“Mayor DeStefano is serving his seventh term,” Benjamin Shaffer ’09 began, introducing the mayor to a freshman-heavy gathering of some three dozen Yale College Democrats.
“Eighth term,” DeStefano corrected.
“Eighth term,” Shaffer began again.
“And unindicted,” cracked DeStefano.
And so began an animated, whirlwind tour through New Haven geography, demographics and politics led and narrated by the mayor. The discussion spanned both policies with which the mayor has been involved in his now-15-year tenure, as well his declared motivations for getting involving in politics in the first place.
“A lot is changing in America,” an exuberant DeStefano began, noting yesterday’s collapse of the financial stock markets. “We need to be talking about what kinds of investments we will be making [in the future]. It’s something we talk about in the social sciences, but not always in politics: the social contract.”
Hamp Watson ’12 got the questions going, asking the mayor to address what he saw as New Haven’s most serious concerns.
“I’m concerned whether kids in the early grades can get quality education,” DeStefano said. He also mentioned drug use and dealing that affects many of those same young children, as well as concerns with teen pregnancy.
Later on in the evening, a Yale Dem in the audience brought the topic back to education.
“The schools do look beautiful,” the student said, referring to the long-term renovations of city schools. But what did the mayor think about charter schools?
So DeStefano spoke to one of the more contentious issues during his time as mayor. He noted that he has not always seen eye-to-eye with many of the people in charter school movement.
“In charter schools, parents apply. … The school day is 7:30 to 4:00 … and they don’t have [the same number of] English-as-Second-Language or special needs kids,” DeStefano explained. “I don’t think [charter school advocates] can deliver the system on scale.”
Still, the city has much to learn from the charter schools’ endeavors, he added. DeStefano said he feels that education reform is an area in which he has made great strides as mayor, but also, the one on which he still has the furthest to go.
Inviting DeStefano to speak at this point in the year was a conscious choice, said Shaffer, the Dems president.
“In a semester where things are so nationally focused, it is important to get freshman engaged in a city they are now a part of,” he explained. “There’s no one better to do that than Mayor DeStefano.”
The mayor also spoke to the changing relationship between Yale and New Haven, as he suggested ways for Elis to get involved in what is now their community, too: tutoring, working in mental health clinics, in soup kitchens.
“It’s great having you here,” DeStefano said, referring to Yale University as the largest employer. “Bad, that you don’t pay taxes.”
That was not a misfortune which DeStefano attributed to the University itself. Rather, he said it was simply a fact of Connecticut law — which exempts nonprofit universities and hospitals from property taxes — that necessarily shaped how the city conceived of the school and its growth, since every additional expansion within the city limits shrinks the tax base.
He acknowledged that the city and the University have not always had a close working or personal relationship. Personally, DeStefano said, despite growing up here, he “never came onto Yale’s campus until [age] 20.”
The University has done a good job over his tenure, he said, in meshing the campus with the Dixwell — and with the two new colleges, the Newhallville — neighborhoods.
He described New Haven as a diverse and inviting community, open “to anyone who wants to live here,” defined in large part by its incredible density: over 120,000 people in only 18 square miles.
Returning to motivations, DeStefano said he could not understand the mentality of a politician who would run for an office only as a stepping stone to run for a higher office.
One aspect of being mayor in New Haven, he said, is that it “is small enough that you can get your hands around [concrete] issues.”
That size and potential for significant change also encourages the impressive grass-roots activism that can be seen in New Haven, he added, singling out JUNTA for Progressive Action and a vocal biking community that he said is being persistent that the city consider its needs, too, as it develops further.
In response to a question about whether he planned on staying on as mayor in the long-run, he gave no definite answer, but he did say he wanted “to see what happened in the national election.”
Watson said he was pleased with the opportunity to hear the mayor speak, but he added that had time permitted — the mayor left promptly at 8:50 p.m. for a City Hall meeting — he would have liked to ask the mayor more about the Yale-New Haven relationship.
Still, he said the event had only encouraged his desire to get involved in the local community.
In addition to DeStefano’s proclaimed love of local politics and grass-roots activism, he had some words of wisdom for the national stage.
“Someone should tell Obama to find his voice and run against John McCain, and not Sarah Palin,” he remarked.