Ward 1 race won’t foster effective dialogue

Rachel Plattus ’09 kicked off her campaign for Ward 1 alderman in December and seems to have all the ingredients for success. Her campaign events have been well-attended — 50 students showed up for a discussion of public education — and she has the support of leaders of the Yale College Democrats and the Roosevelt Institution.

What she doesn’t have is an opponent.

The Ward 1 aldermanic seat has in recent years been the voice of Yale students on the board, and the election for the seat represents an powerful opportunity to engage Yalies in learning about the issues facing the city. The last two races for the Ward 1 seat — most recently between Rebecca Livengood ’06 and current alderman Nick Shalek ’05 and, in 2003, between incumbent Ben Healey ’04 and independent Daniel Kruger ’04 — sparked fierce debates within the University about its complicated relationship with New Haven. And while many Yale students tune back out again after casting their ballot, for those months piror to the November elections, the campus is focused on issues usually ignored by students, even though issues such as New Haven’s economic development and public safety directly affect our experience at Yale.

Shalek’s victory in 2005 was exceptional: He was not from the same liberal political establishment as many previous Ward 1 officeholders, he neither sought nor won the endorsement of the Democratic Town Committee, and he was not a student when he ran. His upset victory seemed as if it could revitalize interest in aldermanic politics, or at least spur the ward’s Democratic leadership to step up and stop taking elections for granted. The latter proved true, and the Ward leadership reworked the nomination process to ensure a fairer playing field for Democratic candidates.

The result? Only one student took advantage of the new process: Plattus, who has been working earnestly to start conversation about the issues her campaign is tackling. The News applauds Plattus’ efforts to engage the Yale community, but the dearth of candidates is disappointing. Is Plattus such an effective consensus builder that no one with an interest in New Haven politics disagrees with her?

It might well be that most students on campus with an interest in urban affairs have channeled their efforts into apolitical community service, whether through Dwight Hall or University-sponsored programs like the President’s Public Service Fellowship or the YCC’s new Yale-New Haven internship program. But while tutoring students and working for nonprofits help improve our city and foster strong town-gown relations, the city’s legislative body has a singular ability to effect change in the city. Healey’s Domestic Partnership Amendment would have provided a limited measure of recognition to New Haven’s gay couples, had it not, unfortunately, failed by one vote. Shalek was the first to suggest that New Haven divest its pension funds from Sudanese firms, which the city did last April.

Plattus can continue her campaign in earnest, but it is difficult to bring students into debate about politics when the debate’s outcome had already been decided — and interest in city politics, not just service, is essential for anyone who cares about the future of New Haven and Yale. Plattus’ qualifications as a candidate seem solid. That said, students need to be encouraged to think critically about the city’s challenges, and a one-sided dialogue simply will not spark critical thinking to the same extent that a contested campaign could.

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