If my work in politics were ever rewarded with a single wish, it would be this: I never want to hear the phrase “special interests” again. The term is so completely meaningless and easily manipulated that it deserves to be purged, at least for the sake of clarity.
In New Haven, rather than identifying stereotypical large donors, “special interests” is a phrase that’s most often used to smear organizations with a particular vision of what a just, vibrant and inclusive city would look like. Determining what kind of city we should strive for and what organizations we should join with to realize that vision requires a broader — and clearer — understanding of who has stakes in Ward 1.
Ward 1 doesn’t have the power to swing a city election, and the Ward 1 alderman isn’t often called upon to cast a deciding vote. But the ward is the seat of New Haven’s largest employer, and its alderman often has the opportunity to take stands on progressive issues without risking a constituent backlash.
Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs facilitates most of the programs Yale offers to the greater New Haven community, including the Yale Homebuyer Program, which helps University employees purchase their own homes; sponsorship of major city events like the Festival of Arts and Ideas; and a number of tutoring and mentoring programs that partner Yale students with New Haven youth. ONHSA has helped develop New Haven’s biotechnology industry and encouraged retail development in a buffer zone around the Yale campus.
These efforts serve the community, but Yale’s motivations are strategic as well as altruistic. ONHSA advertises its own work heavily in local publications and in empty storefronts owned by University Properties, and ONHSA employees often give money and other forms of support to local candidates who side with the University on controversial issues. Other Yale offices, including the Investments Office — which handles the University’s pension fund — help manage the resources the University invests in the community.
Locals 34 and 35, Yale’s clerical and technical employees unions, won new contracts in 2003, but it took them two strikes to achieve a compromise that would help lift retired union members out of poverty and give workers more job training. Like many other unions, they’ve advocated for the organization of employees of other industries in the city, most notably the workers at Yale-New Haven Hospital and graduate teachers at Yale. With Locals 34 and 35, these employees form the Federation of Hospital and University Employees. The Federation is a significant player in New Haven politics and remains largely independent of the New Haven Democratic Town Committee and Mayor John DeStefano Jr., though it has sometimes failed to act on issues like gay rights.
The Connecticut Center for a New Economy is a think tank allied with the Federation of Hospital and University Employees. It conducts research into the practices of employers and issues of economic and social justice in New Haven and in Hartford, and it hires and trains organizers to mobilize the communities affected by these issues. In recent years, CCNE has investigated and organized around the privatization of the New Haven Savings Bank, collections practices and misuse of free bed funds by Yale-New Haven Hospital as well as the kinds of economic development fostered in New Haven. CCNE has taken the model of union contracts and urged that social contracts be formed between major employers like Yale and the cities of which they are a part.
Community Organized for Responsible Development is an alliance of 23 New Haven faith-based groups, unions and community organizations that advocates a broad vision of responsible development. The organization was founded on the premise that major economic projects like the Yale-New Haven Hospital Cancer Center should proceed in partnership with the communities where they are located, taking into account local traffic patterns, affordable housing, environmental factors and subsidiary economic impacts. CORD advocates the use of community benefits agreements between developers and community organizations to resolve responsible development issues. One of the more unfortunate recent uses of “special interests” rhetoric has been to suggest that CORD is indifferent to the plight of cancer patients or is opposed to development of the cancer center.
None of these organizations is staffed and run exclusively by angels. All of them have subsidiary goals, whether it’s to organize another union or to win positive publicity for a major employer. And frankly, if purity is your standard for choosing allies or supporting a candidate, then politics will almost always be a disappointment. The great columnist Walter Lippmann once wrote that we had no choice but to build a better world from the brutal realities of earth; in partnering those brutal realities with a positive vision for change, perhaps we, and the allies we choose, can rise above them.
Alyssa Rosenberg is a senior in Silliman College. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.