Univ. chef heats up local election

Frank Douglass Jr. admits his omelettes aren’t “pretty looking.” But man, are they delicious.

A well-done omelette with a hint of extra spice. A Ward 2 aldermanic candidate. For Douglass, a Trumbull dining hall cook for the past 13 years and an active local union member for nearly two decades, they might as well be one and the same: unpolished, perhaps, on the outside, but solid as a rock inside.

Frank Douglass Jr., a candidate for Ward 2 alderman and a Trumbull dining hall cook, checks up on just-prepared chicken breasts.
Han Xu
Frank Douglass Jr., a candidate for Ward 2 alderman and a Trumbull dining hall cook, checks up on just-prepared chicken breasts.

“I’m not a push, push, push up against the wall kind of person,” he said recently. “And there is a passion inside of me that I care for this place — I care for this whole place.”

Douglass, 54, who will be facing Gina Calder ’03 EPH ’08 in next Tuesday’s primary election, did not win the endorsement of the city’s Democratic Party — something he doesn’t mind all too much. And when asked, his colleagues in the Trumbull dining hall always hesitate before saying whether they had predicted the pot-washer-cum-chef’s turn toward politics.

That turn came in a 2003 epiphany, Douglass said. He had just bought his home in Ward 2. He knew a good amount about aldermanic politics because he had gotten close to Joyce Chen ’01, who at the time was serving as his alderwoman but who he had served in the dining halls just years before.

“It was the day I got that house,” he said. “I stood on the porch and said, ‘You know what? I want to take Joyce’s place if she ever decides not to run.’”

This is where Douglass’ style shines through: For better or for worse, he’s not afraid to say exactly what he thinks, even if it doesn’t sound — or look — “pretty.”

On his friend, Chen? “She got what she wanted and she’s gone home; she didn’t do anything.” On immigration policies? “I don’t know anything about immigration laws.” On the mayor? “I just don’t feel him.” On Calder’s accusation earlier this week that he was paying local children to remove her campaign signs from lawns? “Bulls—.”

And on himself? “I’m a workaholic” and “I know everyone in New Haven.”

Stephanie Greennlea GRD ’11, who spent the past couple of weeks canvassing with Douglass in Ward 2, confirmed that there might be some truth to the claim.

“It’s the kind of thing that I, as a newcomer to New Haven, would never think I could have seen,” she said. “He’s a guy who can walk across the neighborhood and half of the people or more he passes already know him and trust him, and light up when they see him coming.”

Over the past few weeks, he’s kept coming back — working tirelessly, like his opponent, but edging her out slightly in the number of campaign signs that have been placed in the area.

In interviews, Douglass — sporting his trademark golden chain — keeps returning to the subject of his work in the Trumbull dining hall, whether the original topic of conversation was the Black Panthers or chicken parmesan.

It’s no surprise, then, that his stated support for workers is what has earned him the support of local unions and a handful of vocal Yalies who cheered for him every time he mentioned the plight of workers in New Haven at a forum with aldermanic candidates earlier this week. As an executive member of Local 35, Douglass has said he believes strongly that a union should be allowed to form at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Calder has also expressed support for the workers, but she argues that the hospital issue has taken priority over the more pressing needs of her community. Douglass says it was Calder’s position on unionization that drove him to enter the race, and he might not be running if she had been more supportive of the unionization drive.

Douglass’ own working relationship with Yale is a complex one. On one hand, he notes that he and “ancestors and ancestors” of his have been serving Yalies for years. He emphasizes the word serving “because that’s what we are: We’re servants here.” At the same time, he calls it “destiny” that Yale would be his home, and he plans to stay here until he retires.

It started in 1968, just after the New Haven race riots and during the rise of the Black Panthers, when Douglass overheard some students playing a cover of a popular Temptations song: five white Yalies — and one black student. The group was called the “Plastic Visitation,” and before long, Douglass was a member.

“[Yale] was my playground,” he said, adding that coming back “was like it was almost my destiny.”

But more than Yale, Douglass sees New Haven as his home and argues that given his unique position, he can see that “there’s a fence that’s blocking Yale from the city of New Haven,” which “should be torn down.”

“I’m so much a part of New Haven, and New Haven is such a part of me,” Douglass said.

He’s been here more or less for 54 years — since his birth — and can recall, though grudgingly, Black Panthers running through his backyard during the race riots. Douglass, who did not complete high school, left the Elm City for just a short while, working for some time on laying a railroad in New Jersey. And “that’s why I always know where I’m going,” he said.

His opponent, for her part, emphasizes that she has been working tirelessly over the past several years to lead her community toward true economic revitalization while helping to lead numerous local community organizations. She also subtly points out her mastery of the issues and, in an interview earlier this week, questioned whether Douglass truly walked the walk. Her campaign manager has reported that local children have said Douglass paid them to steal her signs.

“That’s really disappointing,” she said. “How can you be out there as a candidate who supports youth and then pay them to destroy things?”

In 2005, the Ward 2 Democratic primary election came down to less than two dozen votes, with Chen edging out Calder 221 to 200. Although the differences between Calder and Douglass are significant — one union-backed, the other mayor-backed; one who prioritizes workers, the other who talks more about economic development; one a Yale “servant,” the other a Yale student — Tuesday’s race may be even closer.

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