It’s been a quiet general election season in New Haven, Ward 1 excepted, and a week from Tuesday Mayor John DeStefano Jr. will be reelected. Unlike 2003, when DeStefano faced an unsuccessful primary challenge from former Empower New Haven CEO Sherri Killins, no Democrat ran against the mayor this year. While challengers Leslie Harper Blatteau of the Guilty Party and Independent Gary Jenkins have pushed Mayor DeStefano on youth programming and the impact of his run for governor on New Haven, neither of them presents an actual political threat.
Some observers ask why, at a time when the mayor’s attention has turned in part to Connecticut’s other cities and towns, the struggle to succeed him did not begin in this year’s election cycle. The answer lies partially in the calculations of the many potential mayoral aspirants, but could also be attributed to a race that won’t be officially decided until January.
No public vote will be cast in this election — in fact, only 30 very well-informed New Haven residents will have a say in its outcome. But when the members of the Board of Aldermen vote on who will lead them as board president, they may be choosing not only a legislative leader but New Haven’s next mayor.
Being president of New Haven’s Board of Aldermen is not an immediately glamorous job. Mostly, it entitles the alderman who holds it to take a seat on a dais above his colleagues and to add several words to his title when quoted in the News or introduced in public settings. The week-to-week duties of the position involve keeping the board scheduled and orderly. In this capacity, the board president plays a significant role in setting the legislative agenda and building consensus. But a provision of New Haven’s City Charter states that if the acting mayor is unable to finish his time in office, the board president becomes mayor for the remainder of the term. If DeStefano wins the governor’s seat, the board president would succeed him a year before the next mayoral election, giving him a significant advantage over any other potential candidates.
Even if DeStefano does not become governor, the board president still plays a key role in city government. As the relationship between the Mayor’s Office and the current board president, Ward 5 Alderman Jorge Perez has soured, it has become more difficult for the legislative and executive branches of city government to move forward together. It is important that there be a constructive — if challenging — dialogue about the agendas the mayor and the board seek to advance.
Though the election for board president and for the other leadership positions on the board is still several months away, it is probably the most important political contest of this election season. Perez is being challenged by Ward 29 Alderman Carl Goldfield. The race has produced — or perhaps simply illuminated — a deep rift in the Democratic Party. The Federation of Hospital and University Employees strongly backs Perez, who represents a section of the Hill neighborhood that has organized to support responsible development of the Yale-New Haven Cancer Center. They have questioned Goldfield’s independence from the Mayor’s Office. But after the September primaries, Goldfield announced that he had the support of enough of his colleagues to win the board presidency, and many of them have indicated that they believe Goldfield will be a stronger leader than Perez.
Whatever the Democratic Party and the Federation believe about Perez and Goldfield’s leadership styles and stances on specific issues, the board presidency was the shadow issue in many of the aldermanic campaigns this fall. In 2003, the unions and the Democratic Party were generally united, except in Ward 2 where the unions backed Joyce Chen against Democratic challenger Andre Baker. This fall, the two camps faced off in a number of races, neither side scored decisive victories, and they held separate parties after the polls closed. Even after Nov. 8, this race will continue, and it is uncertain what the lasting effect of it will be for the relationship between the Democratic Party and the unions, for the way the Board of Aldermen is run, or for the city as a whole.
In the next several weeks, this column will examine the issues at stake in this critically important — and sometimes overlooked — election. While the question of who should lead the board will never appear on the ballot, it should be a matter of concern for all New Haven residents with a stake in the board’s proceedings, and in who occupies the largest office in City Hall.
Alyssa Rosenberg is a senior in Silliman College. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.