The final debate before the Nov. 6 mayoral election elicited a greater outpouring of passion and personality from the candidates than past debates, but the issues themselves remained the same.
The debate — held at Wexler-Grant Community School and sponsored by the Democracy Fund and the local chapter of the League of Women Voters — relied on questions submitted by local high school and college students, including several Yalies.
Despite the intended youth focus, some young voters in attendance said they do not think their generation’s concerns were adequately addressed, although they said the debate elucidated key differences between Mayor John DeStefano, Jr., and his challengers on issues such as after-school programs and budget concerns.
DeStefano will face Republican Rick Elser ’81 and Green Party candidate Ralph Ferrucci in the Nov. 7 election, when he will seek a record eighth term.
Most questions focused on ways that city programs could deal with crime, immigration and education in New Haven. While Ferrucci and DeStefano debated the relative merits of their proposed programs, Elser advocated letting private and religious organizations replace some city-funded programs in order to ease the burden on tax payers.
In response to a question about how New Haven can improve the security of Yale dormitories, the candidates mentioned community policing — one issue on which all were in relative agreement. They said they want to see more police on bicycles and walking beats, rather than simply in patrol cars.
Elser and DeStefano both promoted job programs that connect high school and community college students — such as those at Gateway, whose new campus is planned for downtown — with future employers in the city.
Elser — who said jokingly that the tone of the questions left Republicans at a serious disadvantage because they presupposed that every good program should be government-run — said he would increase accountability within various municipal departments if elected.
But the audience, which grew in size to about 75 people over the course of an hour, saved the most applause for Ferrucci and DeStefano. The mayor said the city’s vast renovations of public schools are integral to providing a safe and welcoming environment in which children can learn. But Ferrucci said he thinks construction is not as important as reducing class size, and he called for more money to fund public schools.
“When children are dropping out at a high rate, you need to spend more money,” Ferrucci said to heavy applause. “We need to go after Yale. … Yale has to pay a fair share. They can do more for New Haven.”
DeStefano criticized Ferrucci’s aggressive approach as poor leadership.
“This isn’t about going after Yale or North Haven or Hamden,” he said, referring to cities whose police officers, Ferrucci said, drop off homeless individuals in New Haven, where people are guaranteed a spot in a homeless shelter. “Next thing … you’ll be going after immigrants and anyone who doesn’t look like you. A leader is not someone who goes after someone. A leader is someone who helps everyone see their self-interest in [working with] others.”
Responding to a question about after-school programs, Ferrucci said the city cannot rely solely on initiatives that keep schools open late.
“We need to give [kids] a place to go,” he said. “Few people want to go back to school after the day is done. Neighborhood-based community centers need to be supported.”
DeStefano expressed frustration with Ferrucci and said the third-party candidate’s comments about education illustrate that he does not “understand what goes on” in schools. A possible future leader should not be “disrespecting” the schools he hopes to lead one day, DeStefano said.
Several youth in attendance said there is no reason to believe that students would be uncomfortable spending time at school after the schoolday is over. Toddchelle Young, a student at Hillhouse High School, said the school, when open after hours, is just another building.
“It’s a place to be,” she said. “There are a lot of different connections, friendships that kids form at school.”
Young said she came to the debate because her high school is often mentioned in connection to crime and other problems in New Haven. Like several others at the debate, she said she wishes the focus had been more youth-oriented, but she appreciated the opportunity to draw distinctions among the candidates.
“Ferrucci was very aggressive,” Young said. “He tried to relate to regular citizens. He was promoting many [expensive] programs, but with such a tight budget, that doesn’t seem possible.”
Jen James ’08, a member of the Democracy Fund, said that while the debate was not entirely youth-focused, it demonstrated the candidates’ commitment to the city.
“It was not clearly partisan,” she said. “Each was talking about the city that they love.”