Less than two months into his time as Ward 1 alderman, Michael Jones ’11 told the News last February he would need a “compelling reason” to seek a second term.
While Jones said he would not announce his intentions until early April, it already seems as if the Board of Aldermen’s work on several of his top policy priorities will not conclude before his term ends next January. Among the issues Jones hopes to advance in 2011 are an expansion of the city’s living wage law and an explicit protection in city ordinances against discrimination on the basis of gender identity.
As he looks into the remainder of his two-year term, which began January 2010, Jones said fiscal problems at both the city and state level are the single largest impediment to the accomplishment of his goals. Many elements of his platform as a candidate — including creating more affordable housing in the city, extending public financing to aldermanic races and enhancing infrastructure around the Yale campus — require funds that are increasingly difficult to find.
‘BUDGET, BUDGET, BUDGET’
Bureaucracies have also gotten in the way of progress on his proposals, Jones said. The University has been slow to cooperate on campus-area infrastructure issues he campaigned on, such as the lack of crosswalks in many spots where Yale students commonly jaywalk.
“We’re still waiting for the first meeting,” Jones said.
Still, Jones, who has not been in elected office before, said rather than discouraging him, these frustrations have taught him the value of patience. Being a part of a legislative body requires more listening than talking, Jones said.
If Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s State of the City address Monday night is any indication, Jones may need a healthy amount of patience in the next few months. Beginning in three weeks, when the mayor submits his budget proposal, the Board of Aldermen will become the scene of a contentious negotiation process amid efforts to contain the city’s ballooning budget gap.
While the city outpaced the rest of the state in terms of property tax revenue growth, the mayor is projecting a budget gap that will reach $254 million over the next four years if no reforms are passed.
“The concentration in the next few months is going to be ‘budget, budget, budget,’” Ward 29 Alderman and President of the Board of Aldermen Carl Goldfield said, adding that despite the weight of the city’s fiscal woes, Jones will still have opportunities to gain the support of other aldermen for his ideas.
A DIFFICULT BALANCE
Aside from the difficulty of legislating in a penny-watching environment, Jones must face both the challenge of all first-time politicians and the particular challenge posed by the ward he represents.
Ward 1, one of the 30 wards in the city represented by a part-time alderperson, is comprises almost exclusively Yale students, and the seat has traditionally been held by a Yale student. Both the temporary nature of many Yale students’ time in New Haven and the fact that Ward 1 residents’ concerns are largely met by the University results in a unique political position for any Ward 1 alderperson.
“There’s always been this sense of ‘What’s my connection to my alderman as a Yale student? What are they doing for me?’” said Ben Stango ’11, former president of the Yale College Democrats.
Jones said he has done his best to be accessible to students, citing his blog as an example of his effort to communicate to the campus about New Haven politics. But the blog, he admitted, has had a weak readership.
Perhaps equally important, Stango said, is the question of accountability. Given that most students do not look to city government for services in the same way that other New Haven residents do, the Ward 1 alderperson must decide where his or her responsibilities ultimately lie.
“Where do you take your lead from? Are you fighting for student issues or larger social justice issues that you believe in?” Stango asked. “It’s a difficult balance to strike.”
But while those questions will face any representative of Yale students in the government of its home city, Stango said Jones has at the very least helped elevate the importance of the position on campus. The fact that “everyone knows who he is,” Stango said, is a step in the right direction.
Despite the recession and being new to politics and to New Haven, Jones said he is by no means losing hope that his efforts, especially on the living wage, will bear fruit.
Jones introduced legislation last April that would increase the wage the city is required to pay workers employed through city contracts and city-funded programs from $12 to $14.67. The bill also includes provisions that would expand the living wage to more workers and penalize employers for not providing their employees health care. After a heated five-hour debate about the bill’s fiscal feasibility at the Board of Aldermen last September, the bill was tabled.
Former city spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga said in September that the city estimated the cost of Jones’ proposals at more than $15 million.
Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances “Bitsie” Clark said while she sees the proposal as a financial burden the city cannot currently afford, she appreciates that Jones is “fighting for what he thinks is right.” Still, she said, Jones will have to work hard to address aldermen’s concerns in order to advance the proposal.
“I never blame anyone for coming into office with high ideals, but it does no good to be the voice crying in the wilderness,” Clark said.
Goldfield said the living wage issue is on hiatus.
For his part, Jones said while he is open to compromises, he is pressing ahead with the proposal and is waiting for City Hall to respond to his request for a detailed financial analysis of the proposal.
“I think [Jones] understands that he’ll need to meet the city somewhere in the middle,” Goldfield said, adding that Jones’ original proposal was “extremely ambitious.”
THE COMING YEAR
Another setback for Jones came in the form of being passed over for a promotion.
In December, Jones told the News he expected to be appointed chairman of the Board of Aldermen’s Legislation Committee. Instead, Goldfield appointed Ward 5 Alderman Jorge Perez, who has served as an alderman for over two decades. Goldfield said his decision was based on what he thought was best for the city and was not intended to slight Jones, who is vice-chairman of the committee.
“Jorge has a lot of experience, which is what I was looking for at a time when we have a lot of major projects coming before [the Board of Aldermen],” Goldfield said. “It wasn’t anything against Mike, just an affirmation of Jorge.”
Jones said he is confident that he can get his colleagues’ support for his antidiscrimination efforts.
The city’s ordinances currently do not include gender identity and expression as a distinct classification alongside race and sexuality when addressing discrimination. Jones said he is working on amending the ordinances with the help of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), and ctEQUALITY, both nonprofit organizations.
“New Haven has a reputation of leading the country in a few different areas, but this is one in which we’re falling behind,” Jones said.
Goldfield expressed skepticism about the effort’s prospects in the next year, however.
“Given the budget issues we’re facing, I’m just not sure how high this is going to be on the people’s agenda,” Goldfield said.
One issue which is certain to come before the Board of Aldermen during Jones’ term is that of revising the city’s charter. Every 10 years, the city is required by state law to review its charter, which governs such issues as term limits for elected city officials and the size of the Board of Aldermen. The last time the aldermen formed a commission to review the charter, which is required even if no changes are made to it, was in 2001.
Jones has at least one reason to postpone any decision on his political career: the Ward 1 Democratic Committee, charged with endorsing candidates for aldermen, voted Jan. 30 not to make an endorsement in the Nov. 2011 election. This means Jones will not compete with any other Democratic candidate before November as was the case in 2009, when he won a pre-primary endorsement vote open to all Ward 1 Democrats in April.
Co-chairs of the committee Amalia Skilton ’13 and Mac Herring ’12 said they will ask Democrats not to run in the state-mandated Sept. 13 primary in order to ensure that the Nov. 8 election is competitive, giving students enough time to engage with the field of candidates that emerges.
Unlike in 2009, when his victory in the April vote all but sealed his victory, Jones’ fate may be unclear until November if he decides to run.
While Stango said he thinks Jones’ term has been a success overall so far, he hopes the election in November will be contested. A real election in November will force students to think about New Haven issues and examine the role of the Ward 1 alderman in the city’s government, he said.
The filing deadline for all municipal candidates, including Ward 1 alderman, is Aug. 10.