At age 30, Roland Lemar has never been the single-career type of guy. In his seven years in the job market, he’s worked as a city planner, press secretary, political aide, environmental advocate and even as a writer for “The Daily Show.”
Now it’s been just under a month since he picked up his latest title: Ward 9 alderman.
Since winning an uncontested election to serve out the remaining year of departing alderwoman Elizabeth Addonizio’s GRD ’07 term, Lemar has thrust himself into the whirlwind of public office, meeting with fellow aldermen and working to deal with New Haven’s recent property revaluation. It’s a new world — one he hardly anticipated — for Lemar, who has spent much of his career working in City Hall’s executive branch as an aide to the mayor.
Lemar grew up in small-town Rhode Island, and after graduating from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in 1999, he found himself disinclined to pursue “typical” career paths. Lemar was diagnosed with cancer during high school and after a relapse, he said, he struggled to find a career path that conformed to his new, uncertain outlook on life.
“The economy was humming, jobs were falling out of trees for just about anyone who could string two sentences together, it was great,” he said. “But the jobs I was offered, working for economic development, financial analysts, banks, weren’t really anything I wanted to do.”
Instead, Lemar found a job with the Census Bureau and spent the next year traveling around New England. The work allowed Lemar to discover the “real” New England and, most importantly, the “real” New Haven.
“Channel 8 was what we watched growing up [in Rhode Island], and your experience of New Haven was framed by who got shot that day, and it painted this horrible picture of the city,” he said. “So when I came here, I was amazed: The rumors that I would die were false.”
Even while living in New Haven, Lemar, who currently is the manager of advocacy outreach and communications at Environment Northeast, a regional nonprofit, said he had never considered running for elected office. As a father raising his almost six-year-old daughter, Lemar did not want to dedicate his time to the banalities of city government — naming street corners, trimming trees or tweaking budgets.
So when Addonizio tried to enlist Lemar to run as her replacement, at first he declined. Then his friends and co-workers started to push him to run. Eventually, Lemar — convinced that he would be able to do important work to improve his district and the city — agreed.
Though this is his first elected position, Lemar is far from a New Haven political novice. Lemar’s experience in city government could help him in his new office, Board of Aldermen President Carl Goldfield said.
“[Lemar] comes with an understanding of how city government works, what the politics are, who the players are and how the city runs,” Goldfield said. “He’ll be a valuable contribution.”
Goldfield said Lemar’s previous experience will be especially useful in serving New Haven’s Ninth Ward. The district, which encompasses much of the East Rock neighborhood, is home to a diverse group of residents and business owners, Lemar said.
“The neighborhood’s great, you’ve got 80-year-olds who bought their houses for $6,000, grad students renting small apartments and young professionals,” he said. “Many people who live here bought their homes three or four decades ago, and when the rest of New Haven started selling, they didn’t leave.”
But the neighborhood’s diversity is also a challenge, Lemar said, as his constituents expect very different things from the city. Still, in his role as alderman, Lemar said he hopes to alleviate some of New Haven’s universal problems — its dangerous streets, troubled schools and widespread poverty — while working to nurture the city’s burgeoning economy.
Lemar advocates a return to community policing, which he says is key to quelling the city’s recent spate of crime. Interaction between neighborhood residents and the police officers patrolling their district takes the fear out of law enforcement, as locals know where to go when there is a problem, he said.
Lemar said emphasizing police-resident interaction could also allow New Haven to avert more drastic crime-fighting measures, such as the proposed youth curfew. Building relationships between police officers and local teens, as well as providing youth with activities and mentoring, can make the city safer, Lemar said.
“I hate the idea of this curfew,” he said. “If it gets passed, I can’t wait for the ACLU to parade all the civil liberty concerns they have, I can’t wait to vote against it. But I understand where it comes from, and I like it better than I like dealing with the feeling you get when another kid gets shot.”
Lemar said he also wants to improve New Haven’s public services by emulating New York’s “311” program, which provides a single phone number for all “quality of life” inquiries. New Haven’s relatively small size should make it easier for the city to implement a similar program, Lemar said, as well as other projects such as youth programming, insurance programs and smarter energy policies.
“It’s not playing in the big world of it’s going to cost billions of dollars to solve this one social ill,” he said. “It’s just finding the right handful of people who are willing to work and accomplish it.”
Lemar also said that New Haven can draw on Yale to help with these issues. The presence of Yale’s students, faculty and resources can contribute to the city’s business climate, talent pool and real estate environment, he said.
“If Yale’s not here, I’m not here, and I think that’s true for an overwhelming number of New Haven residents,” Lemar said. “There aren’t many cities in the world that have a top-five university in their backyard. Clearly, there are only five.”
Even so, Lemar said, he has no illusions that making big changes to the city will be easy. Nor does he feel like he has all the answers. Still, the people who have worked closely with Lemar in the past say he has the tools and vision to make things better.
“He is able to step back and see how all the pieces fit together, to focus and zero in on what’s important,” said Dan Sosland, executive director of Environment Northeast— and Lemar’s boss. “He brings everything into a broad perspective and anchors it in the sense of what matters to people and how you improve their lives.”