Ward 2 alderwoman reflects on tenure

As the rain poured down on Ward 2 this past Tuesday, Joyce Chen ’01 wandered her neighborhood’s streets, from Edgewood and Elm to Orchard and Kensington, and pondered her place in their history.

She had walked these streets on countless occasions, but this time around, her aimless walk felt “bittersweet.” And it wasn’t because of the dreary storm.

“I will probably never be out there trying to get people out to the polls again,” Chen said in a interview Thursday about her six iconoclastic years on the Board of Aldermen. “It was sort of like a last goodbye.”

The chance for Chen to roam in her ward this past Tuesday meant an opportunity to reflect, finally without the stress of battling City Hall-backed candidates — in surprise victories, she has beat them three times since first running on the Green Party ticket in 2001. It was also a chance to self-evaluate.

“I’m sort of coming to grips with these six years, and trying to synthesize the six years, and I think that I’m realizing that a lot of the work here that’s going to be most long-lasting is the individual work,” Chen said. “But that’s not what the news and history will remember you for.”

Chen has built relationships with recovering alcoholics, women suffering from mental illness, and hardworking fathers who put their children through college. Her nostalgia for those relationships, some say, stems from a genuine belief that being an alderman is not about passing programs. But others argue she is rationalizing a failure to achieve.

In one view, Gina Calder ’03 EPH ’08, who edged Frank Douglass Jr. in the Ward 2 Democratic Primary on Tuesday — Chen decided not to run — said it bluntly: “A lot of promises were made that weren’t kept, [and] she was very, very difficult to get in touch with.”

Ward 24 Alderwoman Elizabeth McCormack, meanwhile, was effusive in her praise.

“She puts her money where mouth is,” said McCormack, noting that Chen lives on the troubled Kensington Street in Ward 2. “And look at her voting record. Joyce is someone who votes on issues, not on what the administration would like her to do, and I admire her for that.”

Chen is certainly not characterized by consensus.

As a senior in Jonathan Edwards College in 2001, unsure of where her life might take her next, the idea of running for local office struck Chen as both wild and strangely appetizing. She went for it, and before long she was the talk of the town: the first Asian-American on the Board of Aldermen, the second member of the Green Party. Buoyed by support from unions, she entered office with a sense of idealism, aiming to bring safety to a community torn by youth violence and independence to a legislative body devoid of a loud dissenting voice.

Six years later, as she prepares to leave for a court clerkship and wraps up her education at the Quinnipiac University School of Law, she is leaving the Board undeniably less idealistic about what can be achieved there. Once hopeful, for instance, about solving gun violence, Chen now says she is content mentoring a throng of children on the street corner.

“The greatest impact I think I have had is just being a role model,” she said. “It’s the little things that you get to do, and they are not things like proposing the New Deal. You might not be able to come down and say you’ve solved the problem of teen pregnancy or solved the problem of gun violence, but in some ways [focusing on individual contact] is a more realistic approach to the job of being alderman.”

She paused.

“I genuinely thought I could really transform the entire neighborhood,” Chen said. “I really thought I could.”

The neighborhood certainly transformed her. Does she regret her six years?

“Not at all: It’s changed my entire adult life, the course of everything I was supposed to do,” said Chen, her tone intensifying, her pace quickening as she recounted losing a race several years ago to become state representative and choosing to instead attend law school. “But everything has been a surprise. I am so glad that I lost! Politics is fun, but there’s not the same intellectual rigor you have when you’re practicing law.”

It was, in fact, a legal initiative that defined — some say for the better, others for the worse — Chen’s final two-year term. Last year, she suggested a youth curfew that would require all children to be home at a certain hour. The idea was to force parents to become more accountable for their youth, who in Ward 2 can often be found wandering long past dark.

The initiative inevitably failed. But that was after its proposal sparked several highly publicized forums at schools and aldermanic meetings that drew hundreds of parents into the political process.

For Calder, the youth curfew concept was just further evidence that Chen’s farewell message of practicality is a cop-out for a job poorly done. Asked if she’d heed Chen’s advice to realize the limits of an alderman, Calder was dismissive.

“That’s interesting, because whatever connection [with residents] she may have made at the beginning of her tenure is strained, to say the least,” Calder said. “Maintaining connections as well as getting results down at the Board — the voters deserve that. It shouldn’t be either or.”

Chen maintains that she has fought an uphill battle as one of the dissenting votes on the predominately pro-mayor Board of Aldermen. DeStefano micromanaged his votes, she said, his City Hall staffers eyeing aldermen during a vote, sometimes calling them and then taking them to the side to explain the position they should take — if they didn’t want to experience the mayor’s subtle wrath.

“It was almost disgusting,” Chen said. “It wasn’t even subtle. No one was even trying to hide it. They weren’t ashamed. It was just the way things work.”

A member of the Board of Aldermen, who asked to remain anonymous in order to maintain a working relationship with colleagues, said if Chen were on the Board of Aldermen, it would better serve its purpose as an independent check on the executive.

“The Board of Aldermen would be much more independent,” the alderman said. “We would not be accused of being rubber stamps.”

But Jessica Mayorga, spokeswoman for Mayor John DeStefano Jr., denied Chen’s claim.

“He does not ask for rubber stamps,” she said. “He does not strong-arm aldermen. They all make decisions on what’s best for the city.”

In any case, it’s difficult to dispute Chen’s claim that she did not become an alderwoman to move up in the political ranks. In April 2001, she told the News that anyone running for alderman should be serious about it.

“I think it’s a very important position, a position no one should take lightly,” Chen said. “If I were to run, it would not be used as a stepping stone for a future political career.”

After six years, not much has changed.

“Politics just doesn’t do it for me,” she said Thursday. “It’s great, but I think I’m in true retirement.”

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