Mayoral challengers face long odds

Although some City Hall officials say any opponent to eight-term incumbent Mayor John DeStefano Jr. will have a hard time winning in the Nov. 3 general election, three New Haven residents are still rising to the challenge.

The challengers — Ralph Ferrucci, a 37-year-old truck driver; Henri Sumner, a 65-year-old retired interior designer and hairdresser; and Angela Watley, a 53-year-old single mother and dispatcher for the New Haven Police Department — said they are going door to door to raise awareness of their community goals. Still, the city’s Democratic Town Committee chair said the independent candidates may be fighting an uphill battle.

“It’ll be difficult when you don’t have the resources, and you’re not as well known prior to running,” said the chair, Susan Voigt.

Although they do not come from strong political backgrounds, Ferrucci, Sumner and Watley said their personal connections to the city and the issues give them a fair shot.

“A lot of people are unhappy,” Ferrucci added. “If I can hit enough doors, anything is possible.”

In their campaigns, Ferrucci, Sumner and Watley have raised several issues with DeStefano’s current city policies, including his tax policy and closure of three senior centers. The three independent candidates are quick to describe their dissatisfaction with the mayor’s tenure and the hope that similar public chagrin can help them win.

But while they are passionate about change, the three independent candidates are running small campaigns with fewer than 20 volunteers each. Ferrucci, who ran for a New Haven office four times since 2003, and his 12 volunteers knock on doors and hand out flyers across the city, each on their own time. He said he plans to call supporters on the morning of election day to encourage them to vote.

And Sumner, who also ran in mayoral elections in 1999 and 2001, said daily bus rides around town also garner him some publicity.

“That’s my public relations,” Sumner said. “Someone will ask me, ‘Henri, are you still cutting hair?’ I’ll say ‘No, I’m running for mayor.’ ”

But former DeStefano opponents have also campaigned door to door. Richter Elser ’81, who ran for mayor on the Republican ticket against Ferrucci and DeStefano in 2007, said Tuesday he had heard of neither Watley nor Sumner. After going door to door and raising less than $1,000 in the last race, Elser finished with 17 percent of the vote. Nevertheless, Elser said he believes it is possible to beat the incumbent.

“The mayor is not completely invincible,” he said.

In interviews last February, 18 city aldermen, state representatives and members of the city’s Democracy Fund said they hope for a competitive race this November. But that does not mean they think these independent candidates will win.

“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 7 Alderwoman Frances “Bitsie” Clark said at the time.

DeStefano is leading in campaign funds. His campaign organizers have raised over $108,000, according to the New Haven Register; Watley said she has raised $1,000, and both Ferrucci and Sumner said they have simply spent money out of their own pockets. Ferrucci said he had spent $200 on fliers, and Sumner said he was unsure how much he had spent on bus tickets.

The candidates said that if DeStefano ends up winning this mayoral election, they at least will have given him some competition and encouraged accountability. Sumner said he also hopes to encourage the public to vote at all, and Ferrucci added that he is focused on raising awareness about his platform ideas concerning taxes and crime, not just campaigning.

“[DeStefano] wins and steals my issues,” Ferrucci said. “It’s not a frustration.”

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