After an unsuccessful three-year long run for governor, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. should be tired of campaigning. But three weeks after his defeat, DeStefano is campaigning yet again — this time for city youth and public safety.
Earlier this month, DeStefano returned to a city that many alderman and residents have said could have benefited from his full attention during the long period in which DeStefano’s energy had been diverted towards his gubernatorial campaign. But in an interview Sunday, DeStefano said the days of his divided efforts are over.
Facing rising crime rates among youth, higher property taxes and problems with the Department of Public Works, DeStefano said he plans to bolster community policing, increase youth programming, foster biotech through partnerships with Yale researchers, jump-start development and alleviate transportation woes.
“I’m really committed to making New Haven the best place to live and also to have New Haven be seen for what it is: a place that’s progressive, that reaches out and includes all of its citizens, that figures out how to solve tough problems,” said DeStefano, who also confirmed that he will be running for re-election next year. “We’re going to have some fun over the next year.”
Many alderman said they agree with DeStefano’s priorities, though some questioned his recently unveiled proposal to increase the city’s police force by 20 percent. Skeptics questioned the effectiveness of battling social ills with force as well as the potential taxpayer burden of the $1 million initiative.
But above all, aldermen said they were glad to have the mayor back in his office, predicting that his return will mean that seemingly small issues residents face every day — potholes, tree removals, road paving, garbage collection — will be prioritized again and dealt with quickly.
“It was an unfortunate confluence of events,” said Board of Alderman president Carl Goldfield, referring to DeStefano’s focus on his gubernatorial race combined with a strained public works department that has lacked a permanent director for several months. “We haven’t had the focus we’ve needed on public works … I’m glad to have [DeStefano] back and focused on the city.”
His Young Constituency
Nearly all city leaders agree that confronting problems that face New Haven youth — brought to light by summer turf battles and rising crime — should be a top priority. DeStefano said he wants to stress community policing and his ongoing youth initiative, looking at the “two percent of kids who are not positively engaged” in the community.
That issue is at the forefront of city debate this week as the aldermen question the city’s students, in two meetings at two different city high schools, about their thoughts on a proposed curfew ordinance that will ban minors from being outside between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances Clark, who is co-chairing the committee that is handling the proposal, said DeStefano’s youth initiative — unveiled at his 2005 inauguration — has been largely successful but ran into some pitfalls this summer. Clark said DeStefano’s renewed emphasis on children is encouraging, since youth policy is the issue she currently considers most important to the city.
“One of the questions I had on my mind is when he came back on the saddle of being mayor, what was he going to see as important?” she said. “We hoped that he could come back seeing that those were the things that had to be addressed.”
Clark said she anticipates that the debate over the curfew, which DeStefano said would be applied to Yale students under age 18 if passed, will make apparent the need for more creative solutions to youth problems.
Ward 1 Alderman Nick Shalek said youth policy must continue to be a priority, but that economic development is important above all — knocking down the Coliseum, moving forward with the Gateway project and attracting more business to New Haven. His second priority for the upcoming year is improving the public education system, he said, which he said can best be achieved if the city looks to creative solutions found at successful charter schools, for example.
“I’m a firm believer that closing the achievement gap is certainly something that’s achievable, but it takes a different approach,” he said. “[I want] honest and open dialogue about ways that New Haven can be a little bit more creative.”
Ward 22 Alderman Drew King, who represents the Dixwell area, said he would like to see more after school programs for youth. After 6 or 7 p.m. at night, King said, there is nothing left for children to do, so they end up on the street.
“I’m with the mayor,” King said. “I just want to be with him when these things go into action. We did enough talking, so now where we are at is action.”
A familiar list
DeStefano’s most significant action since returning to City Hall full-time — his proposed police staff hike — may have many ramifications for children, but it is a move that may influence New Haven residents of all ages. The announcement was part of DeStefano’s return to a community policing policy instead of ID-NET, which sends police officers to districts as needed instead of basing them in the community.
Some critics have said that ID-NET, which DeStefano said will be phased out by Christmas, alienated community members.
DeStefano also plans to adopt as a formal policy his belief that police officers should not ask suspected illegal immigrants to show documentation. A recent incident in which an immigrant was too afraid to call police may have led to his stabbing and death, community members have said.
Newly elected Ward 28 Alderman Mordechai Sandman said that while he acknowledges that the police department is understaffed, he would recommend reassigning officers to new beats before adding to an already increasing burden on city taxpayers.
“I’m already getting a lot of constituent feedback,” Sandman said, noting that property reassessments have brought property tax increases. “People are very scared.”
Sandman said he also plans to stress that “most of the kids sitting out there are not criminals,” and that they mainly have “social issues that need addressing.”
Ward 14 Alderwoman Erin Sturgis-Pascale, who was recently elected in the only contested aldermanic race this year, said she would also like the mayor to direct the police to curb the “anarchy” that she says reigns on the roads.
“If there’s no enforcement of existing rules, no one fears that they’ll ever get caught, so it creates this chaotic environment,” she said, citing drivers’ running through red lights and speeding incessantly.
DeStefano also plans to focus on other recurring problem areas: development, transportation and housing. DeStefano said that though the only major partnership on the table with Yale right now is the potential new residential colleges on Science Hill, he hopes to continue to “work together [with Yale] in areas we have mutual interest.”
“Clinical practices of the Medical School are very interesting to me,” DeStefano said. “They are important to both the University and the city. At the same time, we’ll work hard with undergraduate bodies to be involved particularly in the areas around youth and the public schools, giving [them] chances to get involved with New Haven.”
He did not bring up public works improvements in his initial list of priorities, though he said that he is working to find a new, full-time director for the department, especially because of “concerns about public works and the direction of the department.”
“I think for the most part, city employees are doing more with less,” he said. “A lot of what they do you don’t realize until it’s not done.”
Shalek said the Board of Alderman has been particularly distraught with the city’s public works of late.
“People on the board are really frustrated because we’re spending a lot of money, and it’s not necessarily being reflected,” he said.
Though DeStefano may continue to face the this sort of scrutiny and criticism, he said that since the election, he has been touched by the attitudes of residents. This, he said, is much of what keeps him motivated.
“My running for governor was not an expression of a dissatisfaction with the job of mayor,” he said. “I’ve worked for the city for 25 years now, and I’ve enjoyed it … Whether it was at church today or on the street, people have been just extraordinarily generous and saying very nice things to me. It’s been gratifying.”