Packed with three of the candidates vying for Ward 22 alderman, more than two dozen ward residents, and a handful of Yalies, the Morse common room became a true microcosm of Ward 22 on Monday night.
In the unique setting — many residents said they were passing through Yale’s gates for the first time after unsuccessful attempts in the past — Lisa Hopkins, Reggie Lytle and Gregory Morehead presented their visions for Ward 22, the different obstacles and opportunities they perceive for their community, and their subtly different conceptions of the role of an alderman. The debate became heated at times, but more in the discussions between panelists and audience members than in the discussions between the candidates themselves.
There was no clear winner of the debate, but the articulate performances of each of the candidates led some audience members to remark that each appeared to bring something unique to the table. Cordelia Thorpe, the Ward 22 co-chair who is also vying for the aldermanic seat, could not attend the debate due to a family emergency, but she provided her own answers to the debate’s questions in written format to the News.
Morehead, the Democratic Party’s endorsed candidate, began the debate by launching into a discussion of family values. He described himself as a “proud father” — his young son frequently ran up to him excitedly during the debate — and said he comes from parents who are both “examples of what positive role models should be.”
“I know everyone in here probably has dreams, aspirations,” Morehead, also a professional motivational speaker, said to the crowd. “But my dream, my goal, my aspiration is to see New Haven and Ward 22 revitalized, and I need all of you-alls’ help.”
Morehead, a former drummer for Ludacris and the owner of a computer business, later said that children represent the ward’s the greatest opportunity, but that because the “Republican Party in the White House is focusing too much on war and not education,” schools are often left ill-equipped to fulfill their mission of educating children, who “are our future.”
In his opening statement, Lytle — a corrections officer and longtime football coach — emphasized the gap between Yale students and community youth. He noted that while Yale students are afraid to walk up Dixwell Avenue into the heart of Ward 22, the neighborhood has one of the lowest crime rates in all of New Haven. By eradicating the misperception of Dixwell as crime-ridden, Lytle said, he could help bring Yalies and community youth together, particularly in athletic contexts.
“Between the youth in New Haven and Yale, I believe there’s a little gap,” Lytle said as his opponents nodded. “I would like to bridge the gap, bring everyone together, and make this a beautiful area.”
Returning to the emphasis on youth issues that has characterized his campaign, Lytle said that youth represent both an opportunity and challenge for Ward 22, adding that he has already learned how to work through city channels to build new programs for youth: He was instrumental in securing a $700,000 grant for a new football field several years ago. Addressing the school system, Lytle said that while “the mayor and the administration did a good job of making them pretty on the outside, the real question is what’s on the inside — do they have enough books, do they have enough computers?”
Community organizer, housing administrator and block president Lisa Hopkins showed up with a large group of supporters, from her daughter, Heaven, to her former kindergarten teacher, and suggested that historically, the real puzzle piece missing in Ward 22 has been empowerment of the people.
“You can have tons of services and resources for the families within this ward to help them, but if they’re not empowered to reach out and understand that they have to be a part of their own destiny, the resources and services are actually useless,” Hopkins said. “Let’s just be honest here: Without being able to map out short-term and long-term goals, there’s no way we can get better.”
While the other candidates called for the reopening of the Dixwell Q House, a now-closed community center, Hopkins said that in the time allotted and with the money available, a “wonderful idea” would be to expand the Stetson Branch Library rather than “beat the dead horse” that is the Q House — at least in the short-term. Hopkins tried to contrast herself particularly with Morehead by suggesting that she is the most “practical” candidate. Pointing to the number of seniors living in the ward, Hopkins said few people are currently able to access Stetson’s services because, for instance, they cannot read or write and are too embarrassed to tell anyone.
“That’s a serious problem,” she said. “How spectacular would it be for each ward to have a five-year plan. What you could do is cross reference those plans, pull those resources together and everybody would be on the same page and move forward.”
Thorpe, in her written response to the questions posed ahead of time to the candidates, laid out a platform that starkly contrasted with those of her opponents. In answering the question of what she sees as the greatest challenge in Ward 22, she said “poverty” — an issue her opponents to alluded to but never addressed directly.
“My concern about poverty is more than just about the lack of money — I am more concerned about the effects of poverty,” she said. “The multi-generational effects of poverty crushes the human spirit and it drives people far past the state of hopelessness and they are thrown into a state of helplessness. Helplessness is the idea that even if we try to do something, ‘they’ won’t let us have it anyway. The most important work we have to do is to change the thinking of the people in our community in order to affect their behavior and thereby bring about a better quality of life.”
She touted the diversity of the ward, calling for cultural festivals, and urged Yale students to recognize that “party bosses” are running the ward. She noted that the Yale College Democrats endorsed Morehead without ever interviewing her.
“The real truth is that Ward 22 is not a priority at City Hall,” she wrote. “The truth is that this is an administration that operates on fear and intimidation, and Ward 22 needs a leader who is not handpicked by the very leaders we need to hold accountable.”
Although the dynamic between the candidates was generally non-confrontational, the atmosphere turned uncomfortable when one resident criticized New Haven Action’s moderator, Noah Kazis ’09, for calling on a student after several residents had spoken in succession. The resident said Ward 22 policies have the most profound effects on people “of color” rather than students confined to the Yale campus.
“You’re going to tell me that you’re going to take a question from a student?” she said to Kazis. “That’s not fair to me, to my grandchildren or to my own children … more residents should be here, or this should be held in an area where more residents would have had access to it. But I think more people, and I’m going to say this — of color, should have been here. It would have been more fair.”
Kazis explained in response that the debate was meant to be an opportunity for students otherwise disengaged from Ward 22 to hear about the issues affecting its residents.
As Morehead stepped in to explain that he wanted unity in light of recently increased animosity and as Hopkins said it is important to understand Yale’s important role in the history of the neighborhood, another resident echoed a concern articulated by Thorpe.
“We all always had unity until people started stepping on us,” she said. “That’s when our unity started separating, and that’s all we’re asking. We’ve tried to get here to this campus, but we were not allowed in because, I guess, we just did not have the right connections.”
Lytle said at the debate that although he has reached out to Yale officials about campaigning on campus, he has not received any calls in response. Thorpe has said that she talked to the president of the Yale College Democrats as well as other Yale students and officials but was never allowed to campaign on campus. Morehead said at the debate that he has knocked on about 400 students’ doors.
At the end of the night — which followed a series of audience comments and questions relating to the Q House and the unionization debate at Yale New-Haven Hospital — it was unclear who had left the best impression on the few undecided students there. Although they all overlapped in their policy positions, Morehead emphasized unity, Lytle emphasized children and Hopkins emphasized empowerment. In past interviews, Thorpe has focused on questions of accountability.
As the candidates interacted and their children played pool and ping-pong in the common room, Susie Voigt, the chairman of the Town Democratic Committee — who caused a stir by breaking a tiebreaker and handing the Democrats’ endorsement to Morehead last month — added to her past support of Morehead by saying that she thought the candidates she saw all seemed “excellent.”
“We’re all Democrats, and so there are not big ideological differences between the candidates,” Voigt said. “You need to look at who will bring the energy it takes to bring all the groups together … Your ability to reach out across the city is what’s going to be key.”
The special aldermanic election to replace Rev. Drew King will be held Tuesday, April 17. The ward polling place is located at 55 Foote St., and the Yale College Democrats will provide busing throughout the day for students in Morse, Ezra Stiles, Silliman and Timothy Dwight colleges to vote.