It was 6 p.m. on Church Street six months after November’s election when Ward 1 Alderman Nick Shalek ’05 trotted up the steps of City Hall. But the alderman walking up the steps on that May night was not the same alderman who, several hours later, would walk down them.
In those hours, Shalek attended a Finance Committee meeting geared — unlike prior meetings — towards hearing from average city residents about their needs. During the discussion, Shalek said, he was struck with what he called everyday concerns: cries for New Haven Green concerts, questions about the Fire Department’s funding and pleas by parents to keep kids in school and not on the streets.
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That’s about when, he said, it occurred to him what it means to be an alderman.
“City governments should be devoted solely to helping the citizens of the city who pay for that help,” he said in interviews in which he offered nearly half a dozen such maxims about New Haven politics.
He has ceased to be the independent outsider — an image he cultivated during his 2005 race against incumbent Rebecca Livengood ’07 — and entered his current role as a knowledgeable and established figure in New Haven politics.
But there is one trait that did not change substantially that May night, or ever since: Shalek remains enigmatic, generally unknown in any detail to his primary constituency — the Yale student body.
Interviews with more than two dozen students indicate a lack of knowledge about Shalek or his work on the Board of Aldermen. Some said they received his occasional electronic newsletter, while others remembered his “ingenious” plan of busing Yale athletes to voting booths after practice on Election Day or the fact that he was arrested last summer outside of a bar for breach of peace, trespassing and interfering with an officer, before charges were later dropped. But most Ward 1 residents said they do not know who Shalek is or think that, from what they have heard, he is not very active.
Yet many of his colleagues in city government paint a different picture. Even those who would be unlikely to describe Shalek as a political ally say he is meticulous, engaged and effective at formulating — and articulating — a long-term strategy, particularly for the city’s economic development. Although his work may not make headlines, many say, it has made headway for New Haven.
Shalek has not yet said whether he will seek reelection, although that announcement will come this week. If he does decide to run — despite the seemingly strong support for Rachel Plattus ’09, who would likely be his only opponent — the next two months may mark Shalek’s biggest challenge yet: educating Ward 1 residents about his record. Students, in turn, will have to decide whether they prefer a representative who values campus conversations and city activism or one who has worked, though mainly behind the scenes, to make New Haven more fiscally prosperous and sound.
Shattering the Silence
When Shalek is asked to name his main accomplishments, he pauses and then makes an admission: He has no single major achievement that will distinguish his tenure on the board. But he then launches into a list of achievements — everything from ensuring the city’s divestment from Sudan to moving a dumpster that had been an eyesore to Ward 1 merchants. In supporting the Yale Cancer Center and development agreements between the University and the city, Shalek says, he tries to balance outspokenness with prudence and a focus on education, development and safety.
“In my year of learning, I’ve really tried to focus on those core areas and not get lost in the myriad of competing interests and concerns,” Shalek said.
City Hall insiders, not surprisingly, say that Shalek’s most notable contributions to New Haven have either been made quietly or are yet to come. Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s deputy chief of staff said he has “probably worked more with Nick than all but a handful of the other alders.”
Board of Aldermen President Carl Goldfield described Shalek as a “quiet, thoughtful presence.”
“He doesn’t make a lot of noise until he’s done his homework,” he said. “I think you’ll see a more public face on issues from him this year, now that he’s gotten his feet wet.”
Ward 2 Alderwoman Joyce Chen ’01 says that while Shalek has been relatively active in his own quiet way, unlike one of his predecessors, Ben Healey ’04, Shalek has neither taken loud positions on issues such as the environment nor been very aggressive in building alliances.
“Nick is no Ben — I’ll put it that way,” Chen said, though she acknowledged that it can takes time to make a difference on the Board.
And Ward 5 Alderman Jorge Perez said Shalek is not, historically speaking, one of the most active Ward 1 aldermen. Perez pointed to Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93 as an example of a force to be reckoned with when he represented Ward 1.
But Morand, who is now the associate vice president of Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs, suggested that Shalek has done exactly what the best aldermen do.
“It took me a while to realize the true role of an alderperson is to help make the city work effectively, not to use the position for activism,” Morand said. “The most important thing that I accomplished was helping reform and revitalize the police department. It was something where my role appropriately didn’t and shouldn’t get headlines.”
Some city experts said it takes one term or more for aldermen to hit their strides. Healey said it took him 18 months.
