Nutman: A contest in Ward 1

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Mike Jones ’11 has some competition. Nearly a month into Jones’ unopposed run, Katie Harrison ’11 declared her intent to run for the Ward 1 seat on the Board of Aldermen last week, and Minh Tran ’09 announced his candidacy this weekend.

Everyone likes competitive elections. The Ward 1 Democratic Committee acknowledged their value two years ago, when they effectively moved the Democratic primary for this ward to April by creating a pre-primary that will determine the candidate they endorse (previously, the ward committee would endorse a candidate through less transparent measures, although another Democrat could run during the September primary).

In a recent column (“Before the next election,” Jan. 22), the Committee argued that because students only arrive on campus at the end of August, “very little time remains for candidates in Ward 1 to mount a real campaign” before the September primary. Similarly, many hope former state Rep. Bill Dyson will be able to mount a strong enough campaign to make this fall’s mayoral election competitive.

Contested elections are touted because they compel candidates to better articulate their platforms, which supposedly leads to greater accountability in office. But the original election does not truly force officials to be accountable to their constituency; rather, the prospect of a hotly contested next election — where the incumbent must fight to keep his or her seat — does.

President Obama’s campaigning and governing tactics underscore the potency elections have on policy decisions. Since his inauguration, he has spent significant time in states that became blue this fall, including “battleground states” Indiana, Florida, Virginia and Colorado. When stumping for the stimulus bill in Florida earlier this month, he added the caveat, “If stuff hasn’t worked and people don’t feel like I’ve led the country in the right direction, then you’ll have a new president,” referring to the ability to oust him in four years.

Robert Dallek, a celebrated professor at UCLA who specializes in the American presidency, sees the fight for reelection more broadly. He claims that presidents are far less effective in their second terms and are often involved in more scandals. Looking back even 30 years is instructive: Clinton’s second term was marred by his affair with Monica Lewinsky, Reagan faced the Iran-contra debacle, and Nixon resigned amid investigation into Watergate.

The same principles apply in New Haven. Perhaps the best example is in Ward 2, where the past two recent aldermanic elections have each been decided by fewer than 30 votes. Current Ward 2 Alderwoman Gina Calder ’05 EPH ’09 was recently quoted in the News as saying, “I never really expected an election cycle where I didn’t have an opponent.” But Calder does not mind the competition because “it keeps you on your toes,” as she put it. Trumbull College dining hall chef Frank Douglass Jr., who narrowly lost to Calder two years ago, has already declared his candidacy.

Things are different in Ward 1. Most of the ward’s constituents are Yale undergraduates, so a current student or recent graduate often holds the aldermanic seat. As a result, the seat is often in transition.

In the past 20 years, no one has served more than two terms as the Ward 1 alderman. Two of the seven aldermen have resigned in the middle of terms to take other jobs, one in the city (Julio Gonzalez ’99 ran Mayor DeStefano’s 2001 reelection campaign and later became his chief of staff) and one outside its walls. Most frequently the incumbent declines to run for reelection, as Rachel Plattus ’09 already has; only one alderman has actually lost a reelection bid.

This is not to suggest that we should revamp the Ward 1 seat — for instance, by encouraging candidates to pledge to run for multiple terms — although a few aldermen, including Calder, have warned of the difficulty in enacting lasting change in just two years or even four.

But the seat plays a vital role in bringing Yalies into local politics. Three of the seven former aldermen have since taken prominent jobs in the city; even those who are not on the board become involved petitioning the board for specific legislation.

The contested election this year brings even more into the fold, as many will campaign on behalf of a specific candidate or work on the Democratic committee to ensure that the proceedings are open and fair. I hope, however, that we also use the competition to push candidates to outline their views and ideas clearly and specifically.

We may not get another shot.

Sarah Nutman is a sophomore in Trumbull College.

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