia in every union will investigate these charges exhaustively, though probably without discovering anything more damaging than a record of involvement in social and economic justice issues.
Whether or not the independent is actually unencumbered by ties to any people or organizations with strong interests in the ward will be generally ignored. What associations are uncovered will be dismissed by most commentators as benign. And by the end of it all, Ward 1 politics will get a little less transparent, and a little more closed-minded about the realities of power in city politics.
The Ward 1 alderman may only be one member of the Board, but a number of factors allow her a certain freedom to take strong stands on controversial issues. Because the Yale campus is independently policed and heavily secured, free of negligent landlords, and blessed with prompt garbage removal and snowplowing in winter, there are relatively few quality-of-life issues the Ward 1 alderman needs to spend time on. The relative political homogeneity of Ward 1 voters guarantees the alderman can take positions — for example, supporting gay rights — that might pose risks for colleagues who have to balance the views of more diverse constituencies. Because most Ward 1 voters cast ballots based on political conviction rather than day-to-day needs, any ire the alderman faces will generally be ideological rather than personal. And even if a particular vote does cause consternation, a quarter of the electorate leaves town every year, guaranteeing candidates several hundred new voters with no memory of past transgressions come Election Day.
As a result, when controversial issues have come to City Hall in the past several aldermanic terms — the decision to strip Yale-New Haven Hospital police of their arrest powers, the Domestic Partnership Amendment, the Community Benefits Agreement resolution — the Ward 1 alderman has almost always been a strong voice in the debates leading up to a final decision. This tradition of Ward 1 leadership stretches back even farther, to Mike Morand’s involvement in the move toward community policing, and Josh Civin’s leadership in the Living Wage fight.
Because of the Ward 1 alderman’s ability to act decisively without significant political risk, finding an ally to fill that seat is a matter of great concern to everyone with a stake in Board politics. Find a sympathetic alderman, and you get more than another vote when it counts — you get another leader, another person willing to lobby her colleagues. To insist that any candidate can simultaneously maintain strong convictions and stay completely independent of the organizations and individuals working toward different visions of New Haven is willfully naive. Democrats may have party affiliations while independents claim none, but they both have their interests and their allies.
So what does it really mean to be an independent candidate in Ward 1? Why are one candidate’s connections a legitimate campaign issue, while another’s go unnoticed and unquestioned? What do these judgments reveal about the calculations voters use to make up their minds in Ward 1 elections? For the next several weeks, this column will examine the groups that have stakes in who represents the heart of Yale’s campus at City Hall, and how it might make sense for voters to regard those organizations. These are not merely semantic questions — they speak to what kind of voters we are, how our powers of political observation serve and fail us, and ultimately, what kind of values we are supporting in what for many of us is our first exercise in democracy.
Alyssa Rosenberg is a senior in Silliman College. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.