He’s going for number nine.
Mayor John DeStefano Jr. announced this week he will run for re-election next year, even though he won’t launch his campaign until next spring. If the eight-term mayor wins the November 2009 election — a likely scenario given his present stronghold over city politics — he will become the longest-serving mayor in New Haven history, surpassing fellow eight-term mayor Richard “Dick” C. Lee.
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“It’s pretty clear that I will run,” he told the News on Tuesday.
Although he already faces a contender, Darnell Goldson — a critic of the Elm City Resident Card who announced his candidacy in January in hopes of gaining name recognition — many city officials interviewed do not expect him to lose. Goldson, who served as executive director of Community Action Agency until he was fired for misconduct in 2005, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
City officials and employees, interviewed by phone and inside City Hall on Tuesday, said they have sensed throughout the mayor’s current term that he would run again. Many said they are not surprised by his decision because they see DeStefano as interested in continuing community and development projects he has recently spearheaded.
Even those city employees and officials who said they are not entirely on board with DeStefano’s policies agreed with his supporters that there is little chance for a successful opposition, mostly because of apathy and complacency among voters. The 2007 mayoral elections, for example, drew only 8,866 of the city’s 124,000 residents to the polls.
DeStefano first announced his plans to run in an interview with the local weekly, the New Haven Advocate, which also included new New Haven Police Department Chief James Lewis. DeStefano said during the Advocate interview that, if he wins, Lewis and he would “see how we both felt about the direction of the police department.”
In the News interview, DeStefano said if he wins another term, he will focus on, among other initiatives, strengthening the police department, holding New Haven’s hand out of the global financial crisis and continuing the economic development projects he started.
“The job interests and excites me,” he said. “I think I have something to offer.”
A different model
The champion of the $1.5-billion School Construction Program to renovate all city public schools won his election for the eighth term last November with 71 percent of the votes, tying for most number of terms with once-sole recordholder Lee, whose mayoral tenure lasted from 1954 to 1969.
DeStefano ran on a platform of spurring growth in the city’s economy and implementing new policies to reduce youth crime and boost the performance of New Haven’s public schools.
Like Lee, DeStefano has focused his tenure on, among other things, redeveloping and reshaping downtown. But in a stark departure from Lee’s vision of post-war urban renewal — marked by large parking lots and highways — DeStefano has worked toward returning the city to a sense of a traditional city neighborhood, with more pedestrian space and integration of housing and retail.
“DeStefano’s focus on a downtown renaissance is a very different model than Dick Lee’s,” Yale urbanism professor Elihu Rubin said “[He is] reversing some of those big projects that came in during Lee’s tenure as mayor.”
He mentioned the Veterans Memorial Coliseum project, a post-Lee-era building that had a large parking lot. The city tore down the Coliseum, in January 2007. The site will be replaced by a mixed use residence and retail space, now referred to as the 10th Square.
DeStefano first entered the local government scene in the mid 1980s under Mayor Biagio DiLieto, who, like many others in New Haven politics, was part of the city’s Democratic machine. DeStefano worked as a budget analyst, development administrator and finally chief administrative officer.
DeStefano ran for mayor in 1989, after DiLieto announced he would not run for another term. But another Democratic candidate John Daniels ultimately forged a coalition of community groups to seize the office, becoming the first and only black mayor of the city. The coalition broke soon broke apart, and in 1993, DeStefano defeated Daniels.
Most recently, DeStefano has had to face a budget squeeze, which started when the city did not receive $10 million it had hoped to receive in state funds. The difference soon translated into cuts in departments and services – and ultimately 35 city layoffs last month.
He also tackled more issues on the state arena when he squabbled with Gov. M. Jodi Rell — his one-time opponent for governor — for weeks over responsibility for tackling prison reentry.
And he fought on the national stage for the Elm City Resident Card — a multi-purpose and widely acclaimed ID card that can be obtained by any resident, regardless of immigration status.
He testified in April at a Freedom of Information Commission hearing to decide whether the lists of names and addresses for all Elm City Resident Card owners should be released to the public, a case the city won.
DeStefano said he wants to continue working on the new Gateway Community College, along with construction on the former Coliseum site and other downtown sites in future years.
Ward 20 Alderman and city employee Charles Blango both said it makes sense for DeStefano to announce early because DeStefano would not “want to open up Pandora’s box” by announcing closer to the election and might want to remind potential candidates that they would “face the incumbent.”
But if a viable opponent does appear on the scene, DeStefano’s weaknesses could be his apparent negligence of duties during his failed gubernatorial run and perceptions among some community members that he has too much unilateral control over city affairs and politics.
Yesterday, City Hall was in a frenzy. Aldermen grudgingly discussed reshuffling the fire department’s budget. The controversial Elm City Resident Card sought — and gained — aldermanic approval of outside money in order to start year two. Outside, a “Walk for Immigration” march commenced.
And through it all, the national economy was still failing.