Election Day in Ward 22 is one week away, and many students don’t know it — and fewer say they care.
The April 16 special election to replace former alderman Rev. Drew King has produced a colorful, highly competitive race, but students appear to have relatively little interest in a vote that will choose the new alderman for four residential colleges as well as part of the Dixwell neighborhood. Yet compared to past Ward 22 races in which only a handful of Yale students voted, organizers predict many more Elis to take to the polls this year to decide the four-way race.
In interviews this weekend with about two dozen students in the Ward 22 colleges — Silliman, Timothy Dwight, Morse and Ezra Stiles — most students indicated that among schoolwork and Yale activities, the Ward 22 special election is not a top concern. Outside the Morse dining hall on Saturday night, most passersby said they didn’t plan to vote in the election. Some asked where Ward 22 was; others asked what Ward 22 was.
Rino Landa ’10, who lives in Silliman, said that while he saw the merits of being civically active, most Yale students just don’t have much of a reason to get involved in aldermanic elections, especially since New Haven is a temporary home for most.
“I really don’t know much about it,” he said. “I really don’t care … [but] I’m sure people out there in New Haven care.”
The story was the same among most other students.
“I haven’t followed it at all,” Matt Tjajadi ’09 said.
Yet campaign organizers said the combination of a voter registration drive conducted by the Yale College Democrats and heavy media coverage of the race may bring the highest student turnout in Ward 22 ever. In most years, Yalies have focused most of their attention on Ward 1, which is comprised almost entirely of Yale undergraduates. But the election for that seat is currently uncontested, with Democratic nominee Rachel Plattus ’09 the only declared candidate for the seat being vacated by Nick Shalek ’05, who is not seeking re-election.
Although Yale students make up about a quarter to a third of the population of Ward 22, only two or three dozen students have voted in recent Ward 22 elections, Yale College Democrats President Eric Kafka ’08 said on Saturday. Most students are too invested in the Ward 1 race to get involved in Ward 22, and even if they do, the long trek to the polls can be a discouraging factor in itself, he said.
“Traditionally, Yale students don’t get that involved in Ward 22 elections,” Kafka said. “There are a lot of institutional factors cutting against you in trying to get people excited.”
But last month’s registration drive registered about 50 students in Ward 22 — more than had been registered in that ward in years, Kafka said — and this year could see a record turnout as a result. Record or not, 50 new voters could make a dramatic difference: Ward 22 elections in 2001 and 2003 were both decided by fewer than 20 votes.
And unlike in past years, the Ward 22 campaigning has not stopped at Yale’s gates.
For Democratic nominee Greg Morehead, a 29-year old entrepreneur, former drummer for Ludacris and father of three, reaching out to the Yale community has been a major part of his campaign, perhaps more so than any other Ward 22 candidate in recent memory. While Morehead acknowledged that students have not typically given much attention to Ward 22 elections in the past, he said the historic lack of interest on the part of Elis was the result of candidates who did not pay much attention to Yale students.
“The past alderpeople didn’t have rapports with the students, I would say,” Morehead said in an interview Saturday night. “Now that they have … a face with a picture and they know what I’m about, they’ll definitely be supportive of me.”
And so far, he appears to be right. A meet-and-greet sponsored by the Yale College Democrats last week attracted almost three dozen students, many of whom said they left with a positive impression of Morehead and his vision for Dixwell, which includes a 24-hour youth center, a renewed focus on youth services and economic development through entrepreneurship. Most students who said they planned to vote in the election indicated they planned to vote for Morehead.
“Greg seems to be making an effort to really see what students are doing instead of blowing off the students, so I think more people are paying attention to it,” said James Simmons ’09, who met Morehead when he visited Yale last week. “I don’t even know who the other candidates are.”
With the machine of the Democratic party behind him, Morehead has a distinct advantage over the other three candidates in the race, a point Ward 22 co-chair Cordelia Thorpe, who is also running for the seat, has bemoaned in recent weeks.
Morehead, Thorpe said last month, is merely Mayor John DeStefano’s “puppet,” a candidate handpicked by city Democratic leaders to coast to an easy election in a ward that in the past has not put up much of a fight against party-endorsed candidates. Some Yale students said they plan to vote for Morehead for no other reason than that he is the endorsed Democratic candidate.
The Democratic Party label that will be listed next to Morehead’s name in the voting booth may very well present Morehead with another advantage over his competition. Historically, party-endorsed candidates have a significant leg up on independent challengers in New Haven aldermanic elections and especially in Ward 22, where students often have little means to learn about dark-horse candidates in the race.
And in past elections as well as this year, other candidates have found courting the Yale community a more challenging task. Thorpe has said in recent weeks that she has trouble reaching Yale students because her appearance, background and neighborhood of origin make her appear a trespasser on the Yale campus.
Even as the election nears, students still have at least one more opportunity to meet all the candidates and settle on who might best represent such a diverse ward. A candidate debate, sponsored by the New Haven Action Fund, is planned for tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the Morse common room. All four candidates are expected to attend.
Thorpe and Morehead are joined in the race by community organizer Lisa Hopkins and corrections officer and football coach Reggie Lytle. While Thorpe is well-known in Ward 22, having run unsuccessfully against King in 2005, the other three candidates are relative political newcomers. And with the usually low overall turnout in Ward 22 — which may be amplified come Monday by the fact that special elections tend to draw relatively few voters — elections in the ward are typically difficult to predict in advance.
Also difficult to predict is Yale student turnout, in part because of the location of Ward 22’s polling place. To vote in the special election, students must travel to Wexler-Grant School at 55 Foote St., located up Dixwell Avenue about a half-mile away from the Yale campus. To help students get to the polls, the College Democrats will provide transportation from Morse, Stiles and Swing Space and from Timothy Dwight to the polling place from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. next Monday, Kafka said.
No matter how many Yale students make it to the polls or how the election turns out, the winner next Monday will not have much time to bask in his or her newfound aldermanic glory. All 30 members of the Board of Aldermen, who serve two-year terms, are up for re-election in November.