Ever since Mr. Smith went to Washington, the straight-shooting, squeaky-clean political candidate has been an American Dream. This desire is no less strong at Yale — witness the popularity of the movement for campaign finance reform. In this year’s Ward 1 race, the question of independence — from the unions, from the Office of New Haven and State Affairs, from the mayor’s office — is central, and frankly, it is wistful.
This is not to suggest that politics are inherently corrupt or that politicians must suspend their ethics while in office. But the best way to judge candidates for any office — especially in local politics, where margins of victory may be small and alliances may be personal as well as strategic — is to see which allies they choose and what happens when they find themselves disagreeing with those allies.
The last candidate to run as an independent in Ward 1 took money from a leading Connecticut Republican and was a former employee of the Office of New Haven and State Affairs. Nick Shalek comes burdened with no such specific baggage. This may be because his deepest involvement with New Haven comes not through city government, but through the business community and the Yale Entrepreneurial Society, of which he was president.
That connection to the business community produced a donation to Shalek’s campaign from the New Haven Chamber of Commerce — the only contribution from a local interest accepted by either candidate. Rebecca Livengood’s campaign decided not to accept PAC money and has received only individual contributions.
Shalek’s YES experience may be paying other dividends. A recent meeting of students who oppose the attempts to negotiate a Community Benefits Agreement for the Yale-New Haven Cancer Center met recently in YES offices to plan an election night benefit for the center. While not officially connected to Shalek’s campaign, the group apparently discussed distributing event tickets near the Ward 1 polls. The only reason to pursue this strategy — which might actually decrease student attendance at this event, as the polls are at the New Haven Public Library — could be to increase voter turnout for Shalek, who has made immediate development of the cancer center a key part of his platform.
Nonetheless, Shalek claims that he is, and will remain, entirely independent. “No one at the University is going to pressure me,” he said, “and if they do, I’m not going to respond.” This vision may be honorable, but it is unrealistic. If Shalek expects to convince his colleagues on the board on the force of his charm and argumentative skills, and without ever making an alliance or incurring a political debt, his political awakening will likely be a sad and disappointing lesson.
Rebecca Livengood’s alliances, at least, are well-known, and her reasons for choosing those alliances are clear. One of the things that has disappointed me most during my time at Yale is a tendency among otherwise liberal people who profess to believe in economic justice to be preemptively suspicious of unions. Livengood has sided with the unions to argue for increasing Yale’s voluntary contribution to the city of New Haven, to call for the expansion of the Yale Homebuyer Program to Fair Haven and to insist that a negotiated Community Benefits Agreement for the cancer center makes the most sense both for the Hill and for Yale-New Haven Hospital.
While it’s been mostly lost in the election coverage, the significance of Livengood’s support for Alderman Carl Goldfield’s candidacy for president of the Board of Alderman cannot be overstated. The Federation of Hospital and University Employees and the Connecticut Center for a New Economy have made keeping Jorge Perez board president one of their main priorities, and Livengood’s decision to split from them despite considerable personal and political pressure is a strong indication of her character. If any readers need more concrete evidence, they should consider this: Alderman Ben Healey received substantial financial support from leaders of both organizations. Livengood has received none.
It would be nice if we could all be angels. But Milton tells us that heaven is a dictatorship, rather than a democracy. The work we have to do to build a just, more prosperous city lies somewhere between heaven and its alternative.
Alyssa Rosenberg is a senior in Silliman College. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.