Ward 13 Alderman Alex Rhodeen said that despite supporting Livengood during the election, he quickly found common ground with Shalek on issues “dear to my heart” — specifically easing the property tax burden on local residents whom he said are already at the limit of their ability to pay. He also said Shalek had worked with him to provide a place where people interested in relocating their business to New Haven or in starting a new business can go for answers.
“What Nick is doing makes him unique — not trying to address worldwide issues,” Rhodeen said. “Instead, he has tried to expand the tax base, and he has done a commendable job.”
Effective leadership isn’t all about the big issues, said Ward 9 Alderman Roland Lemar, and with the city facing hard financial times, Shalek has worked on the messy details of the budget.
“He made this great spreadsheet extrapolating the last four years of the budget over the next five to ten years.”
He was able to do this, Lemar suggested, because unlike previous Ward 1 aldermen, Shalek has excelled in grasping the real issues in his first year. Part of the reason for this might be that he entered office with a completely open mind, according to Ward 4 Alderwoman Andrea Jackson-Brooks. She said that when Shalek first became an alderman he was very unassuming.
“He asked a lot of questions and didn’t assume he knew everything,” she said.
The Road Ahead
Whereas in the last aldermanic election Shalek had the name recognition that came with being a recent graduate, this time around he will have to deal with the perception that he is no longer as close to the student body. But whether that is a strike against him or a notch in his favor may well depend on how people view him to begin with.
Marissa Levendis ’07, who worked for Livengood’s campaign in the 2005 election, said that Shalek has not followed through on his promise to be accessible to the student body. She said that while he might be dedicated to local New Haven politics, he is not succeeding at getting students involved in the process.
During the campaign, she said, he had promised to send out regular e-mail updates, but he has not done so. Shalek has sent out two newsletters, one in December and the other last week.
Levendis said he has also not taken a stance on issues important to students, such as the ongoing unionization efforts at Yale-New Haven Hospital. She blamed some of the disconnect on his no longer being a student.
“This is a student ward — the turnover is four years,” she said. “And the alderman should reflect this.”
One of Shalek’s other campaign promises was to involve students who weren’t already interested in local politics, including the athletes who had helped elect him.
But David Germain ’08, an ice hockey player who voted for Shalek in the first election, said that while he has interacted with Shalek on a few occasions since the campaign, they have not discussed politics during their time together.
Many students said he had been very helpful to their needs, particularly when their interests lay beyond Yale’s gates.
Rebecca Taber ’08, a Yale College Council representative, said he worked closely with the YCC to conceive of and execute “Ninth-at-Nite,” an event that drew hundreds of students to downtown businesses offering discounts.
“He’s great as a liaison between students, local government and local retail,” Taber said.
Likewise, Jayson Tischler ’07, who worked on Shalek’s campaign and is the Clean New Haven Campaign Director for New Haven Action, said that Shalek had worked on environmental issues important to students, including toxic waste reduction and lowering diesel emissions. As a result, he said, he thinks opposition to Shalek is more ideologically based than issue based, with many campus activists seeing him as too conservative. But he said that Shalek had supported liberal causes including the Earned Income Tax Credit — which provides tax refunds to low-income families.
But Plattus’ campaign has already suggested that Shalek has not been successful at reaching out to students and promoting the causes that concern Ward 1 constituents.
“I can’t tell what he’s been doing right or wrong, because I don’t know what he’s been doing,” Plattus’ campaign manager Noah Kazis ’09 said in a recent interview.
And Plattus said she felt that Shalek could be more active and present on campus.
Whether Shalek succeeds may depend on how those less involved in major activist groups perceive him, and come April, he will need to reach out to these people should he run for re-election.
A supporter of Shalek in the last election, Alex Civetta ’09 said he didn’t know Shalek at all or have any interest in the election until Shalek canvassed his dormitory and engaged his suite for half an hour, playing Mario Kart with them while discussing city politics.
But that kind of time commitment has made Shalek hesitant as to whether he wants to run for reelection.
“I am trying to decide how to trade off the amount of time required to run in a race versus the amount of time that I need to spend on important issues I’m working on,” Shalek said.
But ultimately, the two are intricately linked. When asked to evaluate Shalek’s tenure, DeStefano smiled and shifted the burden of answering that question back to the voters.
“Nick has been a contributing member of the Board of Aldermen,” the mayor said. “But the issue of who represents the First Ward is a decision for the First Ward to make.”