As Mayor John DeStefano Jr. gears up for reelection, his constituency may be bristling over some of his recent actions, but he still appears to face no risk of losing his office.
Although DeStefano has been attacked by community leaders in the wake of the FBI investigation into the New Haven Police Department — and before that for what some called his neglect of the city during his gubernatorial bid — the criticisms may not have many political consequences for the seven-term mayor, as virtually no one has come forward to challenge the 16-year incumbent in next fall’s election. Despite additional public financing available to mayoral candidates in New Haven the only candidate to express significant interest in taking advantage of the funding, Andy Ross, dropped out of the race earlier this month only days after his initial announcement.
DeStefano, for his part, said at the time that he welcomed candidates like Ross who want to take advantage of public funds designed to remove socioeconomic obstacles for mayoral aspirants. In response to Ross’ allegations that the mayor has all but given up on truly revitalizing the downtown and making New Haven attractive to residents, DeStefano said his administration is “energetic” and listed its recent accomplishments: a well-received immigration policy, community policing reforms and a fresh emphasis on youth services, among others. And his supporters say that the lack of major competition is, as New Haven Democratic Party chair Susie Voigt put it, a virtual city-wide “endorsement” of his overall effectiveness.
But the criticism persists. Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut Roger Vann has said in previous interviews, without specific proof, that it is clear that DeStefano had a role two years ago in keeping Lt. William “Billy” White, who was arrested this month following an FBI raid of the NHPD, at the head of the narcotics unit. In making his accusations, Vann attacked DeStefano’s leadership style, calling him a well-known micromanager who overturned Police Chief Francisco Ortiz’s decision to demote White because such as decision could have been politically damaging during DeStefano’s run for governor.
Even a political ally of DeStefano, Board of Aldermen President Carl Goldfield, admitted several months ago that the mayor’s office had lost focus on some aspects of the city, and that aldermen were not happy about it.
But DeStefano, who won 62 percent of the vote in a 2001 Democratic primary that was one of his most hotly-contested bids for reelection, may still be politically immune.
“It’s true that he is not in peril,” said Douglas Rae, a Yale professor who worked in City Hall under Mayor John Daniels in the early 1990s. “The job is not remarkably attractive. I think that’s probably the biggest single consideration.”
Ross, the mortgage firm owner who decided to run for mayor and then dropped out, also came to realize that even if he felt personally qualified to “jump in the deep end of the pool,” as he told the News around the time of his announcement, the job just wasn’t right for him.
“It has become clear to me that passion and a desire to want to see change in a city is not enough to make a person qualified for holding public office,” he wrote in a post on the New Haven Independent Web site. “I was blinded by the thought that a willingness to want to bring about change and apply grander visions would be enough to convince people that an unknown and admitted inexperienced person of government might be able to do the job.”
And with the primary less than six months away, Ward 5 Alderman Jorge Perez said he was disappointed that DeStefano does not have “even a minor threat” to his job. Perez said he disagrees with what he said was the mayor’s refusal to adopt a “buck stops here” leadership approach and take responsibility for all — good or bad — that has taken place under his administration. Although some have urged Perez, a former Board of Aldermen chair, to run for mayor, Perez said he is extremely content serving his constituents in a legislative role.
But it would be naive to say that all who would like to run for mayor feel as if they have a chance of victory. The Democratic Party’s dominance over New Haven politics — all but one member of the Board of Aldermen is a Democrat and DeStefano enjoys the unwavering support of the town Democratic Party chair — makes any attempted challenge an up-hill battle.
This year, Willie Greene, a former alderman, said he plans to run for mayor. But within Democratic circles, Greene, who could not be reached for comment this week, is not considered a credible threat to DeStefano. The other declared candidate, former alderman Tom Holahan ’63, has suspended campaigning temporarily while he remains in the hospital for the next several months.
At its core, though, DeStefano’s lack of major competition may have to do more with the man himself.
“I have worked with him politically since 1989, and I think he’s got tremendous integrity … and I think that’s made him really different from other elected officials across the state,” said Voigt, the Democratic Party chair. “There are certainly talented people in the city who could be mayor. I think [his lack of competition] is because people recognize that we have a good mayor, a strong mayor. I think it is in fact an endorsement of the mayor by a much broader group than the party.”
Although Rae lacked the same enthusiasm, he echoed the notion that DeStefano has been a solid mayor.
“For all his faults, John DeStefano is a very able, hardworking guy,” Rae said.
For newly appointed Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts ’01, DeStefano is somewhat of a resurrection of the man who is widely considered New Haven’s best leader: Mayor Dick Lee, who served from 1954 to 1970.
“In a very neat parallel, if the mayor wins this election, he will tie Mayor Lee’s service,” said Smuts, who has worked for the mayor since first coming to Yale.
Although many New Haven residents evidently share Smuts’ support for the mayor, the aftermath of the NHPD scandal has made at least one fact clear: Not everyone does. But the question is whether a challenger will emerge in time for next fall’s election.