Between two and four in the afternoon, Ward 14 Alderwoman Erin Sturgis-Pascale must be very quiet. Brynia, her 3-year-old daughter, takes a midday nap in a nearby room, and Sturgis-Pascale does not want to wake her.
Usually, quiet is not a problem for the 35-year-old Fair Haven mom. Her voice resembles that of a first-grade teacher, gentle and soft, amenable to whispering.
But when she talks politics, she cannot help but grow louder.
“The progressive change on the federal level — that’s never going to happen,” Sturgis-Pascale said in an interview in her home last weekend. “So where can change happen? In local politics, in our cities — and that’s where it should happen. It really should be from the bottom up.”
Brynia coughed in her sleep. And Sturgis-Pascale whispered once again.
Sturgis-Pascale, who is running for a third term on the Board of Aldermen this November, is known for championing the battle for safer New Haven streets. Since gaining her seat on the Board of Aldermen in 2006, Sturgis-Pascale has helped found the New Haven Safe Streets Coalition — a legislative initiative that encourages drivers to obey traffic laws and better accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians.
Aldermanic President Carl Goldfield said Sturgis-Pascale has a zeal for politics that occasionally surpasses his own.
“Sometimes, in those long meetings, my eyes start to glaze over and my head starts to nod,” Goldfield said about the monthly board meetings. “But Erin — she’s always enthusiastic and she really loves this stuff. She’s got an emotional connection with this stuff.”
But Sturgis-Pascale’s central focus on vehicular safety is controversial in a neighborhood plagued by some of New Haven’s worst crime. The area of Fair Haven where Sturgis-Pascale lives is markedly different from the New Haven neighborhood portrayed in the news as a backdrop to prostitution, drug dealing and gun violence.
When Sturgis-Pascale first ran for office in 2006, her challenger, Evelyn DeJesus-Vargas, asserted that Sturgis-Pascale was ignoring the serious crime plaguing the city, focusing instead on traffic safety, which DeJesus-Vargas said was a white, middle-class problem.
But Sturgis-Pascale maintained that it is wrong to characterize pedestrian safety as a concern for the elite.
Though some of her contemporaries have characterized her crusade as plagued by tunnel vision, Sturgis-Pascale claims tangible victories, such as the launch of the New Haven Safe Streets initiative last October. She has also co-sponsored legislation that requires homeowners to register with the city when they are at risk of foreclosure, as well as legislation banning the sale of spray paint to minors.
“I’ve been accused by many of being a single-issue person, but transit is something that affects everyone,” Sturgis-Pascale said. “You can’t escape it.”
Last Sunday afternoon, Sturgis-Pascale wore the same ensemble she usually wears at Board of Aldermen meetings: a turtleneck sweater, a vest and a casual pair of trousers. Her chin-length bob was held back from her face with a headband, and she scooped the accessory in and out of her hair as she spoke.
Throughout her three years as an alderwoman, Sturgis-Pascale has also faced criticism for serving in a predominantly Latino community. Many of her opponents argued that, as a white woman who does not speak Spanish, Sturgis-Pascale is incapable of relating to the Latino members of her ward, especially those who only speak Spanish.
But Ward 15 Alderman Joseph Rodriguez, who also represents a Fair Haven ward, said although he has not always agreed with Sturgis-Pascale, he knows that she works hard to surpass the language barrier, adding that although he doubted her in the past, he is not worried that she can keep tabs on her community.
“If you live in Fair Haven, your concerns are public safety and housing and education,” Rodriguez said, “whatever race you might be.”
Curled up on a plush sofa, surrounded by children’s toys and parenting books, Sturgis-Pascale gazed out of the living room window, envisioning a neighborhood no longer riddled with broken glass and speeding cars. The view from the window of her 180-year-old home onto the Quinnipiac River, she said, is a source of great personal pride. Like the city itself, the house is not something Sturgis-Pascale said she is willing to see tarnished.