Ward 9 alderman race proves contentious

While the state awaits election results for its gubernatorial and senatorial races, New Haven’s Ward 9 will be watching its own election drama unfold.

The race for alderman of East Rock, home to many Yale faculty and graduate students, is the city’s only aldermanic election. After holding the position for almost four years, Roland Lemar announced in July he would vacate the seat and run for the state legislature. He is running unopposed. Matt Smith ’98, a lifelong East Rock resident won the endorsement of the Ward 9 Democratic Committee in September, but Jessica Holmes, a fellow Democrat and former union organizer with Local 34, which represents Yale employees, is threatening an upset due to strong union support from Local 34 and Local 35.

Lemar, who won the Democratic primary for the 96th District General Assembly seat in August, endorsed Smith after he served as Lemar’s deputy campaign manager in the primary for state legislature. New Haven Democratic Town Committee Chairwoman Susan Voigt, who approved the endorsement, said Smith’s decades living in the neighborhood make him the better candidate for the position.

“Matt was born and raised in the neighborhood, and he’s demonstrated that he really cares about it,” Voigt said. “At the end of the day, that’s what people really want in an alderman.”

Voigt said although she has not met Holmes, who moved to New Haven in 2003 and previously worked as an administrative assistant in the Yale School of Medicine, she believes Holmes is a good candidate as well. Both UNITE HERE Locals 34 and 35, which comprise Yale’s service, clerical and maintenance staff, have endorsed Holmes and donated $1,400 to her campaign, according to the New Haven Independent.

“Being a part of Local 34 introduced me to New Haven politics and I’m glad to have their support now,” Holmes said.

Holmes added that she has spent a great deal of time knocking on doors with Yale graduate-student volunteers. Graduate students face a peculiar problem, she said, of being adults fully participating in their community while at the same time focusing on their studies. Hugh Baran ’09, a resident of Ward 9 and political organizer for Local 35, said graduate students are often wrongly treated as separate from the community, but that Holmes’ candidacy has support from both graduate students and other residents of the ward.

Despite failing to win the endorsement of the ward’s 35 Democratic Committee members, Holmes collected the four signatures from Ward 9 voters she needed to get on the ballot. Holmes faces the disadvantage of her name’s placement at the very bottom of the ballot, a result of the ward’s Democrats not endorsing her and her not affiliating with another party. Meanwhile, Smith’s name is in row B along with prominent Democrats running for statewide and national office.

“No one is going to vote for me by accident,” Holmes said.

Her skills as an organizer make her more qualified than Smith to serve as Ward 9 alderman, she said, adding that it is important to know how to expand participation in the political process. Ward 9 has sometimes seen itself as an island separate from the rest of New Haven, she said, and she would seek to further engage residents in the ward with city issues, especially pending decisions stemming from an $8 million gap in the city’s budget. Because of her experience building relationships as a union organizer, Baran said Holmes is ideally suited to build coalitions both within the Board of Aldermen and between City Hall and residents.

For his part, Smith said “knowing your constituency” is essential in running for office. Voigt said Smith is “head and shoulders” above Holmes in that category.

When Lemar left the Board of Alderman to run for the state legislature, Smith said he saw a hole that needed to be filled. The improvement of the East Rock Magnet School on Nash Street, where East Rock children make up only one-fifth of the student body, is the major local issue motivating him. Most families in East Rock instead choose the Worthington Hooker School on Whitney Avenue, he said. Smith also said he wants to see his ward win the city’s contest for most curbside trash recycled, adding that the city’s public school system does not recycle enough trash.

Smith and Holmes both said the Board of Aldermen will face tough choices in the coming months in trying to close the city’s budget deficit. The city needs to do more with less, Holmes said, while not compromising city services. Smith, who called the deficit a fiscal crisis, said the city needs to find responsible budget cuts while also examining new options for increasing revenue.

Smith criticized Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s proposal to monetize the city’s parking meters, under which Gates Group Capital Partners, an Ohio-based private equity firm, would provide the city with a $50 million cash infusion in exchange for 25 years worth of revenue from city’s 2,738 on-street parking meters, worth an estimated $120 million. The plan is a “horrible idea,” Smith said. “It’s a short-term solution to a long-term problem.”

Both candidates agreed that Yale alumni, faculty and students have played an integral role in the race, whether as voters or volunteers.

“It’s impossible to take Yale out of the equation when you’re talking about East Rock,” Holmes said.

Polls open today at 6 a.m.

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