Were it not for one thing, Gina Calder ’03 EPH ’08 would likely breeze through next week’s Democratic primary and become Ward 2 alderwoman.
But even after receiving the Democratic Town Committee’s weighty endorsement, her victory in the upcoming election is not yet secure. And although she has been a Yalie since her undergraduate days, her younger peers are giving her the cold shoulder.
The reason is simple. Calder, 26 — who likes to say she is young, energetic and progressive — believes the Yale-New Haven Hospital management-union dispute is not the most pressing issue facing her district, which encompasses much of the Dwight neighborhood.
“You ask people in the community what are their top three issues, and that’s not one of them,” she said in an interview this week.
But for students and Ward 2 residents who would otherwise support her, that position is unforgivable.
On Tuesday, her only opponent, Democrat Frank Douglass Jr., pondered in the Trumbull Common Room — he is a longtime dining hall chef there — whether or not he would have run against Calder if she had made hospital worker rights a higher priority.
Probably not, he concluded after a pause.
“If she cared [more about Yale-New Haven hospital workers], I don’t know if I would run against her,” Douglass, 54, said. “I don’t see her trying to do things for people other than herself.”
To some Yalies and members of the local unions, that is a valid criticism.
But Calder views that characterization as unfair, describing herself as a local leader who simply thinks public safety and economic revitalization should trump an internal union-hospital dispute.
“I’m in favor of workers’ rights anywhere, and I think that’s why I’ve had so much support from the community,” she said in defense of her position. “But by focusing only on one issue, you’re really short-changing the community.”
To further complicate matters, Calder’s detractors claim she worked for hospital CEO Marna Borgstrom EPH ’77 while interning there over the summer. But Calder, a public health student at the Yale School of Medicine, emphasizes that she worked only for patient relations and guest services and not directly with Borgstrom — though she did participate in a party welcoming Borgstrom to Calder’s community last year.
Calder explains that there is a silver lining in not staking out the typical anti-hospital stance: “As alderwoman, I would love to have a working relationship with all the major stake-holders in the city of New Haven,” she said.
But “you know,” Calder adds, emphasizing she has no regrets about her stance or work with the hospital, “the victory will be that much sweeter because I had to fight for it.”
And fighting she is.
Dressed casually on Labor Day — a red shirt with matching red shoes, a pin declaring, “Calder for Alder” — she strolled, smiling as usual, out of her Dwight Street apartment.
“I’m really kind of limited,” she said, describing a not uncommon predicament for New Haven aldermanic candidates: wanting to serve her community but not yet having the power to do so.
In 2005, Calder ran and lost to Joyce Chen ’01, whose decision to step down to pursue a federal judge clerkship led to the current Ward 2 race. She said she made up her mind to run again in 2007 upon hearing the election results.
“Having worked in my community, actually having spoken to people, I know what the real needs are,” she said, going on to describing her three-part platform of youth, economic stability and public safety.
But Douglass says that Calder can’t understand what the “real needs” are because she is too close to the mayor.
He points to Jesse Phillips, Calder’s campaign manager, who also is the assistant to Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s chief of staff Sean Mattison. Carrying a checklist of homes, Phillips assists Calder as she walks from house to house in search of votes and feedback on what matters in Ward 2.
The vision Calder expresses to voters does seem to align well with the mayor’s main mantra of economic revitalization. While strolling down Orchard Street, Calder explained that all of her key positions are interrelated: stability leads to youth opportunities, which in turn leads to safety. Which, of course, inevitably comes back again to the hospital.
“How come things I care about don’t seem to make front page news?” she said, noting that union stories usually end up above the fold. “I wish we had this much attention paid when a child in this community was a victim of violence.”
No one canvassed that evening — either at homes or in unexpected sidewalk encounters — mentioned the union dispute. They complained that police, when dispatched, sometimes take an hour to respond. And they said they are frustrated with life in the Elm City.
Ali Shakir was one resident who expressed that view. Calder encountered him as she walked between Orchard Street apartments.
It is in rendezvous like this that Calder, a master conversationalist, is at her best.
She leaned over, smiled and, most importantly, listened.
“I mean, you didn’t have an epiphany and just say, ‘You know, I need to get out and do something to change this situation,’” Shakir said.
“Yeah, it was,” she said as he nodded. “Three years ago, I got into that cycle of complaining a lot about how things weren’t happening and ‘Why are things like this and things like that,’ and then I realized that instead of complain, I had to do something positive to try to change things — rather than be negative, be positive.”
Before long, the positivity rubbed off as Shakir began to smile and say he saw hope in Calder’s candidacy.
Calder is an effective conversationalist — one exchange with a Ward 2 resident during the canvass lasted about 15 minutes — and could have had this election handed to her on a silver platter, with no mudslinging and no cold shoulder from Yalies. But she chose the more difficult path.
Regardless of the outcome, it’s unlikely she will give up soon, if her answer to a question at the Tuesday candidates’ forum is any indication. When asked why any one should vote for her, Calder’s response was succinct:
“One reason?” she said. “I’m committed.”
The Democratic primary will be held Tuesday, September 11.