When I got a call on Wednesday afternoon telling me that Phil Voigt had died, it had been a while since I’d seen the 27th Ward alderman, an unfailingly gracious and judicious presence at City Hall. He’d been ill, and I’d been delinquent in my attendance at Board of Alderman meetings in the last year. In losing Phil, a lifelong resident of New Haven and a leader in its labor and political communities, I, and this city, have lost a political polestar, a mentor and a friend.
Phil was in his fourth term on the board when I met him in the early spring of my freshman year. In my blunderings at City Hall during the domestic partnership debate, Phil was both a teacher and an ally. I remember watching him rise to speak in favor of granting legal recognition to New Haven’s gay and lesbian couples on the night of the final vote. Unlike some of his colleagues, whose suits sometimes outshone their speeches, Phil wasn’t a particularly flashy dresser. He didn’t need to be. A commitment to substance and efficiency defined him, be that in the form of a plain, dark suit or a speech that was succinct but impossible to answer. On that evening, in spite of my disappointment when the bill lost by a single vote, I took comfort from the practicality and personal conviction he demonstrated so clearly.
It would not be the only situation where I admired Phil’s courage and leadership. I watched him get arrested for civil disobedience during the last of 11 strikes he participated in during his 43 years as a Yale engineer. After graduating from high school, Phil followed the lead of his father, who worked at Yale and helped found the University’s original blue-collar union. During Phil’s eight-year term as Local 35’s chief steward, he was part of a revitalization of that union and helped to organize Local 34.
At his funeral, one speaker joked that Phil made the ultimate commitment to unionization by marrying a Local 34 organizer. In a display of pictures at his wake, I saw a photograph from the 80’s of Phil and his wife Susie that captured some of what I admired so much about their marriage. Both of them are wearing winter coats with union buttons, Susie has on a pair of enormous sunglasses, Phil is sporting the same moustache he had when I met him, and they are both smiling. The active, passionate commitment to fighting for workers’ rights and for a better New Haven that I saw — and continue to see — in their work and the joy of doing that work together are unmistakable.
That dedication to justice and the strength the Voigts drew from doing what needed to be done served Phil well on the Board of Aldermen. On Wednesday evening, a good friend and I tried and failed to remember a single major vote cast by Phil with which we vehemently disagreed. Once, at a hearing on whether or not to increase city funding for Tweed Airport, my friend gave testimony to which Phil took exception. When we stepped outside to discuss how the debate was going, Phil joined us, eager to reassure my friend that his words were taken seriously, and to encourage him to continue coming to and speaking at board meetings.
He took his role as a mentor extremely seriously. The Voigts did more than any couple I know to encourage Yale students to be citizens and leaders in New Haven. I remember many nights after board meetings when Ward 1 Alderman Ben Healey and Phil’s conversations would spill out of the chambers and onto the steps of City Hall until finally Phil returned home and Ben and I would walk back to campus. Without Susie Voigt’s encouragement, I never would have run for Democratic Town Committee, and without her help, I never would have made it through my first year on the job. Though the Voigts have children of their own — Chloe, Claudia, Clara Rose and Carlos — they always seemed to be able to make the Yale students who dedicated themselves to New Haven feel like family.
The front door at City Hall is draped in black. I don’t want to imagine walking through it, knowing that Phil Voigt won’t be in the aldermanic chambers when I reach them, ready to make a salient point and to remind us of our duty to the city of New Haven and to each other.
Alyssa Rosenberg is a senior in Silliman College and Ward 22 Democratic committee co-chair. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.