The hand-written signs at last night’s rally in support of Jorge Perez’s re-election to the presidency of the Board of Aldermen bore different messages, but they all ended with the same sentence: “Perez = Open and Fair Government.” Unlike most campaign slogans, it’s not much of an exaggeration. In his 18 years of service on the board, Alderman Perez has been a consistently independent voice and a strong advocate for economic and racial justice.
The question, of course, is whether he’s a better man than Carl Goldfield to lead the Board of Aldermen through a year that promises to be politically tumultuous. In 2006, Mayor DeStefano may trade his current office on Church Street for one in Hartford, and the fate of the Yale-New Haven Cancer Center, the largest economic development project in the city’s history, will likely be decided. The board’s president will not only have to manage these transitions, but to welcome a number of new aldermen and attempt to bridge some of the rifts that emerged during this fall’s elections.
Alderman Perez has made it clear where he stands on a number of these issues. During his time on the board, he’s built a strong relationship with the Federation of Hospital and University Employees. His support for responsible development and the working people of New Haven extends beyond the votes he casts on the board; he’s a reliable presence at the meetings and public actions of groups like Community Organized for Responsible Development.
Bob Proto, the president of Local 35, told the crowd on Tuesday that “I was born in Fair Haven and from the time I could understand politics, I have never seen someone who understood honesty and integrity better than Jorge Perez … Jorge is someone who will shake your hand and you can take that to the bank.”
The bank reference is an apt one. Some union and responsible-development advocates worry that without a strong ally as board president, the debate over the cancer center will follow the same course as the one over the sale of the New Haven Savings Bank (now NewAlliance). Mayor John DeStefano agreed to a compromise that allowed the sale of the bank to go forward, a decision that angered some of his allies. This time around, the mayor has proposed a road map for a resolution of the cancer center impasse that has met with at least initial approval from the workers at Yale-New Haven Hospital who are trying to form a union. But many of Perez’s supporters still believe that as board president, he would provide a useful reminder to the mayor that responsible development matters.
Another hallmark of Alderman Perez’s career is his commitment to preserving the strength of the aldermen. Earlier during his time in office, he worked to move budgeting powers from the mayor’s office to the board. When elected president in 2000, he moved quickly to appoint aldermen who were not allied with the mayor to chair some of the board’s committees. He also worked to strengthen the voice of the board’s Black and Latino Caucus by bringing the group into more regular consultation with the mayor’s office.
It’s too bad that Alderman Perez’s valuable contributions to the debate over separation of powers in New Haven have, at times, been overshadowed by the deterioration of his relationship with Mayor DeStefano. While both parties certainly bear some responsibility for this state of affairs, Alderman Perez has been particularly quick to pit himself as David in battle against an undemocratic Goliath. It’s worth considering how Alderman Perez will deal with the new alders elected this fall with the backing of the mayor; New Haven will be better off if the debates on the board are vigorous but collegial.
Personally, I’ve consistently been disappointed by Aldermen Perez’s stance on gay rights. He is one of the few aldermen who voted on the Domestic Partnership Amendment twice, opposing it both times. Given his position as one of the strongest Latino leaders in New Haven, Alderman Perez is in a unique position to begin a conversation about gay rights. It’s New Haven’s loss that he has not embraced this opportunity.
Alderman Perez’s supporters were careful not to mention Alderman Goldfield on Tuesday night. Instead, they focused on words like “intelligence,” “integrity” and “democracy.” He told the crowd that “the power is in the people.” But in his fight to keep his job, there are only 29 people who, when the board chooses its leaders in January, really matter.
Alyssa Rosenberg is a senior in Silliman College. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.