Democrat Matt Smith ’98, New Haven’s newest alderman, will represent East Rock’s Ward 9, which is home to University President Richard Levin GRD ’74 and numerous Yale faculty members and graduate students. Smith, a native of East Rock, defeated Jessica Holmes, a former political organizer with UNITE HERE Local 34, a union representing Yale employees, by a margin of 670 to 622 votes in last Tuesday’s only hotly contested local election. Former Ward 9 Alderman Roland Lemar vacated the seat and ran unopposed for representative for the 96th district in the state’s General Assembly.
MATT SMITH ’98
Q Tell us a bit about your background in East Rock.
MS My parents moved to East Rock about 40 years ago, and I’ve lived here the vast majority of my life. I went to school here — I went to Wilbur Cross and then Yale. I come from large family: five brothers and three sisters, and all of us grew up here.
Q How does Ward 9 fit in with the rest of New Haven?
MS We have some of the best minds in the city in Ward 9. We can push them to become more engaged in broader issues that affect the city. We have great faculty and graduate students, and if we engage them they can offer great and innovative ideas. Roland Lemar has done a great job in engaging them, and it’s something I’d like to continue. We need to be sure we tap into the human resources we have in the ward. I got to meet a lot of them along the campaign trail — we’ve got experts in recycling initiatives, experts in municipal budgets—and I know they would love to be more engaged.
Q What is the biggest thing you’d like to see change in the way City Hall does business?
MS One thing that I hear a lot about is the schism that divides the city’s politics. It’s this shtick about whether you’re anti-mayor or pro-mayor that can paralyze what we do as a city. I want us as a city to take an issue by issue approach regardless of who’s making the proposal. We have to make sure we’re forming smart policies for the city that aren’t pro- or anti- any one person. I think we need to look beyond that so we can build a vision that moves the city forward.
Q What’s the number-one issue that you’d like to see addressed in your first term?
MS Two things I’ve been talking about have been schools and the budget. In my ward we have a construction project with East Rock Global Magnet School. I want to pay attention to that and make sure that it becomes the great school that it can be. And then there’s the budget. We’re a progressive town, we offer a lot of services, and we don’t want to see them go. So the question is how do we balance all these great services that we have and not increase the tax burden that a lot of residents feel. It all gets magnified in these economic times. One thing I want to look at in this budget season is where can we make responsible budget cuts — not decimate departments or adding to the stress of the most vulnerable in our population. We need a lean, responsible city budget. It will be interesting to look at all this in detail on the Board of Aldermen. It will be a challenging year, but it’s a challenge I think we can meet if we work together.
Q What does New Haven Promise, the Yale-funded scholarship program announced yesterday which will fund tuition for eligible public school students, mean for the city?
MS I think it’s an amazing opportunity for the city’s public school students to be able to have that reward in front of them. It’s one less obstacle in front of them. It’s exciting, and it’s an amazing opportunity for the city and its young people. The challenge will be to get as many people qualified as possible, making sure we have the support services to get them to their 3.0 GPA and the other requirements. Those things can be addressed in our school reform efforts, and working in concert together with New Haven Promise, they can brighten the future of a lot of kids in this city.
Q How has Yale been a good public citizen of the city, and in what ways can it improve?
MS Yale has been, for the most part, a good citizen. I think it’s gotten better over the years. There were times in the past when it wasn’t as good a partner as it could have been, but now, especially with this new Promise program, I think Yale has been more and more of a community partner. It’s realizing that the success of New Haven and the success of Yale are interrelated. Can’t have a top-notch university if we don’t have a great city. Things like the Promise program help to reinforce that relationship. I think we’re going to find more and more ways to engage the university so it can become an even better partner, and I’m excited to help find those opportunities.
Q Where are you from originally?
RL I grew up in Westerly, Rhode Island, went to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and moved to New Haven in 2000. I went to work for the City Plan Department at City Hall and have lived in East Rock ever since.
Q How did you try to engage the residents of the ward, such as graduate students, who did not see themselves as permanent members of the community?
RL I’ve always found that it’s easier to organize around common interests, whether it’s people who have lived here for decades or a graduate student only here for a few years. Whether it’s recycling programs or schools, making government more open source, there’s always things that people care about because it affects their daily lives.
Q Is there a top priority for you as you head to Hartford?
RLThe state’s budget deficit is overwhelming. We have an opportunity to reshape the way we invest in our state to address that. One constructive issue I really want to focus on that goes beyond the liberal person I am is investing in mass transit. There are so many benefits to expanding our investments in public transit: more walkable communities, more connected cities, job growth, saved money, and better communities.
Q Are you optimistic about the future of the city?
RL I think fundamentally we’re making a lot of the right choices. Whether it’s innovative school reform, economic development downtown, the growth of Yale, and attracting companies like Higher One. There’s increased excitement among young people who are increasingly moving here. But we are in an awful climate for expecting government to solve societal problems. We fund our schools and police and so much else through property taxes and state assistance. So we’re limited in the funds we can collect and both sources are dwindling. Still, the expectation is high, so it’s an awful problem. I would say that all the private and social and community forces are trending in a positive direction, but how government’s role changes will be interesting to watch. It will be harder for the next two years on the Board of Aldermen and in City Hall than when I was there.
Q What’s your take on your succussor, Matt Smith?
RL Matt is an incredible person to be on the board, having lived here his entire life. He understands the concerns and the needs of his neighbors. I’m proud to have him as my alderman.
Q How do you think having a Democratic governor will shape your time in Hartford?
RL I’m very excited that Dan Malloy was elected. He has a great basis for understanding urban issues — he’s had to govern a city in an executive fashion, making tough choices, leading through tough times and making smart investments. It will be exciting to work with him — it’s an exciting time to be in the legislature. We can abolish the death penalty this year, invest in a green economy, expand mass transit — things we that we couldn’t do under Governor Rell or that we could have done under Tom Foley. If we want to make progress on the statewide achievement gap, we have someone who has worked on it before.
Q How has Yale been a good public citizen of New Haven, and in what ways could it improve?
RLI’m certainly part of a community that has had its battles with Yale, for example when it has expanded its borders in Ward 9. At the same time, a lot of people in the ward are here because of Yale in some way. So it’s a necessarily differentiated group of people.
Ultimately, Yale is a defining reason why I am in New Haven, and a lot of things that have happened in the city in terms of jobs, and now New Haven Promise, and investments in the biotech and nanotech sectors—those things all stem from Yale’s being here. The growth of the School of Management and Yale Law School has given us access to some of the most highly trained and well-equipped advocates in the city.
Yale being in New Haven is only good for New Haven. I don’t think we bear an unfair burden by hosting Yale. Instead it’s an extraordinary asset and that’s how I perceive it. We have our issues from time to time and will continue to, but it doesn’t undercut my appreciation for Yale.