For several hours Wednesday night, Ward 22 visited Timothy Dwight College.
Residents of Timothy Dwight are, in fact, residents of Ward 22 — but when push comes to shove, that’s more a technicality than anything else.
From a bird’s-eye perspective, Ward 22 has been one of the more impoverished and hopeless neighborhoods in New Haven — living proof of how the city disappointed many blacks following a surge of redevelopment in the 1960s and ’70s. Shops are rundown. Public perception of the neighborhood is poor. Jobs are scarce. Health care is rare. Leadership is lacking.
But on Wednesday night, Greg Morehead’s eyes are wide open to the problems facing his ward. He is — at least for the 10 minutes during which he spoke in Alex Bartik’s ’08 paper-strewn and snack-filled abode — a voice crying out to take a leadership role in Ward 22. For the time he is there, he fields questions from Bartik, trying to convey the ward’s troubles to a sheltered Yale.
“I feel that in the past there’s been a lot of dissension among Yale students and the rest of Ward 22, so my goal, my passion, my drive, my desire — whatever you want to call it — is to unite everyone,” said Morehead, leaning forward as Bartik leaned in a bit, too, from across the table. “If I could bring everyone together, Ward 22 would be awesome.”
Morehead then paused, as if he had just rediscovered his mission, and spoke again in characteristically broad terms.
“And that’s what I’m trying to do,” he said, opening his eyes more widely, sitting straight up in his seat. “Make Ward 22 the envy of other wards.”
Among the candidates vying for Ward 22, there is the outspoken Cordelia Thorpe, the intense Lisa Hopkins and the straightforward Reggie Lytle. Morehead is, in one word, serious — dead serious about changing his community in as professional and uplifting a manner possible.
He is the candidate who, despite a lack of political experience, planned his campaign far enough in advance that he was able to earn the endorsement of Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and the Democratic Party. He has three businesses — one could even be described as transnational — and a snazzy web-site for his advertisement removal software company. And when you call his voice mail, there is no “Leave a message at the sound of the tone.” Instead, there is only, “You have reached — the businessman.”
But Morehead has a wild side, too. After all, he was a drummer for Ludacris — an artist whose songs include, “What’s Your Fantasy,” “You’z a Hoe” and “I Want to Lick You” — when the southern rap star needed one recently.
Last November, Morehead was peacefully adjusting his drum kit’s pedal when he felt a sharp thump on his shoulder. He brushed off the sensation, but when the tapping persisted, Morehead turned around.
“Yo Greg,” Ludacris told him. “I just want to tell you thank you for agreeing to do this and getting the band and everything together.”
Morehead said his response was a mumble along the lines of, “Make sure I get on television, because my mom is watching!” but Ludacris apparently had a positive impression of Morehead.
“He’s a breath of fresh air, especially dealing in the music industry, dealing with people not coming through, or doing what they say they’re going to do,” said Ludacris’ artistic director, Taiye Samuel.
Samuel said Morehead not only played a mean drum set, but also demonstrated his business acumen by assembling the entire band for performances on Jay Leno, David Letterman and Saturday Night Live.
“As a drummer, [Morehead] might not be the best-known drummer out there, but he can out-smash, out-drum a lot of these drummers out there,” he said.
Although bringing Ludacris to Ward 22 might be a stretch, Morehead, 29, wants to reach out to rappers like him if he succeeds in his quest to sit on the Board of Aldermen. He hopes to bring the music business to Ward 22 to provide an outlet for residents. He also wants to open a youth center, because, he says, it will lead to decreases in crime rate.
“That’s my drive — to see our youth succeed,” Morehead said in his discussion with Bartik, as he does in most of his canvassing encounters. “As a motivational speaker, I say you can do something better with your life, you can be whatever you want to be if you put your mind to it. You have to set goals for yourself. … All three of my businesses are successful because I set my mind to it. I just had a desire to succeed.”
At this week’s Ward 22 debate, one of Morehead’s three sons played pool as he spoke about his father. At the age of seven, he listed seven reasons why Morehead should win the aldermanic seat, including that his father is a “people person” and that he once bought him a video game with — his son pauses and looks up to emphasize what he is about to say — extra features and codes.
Morehead said his drive to fix youth problems is no recent revelation. The candidate grew up near New York City in New Rochelle and Mount Vernon. As a teenager there, he said, he was faced with tough decisions.
“A lot of decisions that I had to make being raised down there, around crime and drugs and everything,” he said. “I had to make a decision whether to follow my friends or have my own goals or my own aspirations, and I chose to do my own thing. I was always a person not to just settle for what was going on around me. I always wanted the best.”
For Morehead, who was “raised in the church,” it comes back to religion.
“Everybody always said there was something different about me, because I never resorted to crime or anything like that, but all I can say is that it was only God that kept me from not making the wrong decisions,” he said. “I knew what was right and what was wrong, and I always wanted to be a role model for someone else.”
Morehead, who touts the importance of family values, has his own share of role models, including Scottie G.
“I also cut hair, you know, if you ever need a haircut,” Morehead said. “I’ve been cutting hair for the past 15 years, and the guy who taught me how to, Scottie G., cut the hair for most of the major stars that are out there from P. Diddy to Heavy D and the Boyz.”
But Morehead has gotten his share of criticism in his month-and-a-half-long quest to be alderman. Although it is his first try, he may run into difficulty breaking the moderate support that Thorpe has already accumulated in Ward 22, even if he has the backing of many of the several hundred Yale students who may vote on Monday. Some in the neighborhood view him with disdain for the endorsement he earned from DeStefano, who is not seen as a friend by many in the ward. Others have criticized him for his inexperience and his status as a newcomer, since he has only lived in New Haven since 2000.
But Yale College Democrats President Eric Kafka ’08 — a close supporter of Morehead, who accompanies him as he campaigns at Yale and sometimes even completes his sentences — said that inexperience should not matter. In fact, he said, it could even work in the ward’s advantage if Morehead is elected.
“I see Greg as someone who is going to be a part of the next generation of leadership in New Haven,” Kafka said. “No matter what comes out of this election, there’s no question he’s further opened people’s eyes to the ability of Yale and Dixwell community’s to work together.”
Although Morehead touts the 400 doors he has knocked on at Yale, he was only able to do so because the Yale College Democrats invited him in as a guest. Lytle, one of his opponents, said he thought it was an injustice, made worse by the fact that the New Haven Action Fund endorsed Morehead for his ability to reach out to Yalies.
“We haven’t been allowed to come on campus and campaign; it’s amazing how he’s been able to,” Lytle said. “It doesn’t seem [like] me or Cordelia or Lisa were able to go on campus to campaign. And then for [New Haven Action Fund] to endorse him? It’s ridiculous.”
But Morehead says he refuses to get sidetracked by detractors. When approached with frustrating or distracting news throughout the campaign, he never failed to react coolly. And, if he loses the special election Monday, he says he will run again in November.
“He has big dreams for New Haven,” said his brother, Dennis Morehead, who grudgingly admitted that although the prospective alderman is his younger brother, Greg is a role model. “He’s going to make it happen. He ain’t going to stop until it does.”