News analysis: Officials hope for a contested mayoral race

For New Haven, change may have to wait.

As Mayor John DeStefano Jr. seeks a ninth term in office, he brings with him an undeniably powerful political base. In the absence of mayoral term limits in New Haven, DeStefano is free to run for as long as he likes, and with the support of the Democratic establishment behind him, many local officials say he is not likely to lose. If DeStefano wins the upcoming election, he will surpass Richard C. Lee, who ended his eight-term tenure in 1970 as the longest-serving mayor in the history of the city. But is it time for some new blood and fresh ideas in the mayor’s office?

Perhaps not, many local leaders are saying.

In interviews conducted by the News with 18 aldermen, state representatives and members of the city’s Democracy Fund, most said they hope for a competitive race for mayor — a race that has traditionally encouraged dialogue and debate. But in light of current economic hardships facing the city, the majority of local officials interviewed said, the need for political expertise and city budgeting know-how trumps any patriotic desires for a shift in the city’s executive leadership.

And DeStefano is currently the only man who knows how to do the job, they said.

“DeStefano is a very popular man, and he creatively introduces new ideas as new challenges are presented to him,” New Haven Democratic Town Committee Chair Susie Voigt said. “That’s the reason why he’s been elected for eight terms.”

With a $1.1 billion state deficit, one that Gov. M. Jodi Rell said Monday could snowball to $8 billion over the next two fiscal years, city officials will need to do less trimming and more axing when it comes to determining how to balance the budget. With his finger on the pulse of 15 years of city prioritizing, DeStefano has the experience needed to make difficult decisions, several aldermen said.

“I will tell you this: Even in the best of times, managing the finances of this city is not easy,” DeStefano said in an interview Monday. “We’re going to have to make choices that are prudent and do things differently in terms of costs, but I’m not going to let that dominate the direction of our city and slow us down, whether this is an election year or not.”

Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances “Bitsie” Clark maintained that the city needed the experience of the mayor more than a person with different ideas. Painful budget cutbacks are sure to be found in New Haven’s future, Clark said. The city, she added, needs someone who has the political savvy to make those difficult decisions.

“You can’t imagine the crap that this man is going to get when he starts to cut back the budget,” Clark said. “When you have the economic situation that we’ve got now, the last thing you want to do is bring someone in who doesn’t know what they’re doing.”

Ward 14 Alderwoman Erin Sturgis-Pascale echoed the sentiment, nodding to DeStefano’s shrewd financial tact and well-worked connections: “He has definite political smarts; he knows where to go to ask for the money,” she said, “and that’s really important.”

Ward 28 Alderman Mordechai Sandman said no matter who takes the reigns of the city, financial experience remains paramount to economic well-being.

“As an alderman, I am starting to realize that the finances of the city are a lot more complicated than I ever imagined,” Sandman said. “City government is a huge challenge, and we need the right person in there.”

Given that the city’s fiscal outlook lies in the balance of the November election, several New Haven residents in the past year have entertained the idea of campaigning against DeStefano. But not one person has declared his or her candidacy. Former state Rep. Bill Dyson, who spent 32 years representing New Haven before retiring in 2008, confirmed last week that he was “considering” initiating a campaign against the mayor, though he maintained he has not yet made any final decisions.

“We are in an environment now that is looking bleaker by the day,” Dyson said last week. “But I want to do what I can to make sure some of that bleakness is removed.”

If Dyson chooses to join the campaign, the city’s political landscape will surely benefit, almost all of the officials interviewed said.

The last time New Haven’s mayoral race was hotly contested was in 2001, when DeStefano along with challengers in the race together spent over $1 million, the most on any mayoral campaign in the city’s history. But in 2007, DeStefano won by a 71 percentage-point margin after going unchallenged in the primary race.

Jennifer James ’08, who helped found the New Haven Democracy Fund, the organization that provides public financing to mayoral candidates, said regardless of DeStefano’s efficacy as a mayor, he needs to be challenged in the upcoming election.

“It’s not a matter of whether or not Mayor DeStefano’s running again, but are we going to hear other voices in the election?” James said. “A problem in this city is that it’s mostly Democrat, and that has the possibility of leading to corruption. If the mayor’s being seriously challenged, he’d be more accountable to the people.”

Alderwoman Clark agreed with James’ statement, saying that a serious competitor forces a candidate to “sharpen” his viewpoints and his plans. She said DeStefano once told her that when state Sen. Martin Looney ran against him in the 2001 mayoral race, it was “the best thing that ever happened to him.” Looney’s campaign forced the mayor to question his methods and defend his policies, Clark said DeStefano told her.

When asked about this conversation with Clark, DeStefano said his campaign against Looney helped him consolidate his vision for the city, especially in regards to neighborhood outreach programs and New Haven’s relationship with Yale. Any challenger, Clark said, will undoubtedly force an incumbent to question the grounds upon which his platform has been built.

“I think that’s what Bill [Dyson] will do. He’s very popular in this city, he’s important and powerful, and he’s the kind of person who would give DeStefano a run for his money,” Clark said.

James alluded to the idea that when one man has personally turned the cogs of the city for so many years, it is nothing less than a feat to wipe those cogs clean of his fingerprints.

“New Haven is a tough city because it is very Democrat-heavy, and it’s hard to run as a challenger,” James said. “No matter how much money you have, you can’t beat Mayor DeStefano’s name recognition.”

In light of Dyson’s possible candidacy, Ward 15 Alderman Joseph Rodriguez said there is a consensus on the Board of Aldermen that this will be a mayoral campaign driven by issues, not personalities. Though Rodriguez maintained he has not decided which box he might check next November, he said he harbored no doubt that DeStefano has an unmatchable 15 years of practical knowledge on his side.

“When it comes to ideas that DeStefano has proposed now or in the past, there are some that I agree with and some that I don’t,” Rodriguez said. “But DeStefano is definitely an experienced individual. He’s known the ins and outs of the city for quite some time.”

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