Forget the viciousness of the campaign trail. More than once, Lt. Reggie Lytle’s life has been on the line.
Lytle, one of the four candidates in today’s Ward 22 special election, has quelled dozens of jail riots in his more than 18 years as a corrections officer in prisons throughout the state. But at the same time, he has tried to establish rapport with even the most dangerous inmates, an ability his colleagues say is key to improving prisoners’ lives and maintaining overall safety in city jails.
In his run for the Ward 22 aldermanic seat, Lytle is wrestling with a similar dilemma in his neighborhood: how to stand up to detracting forces in his ward, from youth violence to political disunity, while establishing rapport with city leaders not always hospitable to Dixwell’s most pressing needs.
“You walk into a riot, and it’s two, three, four guys against 60 plus,” said William Keaton, who met Lytle in the early 1990s in the Whalley Avenue prison. “You really quickly get the measure of a man in those situations. And Reggie’s definitely someone who you can depend on.”
But while Lytle might be the most physically built candidate in the race — he was a star football and baseball player while at Hillhouse High School in the mid-1980s — his physical strength is not the driving force behind his lifelong career as a law enforcement agent in the prison system. Simply put, Lytle is a corrections officer — and an aldermanic candidate — because he enjoys helping kids. When he first took a job as a corrections officer, he did so in part because he wanted to help keep youth out of jail.
“A lot of [them] probably lacked having a father at home or had issues at home and [had] nobody to talk to, and that’s something I also want to incorporate while being alderman,” Lytle said, explaining that he would like to provide more mental health resources and support for residents. “It’s been a life dream — giving back to my community.”
So it is no surprise that youth issues are at the heart of his campaign. While his opponents — Lisa Hopkins, Greg Morehead and Cordelia Thorpe — all see youth as a concern, Lytle devotes multiple planks in his unusually specific platform to the cause of bridging the gap between Yale students and Dixwell’s children. He has suggested partnerships with athletic teams at Yale as well as more opportunities for neighborhood youth. He also wants more coordination between the Yale and New Haven Police Departments, and for students and city residents to recognize that despite popular belief, Dixwell has one of the lowest crime rates in New Haven.
And although Morehead suggested at last week’s Ward 22 debate that NHPD Officer Shafiq Abdussabur, who launched a program targeting at-risk youth in New Haven, was one of his supporters, the well-respected community policing cop has actually lent his support to Lytle.
“I’d like to extend my hand out to Yale and bring the community out to Yale,” Lytle said at the debate last week in introducing his platform. “Between the youth in New Haven and Yale, I believe there’s a little gap. I would like to bridge the gap and bring everyone together and make this a beautiful area.”
As the 38-year-old father of Ashley Lytle, 11, who lives with her mother in Texas, Lytle also wants more Yale students to learn about Dixwell and the “underground railroad” for runaway slaves heading North that used to pass through the community, while bringing a youth center and performing arts center back into the neighborhood.
It is an ambitious platform for a brief term, but Lytle — whose godfather served as an alderman and as the first black New Haven city clerk — says he has worked in city government long enough to know what will and will not work. His job as a corrections officer makes him the longest serving city employee of all the candidates.
But no activity, even politics, excites Lytle more than football. He often talks about his days on the team at Hillhouse High School, where he was starting halfback for three years, including the year in the mid 1980s when Hillhouse High School won the state championship. Now, he is the vice president of New Haven’s Pop Warner Football Team, and although he has no children who play in the league, he has helped to lead the organization from its foundation — at which time the city virtually ignored its existence — to the present day, when the league boasts nationally ranked teams.
While coaching, he said, he once received a call that one of his players had been thrown out of a second floor window by another.
“Before football practice, I pulled them to the side and just talked to them, and they both — before I could finish talking to them — broke down and started crying. I made them both go to their parents and apologize and give them a hug,” he said. “I can relate because I grew up in this neighborhood, so I know some of the things that kids are thinking. I’ve been in their shoes.”
His aunt, Claudine Wilkins-Chambers, said she remembers football being so important to Lytle that his mother “was ready to kill him” after he received an order from a doctor to stay home from because of an illness.
“He snuck to practice anyway,” said Wilkins-Chambers. “That’s how determined he was to help — to help his team.”
But these days, Lytle does not coach football just for the thrill of the game; he uses the game to help the youth he works with. James Outlaw, who works with Lytle at the prison, recalled one incident from a mid-fall football practice last year.
“We asked the kids, what do you want to do, and the kids started arguing and fighting,” Outlaw said. “So we broke them up, and one of the kids said ‘I want to do the prayer.’ We had a laugh, but the funny thing about that that of all the thing that are kids are fighting for in the community, that’s the one thing we would like to see them fight all the time for — doing prayers. It really talks about [Lytle’s] character and how he inspires youth on the field.”
But some of his friends have said they are concerned that Lytle, who has also been a leader in his state workers’ union, will be disillusioned by politics. In Lytle’s view, just as in the views of Thorpe and Hopkins, the town Democratic Party manipulated party processes to allow Morehead to receive the nomination.
Lytle expressed frustration upon hearing last week that the New Haven Action Fund had endorsed Morehead, calling “ridiculous” their simultaneous praise of Morehead’s ability to reach out to Yalies and their knowledge that he was the only candidate who was welcomed with open arms into Yale’s gates — by the College Democrats.
Morehead, for his part, says he hopes above all to “unify” the community. He and his campus supporters tout the 400 doors he has knocked on at Yale, while Lytle and the other candidates complain that Yale officials have not returned their calls.
Although Lytle has a soft-spoken and calm appearance — even when working as a correctional officer at the Whalley Avenue jail — those close to him say he knows when to pick a fight and when to hold his ground on the causes in which he believes.
“I know Reggie, and he isn’t afraid to ruffle some feathers,” Keaton said. “What’s an election when you’ve been in personal physical danger? What’s standing up against the mayor, against Morehead, against anyone else? It’s nothing.”