Campaigning for the Democratic nomination for Ward 1 alderman — the seat currently held by Nick Shalek ’05 — could begin as soon as January because of a change in the party’s aldermanic nomination process that will substantially increase campus involvement in the endorsement decision.
Hugh Baran ’09 and Cynthia Okechukwu ’09, co-chairs of the ward’s Democratic committee, announced on Tuesday the creation of a special April 11 election, open to all Democrats registered in Ward 1, to determine which aldermanic candidate the party will endorse in next fall’s primary and general elections. Previously, a committee of 50 or fewer ward Democrats determined the endorsement, and Baran and Okechukwu said the new system will more effectively engage the entire student body in the decision-making process.
“When we looked at the way the process has worked in the past, we decided that it was necessary to open it up to all Democrats in the ward,” Okechukwu said. “Doing this will ensure that the ward committee’s endorsement will truly be representative of Ward 1 Democrats’ wishes.”
Historically, the winner of the Democratic nomination has won the election to New Haven’s Board of Aldermen. But in 2005 Shalek ran as an independent in the general election and defeated Democratic incumbent Rebecca Livengood ’07, who had been nominated by a committee whose composition many, including Shalek, have criticized as unrepresentative of Ward 1.
The overhaul of existing endorsement rules was spearheaded by Livengood, Shalek and the co-chairs in order to better accommodate Ward 1’s unique position as the only predominantly student ward in New Haven. The official party primary happens in early September, which many say is too soon after students return to campus for a challenger to run an effective campaign against the candidate nominated by the ward committee. By creating a special endorsement election for April 11 that will function much like a primary would, the change will enable a larger and more diverse pool of candidates to campaign for the seat.
Shalek declined to comment as to whether he will run for reelection, though he said he supports the reforms, which also establish an Endorsement Vote Board of three students to oversee the special election. Shalek said he and other Ward 1 leaders agreed that the changes will result in Democratic students and Ward 1 residents choosing candidates who best represent their interests.
“It was a major motivating factor for me in running: I felt like there were a lot of Democrats who didn’t feel that they were represented by the nomination process,” Shalek said. “What’s important now is that any student who is in the ward has the ability to run in a fair and open process.”
In past elections, the Ward 1 Democratic Committee determined endorsements before the September primary, thus forcing candidates to appeal to committee members who are typically more engaged in city politics than the average student. But the new procedure is populist in nature. It encourages candidates to win over regular voters as early as Jan. 15 in order to gather the requisite 80 signatures needed to run in the April special election, as distinguished from the past process in which candidates would not gather signatures until the approach of the fall primary in late August and September.
Dan Weeks ’05, who lost the party endorsement last year, hailed the change as long overdue.
“There were a lot of concerns about the process that were raised [in 2005], but the fact that everyone involved in the campaign was able to come back together afterwards and go about amending the process, I think speaks well of the students,” Weeks said. “The more open we can make this process, the more democratic a result.”
Livengood, who edged out Weeks in the 2005 endorsement race, said she anticipates that campaigning will be more intense, but that issues will be more openly and frequently discussed.
Former Ward 1 alderman Ben Healey ’04 said he also supports the changes, though more hesitantly: the nominating process had “great value,” he said, since it forced candidates to appeal to those most invested in the city.
“It certainly changes the dynamic in that it becomes less focused on New Haven and closer to the dynamics of a YCC election,” he said. “That could be a challenge.”
Though supporters of the change hailed it as a means to engage students more in the process and inspire more debate about the issues, others said they are concerned that it will lead to mud-slinging.
Jacob Koch ’10 said he anticipates that the lengthened campaign will involve more personal attacks made by candidates vying for the nomination.
“I would say that a campaign starting and ending very fast would get a higher level of student interest,” he said. “If it’s more drawn out, then there’s more time to attack.”
But Eric Purington ’09, a member of the Yale College Democrats, said giving candidates more time to create a platform will lead to better candidates who have more time to form and defend their positions.
Prospective candidates can begin filing the requisite paperwork with the state as soon as today, but they must submit a petition of at least 80 signatures between Jan. 16 and Feb. 16 to the Ward 1 Committee. Baran said that in order to level the playing field so that students of all socioeconomic backgrounds can run, the rules prevent contributions, including personal ones, of more than $100 per person.
—Jack Mirkinson contributed reporting.