Just before noon on a Saturday campaign trip, with two and a half weeks to election day and a dozen or so points to climb in the polls, John DeStefano Jr. is chatting with a cafeteria manager at Connecticut College.
“How do you know when you’re doing a good job?” asks DeStefano, the New Haven mayor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate.
The manager, who by now is smiling widely, responds.
“Napkin notes,” he says. “Occasionally we’ll get a good one.”
DeStefano smiles and nods, leaning forward in his trademark casual stance, left foot crossed over the right.
“It’s like voting,” DeStefano says. “Isn’t it?”
If only winning an election were as easy as cooking quality cafeteria food.
For DeStefano — for any candidate this election cycle, Republican and Democrat alike — it’s not. Maybe it’s about making sense to a public uncertain of its own political allegiance, deciding whether to exploit anti-George W. Bush ’68 sentiment or to appeal to voters as an independent candidate, or to organize well and pump money into grass roots operations.
For DeStefano, who is trailing Republican incumbent M. Jodi Rell by double digits in all major polls, it’s above all about getting his name out. With several weeks before the election, the approach he’s using to get out his name is to get to know other people’s names: he’s trying to be personable, to get to know Connecticut voters and stretch his skin beyond New Haven for the first time in his political career — even if it’s more daunting and complex than a New Haven mayoral campaign and less organized an effort than he’s used to.
Not in New Haven anymore
Many Connecticut residents simply have not heard of the New Haven mayor, let alone about what he regards as some of his biggest successes: revitalizing downtown and his track record in partnering with Yale.
During the Saturday campaign stop at Connecticut College, Corey Twitty, a freshman, stops in his tracks to wish DeStefano good luck. He, for one, does know of him. Suddenly, the aspiring governor grabs Twitty’s shoulders.
“How old are you?” DeStefano asks.
Twitty, smiling but taken slightly aback, tells DeStefano that he too is from New Haven and attended Wilbur Cross High School.
“New Haven?” DeStefano says. “Did you feel [Wilbur] Cross prepared you?”
Minutes later, DeStefano is behind the dining hall food counter with two cafeteria workers. He’s asking the workers about their lives and their work hours. He leans forward and says, “Really?” As much — or more — than politics, he’s talking baseball, classes and family life.
DeStefano starts walking and then stops. Everybody stops — everybody on his campaign, that is. As DeStefano introduces himself at each table in the dining hall, some students seem engaged while others hardly indicate that they recognize him or care about what he’s saying. One student continues to slurp her spaghetti as he talks to her directly.
DeStefano continues to lean forward, casually crossing his left foot over his right. Not only his staff, but also some members of the College Democrats — who just met him — refer to DeStefano as “John.”
Jeff O’Neil, a Connecticut College sophomore and member of the College Democrats, says he supports DeStefano for two main reasons: He stands for the same positions regardless of momentary political winds, and he takes the time to come out to O’Neil’s region of Connecticut.
“He remembers us,” O’Neil says. “He’s personable.”
DeStefano says he is not daunted by the prospect of campaigning in territory where, more often than not, a voter does not know that he is running for governor or, even worse, is registered in another state. DeStefano is not in the Elm City anymore.
“It’s different,” DeStefano says. “In New Haven, everyone knows you and everyone has an opinion after thirteen years … Now, it’s a bigger playing field … a more complicated environment.”
But DeStefano follows this up with reassurance that state government is where he belongs now. Though he says he has enjoyed being able to “know everyone” in New Haven and work with Yale, he’s ready for larger projects and macro decision making, such as setting broad economic policies that will impact the entire state. Wherever he ends up, DeStefano says that he belongs in a chief executive role, not a legislative one.
“The thing that attracts me is having a different set of problems,” DeStefano says.
At the Connecticut College Olympics, DeStefano begins to talk to a group of competitors. They tell him they are fighting for “respect, pride and free T-shirts.” DeStefano, minutes later, explains what he’s fighting for.
“Economic and social mobility,” he says, before leaning down on the field to talk to another team of students.
Playing the odds
Although he may lose, DeStefano says he’s not disheartened. But he’s tired. He “hits the pillow pretty quickly” when he has the chance. Still, he says, he’s thinking and prioritizing strategies for achieving his goal of mobility.
He says Democrats rooting for him will see “the largest field operation the state has ever seen” in the two weeks until elections, and predicts a record turnout for liberal voters. Even if his stories have been on page three instead of the front page due to the dramatic Senate race, he says he thinks the Democratic base is more energized than ever. Voters have witnessed the “nationalization” of the election, he says, and “anti-Bush turnout” is the reason people show up at the polls.
But he says he’s not sure about supporters of Sen. Joseph Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67 — more moderate voters may choose Lieberman over Ned Lamont SOM ’80, the challenger, and therefore also vote for Rell over DeStefano.
Though he spends most of his time chatting with potential voters about their lives, DeStefano spends some time discussing his key policies, especially universal health care.
“Do you think everybody should have access to health care?” he asks a roundtable of students at Mitchell College.
Most are silent, but someone responds, “Of course,” and everyone nods in agreement. DeStefano nods and there is a momentary awkward silence. He gets out his chap-stick. It’s a strangely low-key atmosphere for such a crucial time in the race.
“You guys are really cool,” DeStefano says in conclusion. Everyone in the room smiles as he shakes their hands.
Hans Herbert, a freshman at the college, says he thought DeStefano was impressive, especially because of his interest in the elderly.
“He started working in the city, and he worked his way up,” Herbert says. “He seems to care about us.”
At one point during the trip, the campaign vehicle gets stuck — it may be too tall for the bridge it is about to go under. DeStefano shakes his head.
But he’s also smiling slightly. At Main Street Cafe in Willmantic, only a handful of people show up to what was planned to be an event for a slew of local college Democrats. Undeterred, he chats with them calmly until more and more people in the restaurant begin entering the room.
Some seem attentive, but not all who meet DeStefano are so impressed.
DeStefano orders a quesadilla from cafe employee Aaron Niemczyk. After he leaves, Niemczyk says DeStefano seemed like a nice guy, but he wasn’t blown away.
“My vote’s in limbo,” he says. “He’s a politician. A politician’s a politician.”
Soon, the room is filled.
His deputy policy director, Whitney Haring-Smith ’07, says, “Campaigns are all about people.”
His driver Emily Byrne says DeStefano is all about people, too. Several of his campaign workers discuss a board he has up in his headquarters on which there are photographs of every worker, each of whom he knows by name.
So the question remains then: why is DeStefano so behind in polls?
Maybe campaigns are about more than just people, and maybe, as DeStefano predicts, he’ll beat all odds — receive enough positive cafeteria reviews — and cook that winning meal.