The nomination process for Ward 1 Democratic aldermanic candidates may soon be radically changed if the two Yale students currently running for election as co-chairs of the ward’s Democratic Town Committee successfully implement the series of reforms they have proposed.
Hugh Baran ’09 and Cynthia Okechukwu ’08 have announced their candidacy for the co-chairmanship of the Committee — a position whose responsibilities include recommending to the full Town Committee a Democratic nominee for the Ward 1 aldermanic seat. They have proposed the institution of a caucus system to choose a candidate, which would allow all registered Ward 1 Democrats to participate in the selection process. Under the current system, only members of the committee participate in choosing a nominee.
“The only place where a dialogue was really happening was in the committee of 40 people and that, when you’re representing a ward of 1,000 people, is really disappointing,” said Okechukwu, who joined the committee last year. “There are so many potential voters, and when you limit it to the Committee, it’s not really representative.”
The Democratic Town Committee plays an integral role in Ward 1, Baran said, because the Democratic primary, which would allow a candidate to challenge the Committee’s choice, happens too soon after students return to New Haven in September to allow the challenger to mount a successful campaign. For more than a decade — until Ward 1 Alderman Nick Shalek ’05, running as an Independent, defeated the incumbent and committee choice Rebecca Livengood ’07 this November — the candidate nominated by the committee had been successful in the general election.
“It was almost impossible for a Democrat to challenge another Democrat, so what we said [in the committee] was sort of the final word on who would be the alder.” Okechukwu said. “That was my main concern,”
Susie Voigt, chairman of the New Haven Democratic Town Committee, said she supports the proposed reforms, but noted that the decision of the ward committee is not a legally binding nomination. Voigt said she thought the proposed caucus idea would be feasible under current state law, though the bylaws of the New Haven Town Democratic Committee would probably need to be amended.
“I’m totally supportive and open to them coming up with a new process, especially because the primary process isn’t feasible for Yale students,” Voigt said. “But it’s important to understand that the actual legal nomination takes place at the Town Committee.”
Voigt said candidates would also still be allowed, under state law, to challenge the committee’s nominee in the primary or the general election.
Livengood said she and Dan Weeks ’06, who also sought the committee’s nomination last year, had met as early as last spring and agreed that the system needed to be reformed to allow more student input.
“There was a sense from really everybody involved that these reforms were really necessary,” Livengood said. “I would have supported them regardless of the results.”
According to some members of last year’s Committee, the campaign between Livengood and Weeks was particularly divisive. As a result of that fight, Okechukwu said, the consensus among campus Democrats was that some reforms to the system were essential.
While the full ramifications of the proposed change would not be entirely clear until the next aldermanic election in 2007, Livengood said the reforms would effectively move the primary election to the spring, forcing those interested in running for alderman to reach out to students earlier.
“It will mean that the candidates who are elected have done more to reach out to the student body as whole,” she said.
Shalek, who said his decision to run against Livengood was influenced by his perception of the nominating committee as undemocratic, said he fully supports Baran and Okechukwu’s proposed reforms.
“The most important thing is that we make the Ward 1 process open and fair so that all Democratic students in Ward 1 can determine who their representative can be,” he said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the process that existed last spring was flawed.”
Shalek said that if the Democratic Committee were to step back from its leading role in the nomination process, he would like to see it play a more active role in fostering conversation about New Haven between different populations of the Yale campus.
“There are student groups focused on a whole host of issues … and to be able to draw representatives from those groups and put them on a committee that discusses New Haven issues and meets with some regularity is a great way, in my view, to keep students interested in New Haven politics,” he said.
Okechukwu said she agrees with Shalek about using the Ward Committee as a forum for discussion, but she said her proposals regarding the functions of the committee are still tentative.
The election for Democratic Committee co-chairs in both Ward 1 and Ward 22, the political districts that include all of Yale’s residential colleges, will be held on March 7. Mena Cammett ’09 and current Ward 22 Committee co-chair Shaneane Ragin are running in Ward 22.