Tammany Hall, Conn. chapter: Voting out the Democratic machine

Suppose your hometown will soon be holding an election for dog-catcher. Candidate A has spent years advocating on behalf of women, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered persons, and racial and religious minorities. He supports the right of graduate, undergraduate and high school students to form unions. He favors an annual increase in the minimum wage commensurate with the cost of living. He is an evangelizing vegan who stands four-square for what he calls “environmental justice.”

Candidate A is a signatory to petitions for the immediate withdrawal of American and British forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, and has published letters to the editor of The New York Times calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state according to the original 1948 partitioning of British Palestine. Nary a week passes in which he is not, by his own design, arrested for civil disobedience. Candidate B, on the other hand, has a demonstrable ability to catch dogs.

The choice in the upcoming election for Ward 1 alderman is, of course, not so clear-cut. Rebecca Livengood’s platform is slightly less of a caricature than Candidate A’s, and slightly more relevant to her aldermanic responsibilities (but only slightly); Nick Shalek, for his part, says exactly the right things about the need for reform in New Haven, but as he has no experience in elective office, his supporters must simply trust that right words will translate into right action.

There is, however, an argument for Shalek’s candidacy that supercedes the nugatory squabbles of the campaign so ably catalogued (“Ward 1 can do better than ‘going negative,'” 10/20) by Roger Low last week. (Incidentally, it is not the case that Rebecca Livengood “loves cancer.” She is merely on the record favoring an indefinite delay in the construction of a cancer center that will bring desperately needed jobs to New Haven and first-class health care to its citizens, pending a cessation of hostilities by the leadership of the SEIU.)

While the outcome of a particular election for one seat among 30 aldermen is not, in and of itself, terribly important, what is important is that this election presents the best chance in quite some time to bloody the nose of the New Haven Democratic party machinery. A Tammany-style operation that sustains itself through demagogy almost as embarrassing for left-liberal politics as it is for the institutions of city government, the New Haven Democrats have enjoyed uninterrupted control of the city’s mayoralty since the election of Richard Lee in 1954. Currently, the Board of Aldermen is composed of 29 Democrats to one Republican. (Joyce Chen of Ward 2 had been a Green, but she recently switched her affiliation to the Democrats, thereby cutting the representation of opposition parties on the board by half).

In a half-century of practically uncontested hegemony — Boss Tweed, at the very least, had to work to keep his opponents out of power — the New Haven Democrats have presided over perhaps the single most disastrous urban renewal program in American history. They immiserated the city because the guiding principle of their approach to urban government is to use local administrative offices as soapboxes for addressing national controversies.

To this day, their process of selecting and vetting candidates consists of little more than seeking out dutiful recitations of a daily-updated catechism of pressing issues in the progressive movement. As Alissa Stollwerk helpfully reminded us on Monday (“Dems pick Livengood for Ward 1,” 10/25), the Yale College Democrats endorsed Rebecca Livengood’s candidacy on the grounds that she will use the powers of her office to strengthen the federal environmental regulations the Bush administration has gutted, curb Republican exploitation of the recent natural disasters and reverse the trend of global warming. She will do this — and re-invigorate the city’s economy, and guarantee full-employment with high wages and mandatory health insurance for New Haven citizens — by marching alongside GESO and having her photograph taken with Jesse Jackson.

An alderman who can attract substantial investment into New Haven’s commerce and infrastructure and create incentives for the kind of private entrepreneurship that has driven the isolated cases of economic revival in recent years — e.g., in the vibrant restaurant and club scene of Ninth Square — will contribute in a significant way to improving life in New Haven. He or she will not, however, have much time left over to posture as a hero of progressivism, and may in the end find that the policy prescriptions of liberal orthodoxy compound rather than solve the city’s myriad problems.

I have no idea whether Nick Shalek is up to the tasks of the office he seeks — unlike Candidate B, he has yet to demonstrate his abilities — but I do know that he is neither sclerotically wedded to a governing ideology with a proven record of failure, nor happily and consensually beholden to the intractably corrupt central committees of special-interest lobbies who do not speak for the rank-and-file of their own membership, let alone the broader community. On that basis alone, he is the best of the field of candidates for Ward 1 alderman.

There is a gruesome irony in the fact that a colony founded to escape the wanton Puritanism-lite of Massachusetts should have evolved into a rotten borough on a par with the worst excesses of Hanoverian England. In the interest of slowing, and perhaps even halting the growth of machine politics, this column officially throws its support to the candidacy of Nick Shalek, and urges its vast readership to do likewise.



Daniel Koffler is a senior in Calhoun College. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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