Mayor faces competition

After 18 years as mayor, could the coming election be the one Mayor John DeStefano Jr. loses?

Starting this week, DeStefano will formally have a challenger in his bid for a record 10th mayoral term. Clifton Graves, a civil rights activist and former City Hall attorney, will take the first step in a likely mayoral run.

Graves, who will be forming an exploratory committee by the end of the week, said he is running because of a sense of frustration with City Hall’s “arrogance” among city residents. There is a lack of participatory democracy in New Haven, Graves said, with many residents feeling “ostracized and demonized by the powers that be.” DeStefano responded to the recent announcement by pointing out Graves’ lack of experience of the inner workings of City Hall.

“When you’ve been in office 18 years, it starts to feel like an entitlement,” Graves said. “People are saying ‘We’re tired with the status quo.’”

While Graves said he will have more detailed proposals in the next several weeks, he offered an outline of his platform centered around fixing the city’s budget crisis, improving school reform efforts, increasing city residents’ involvement in their local government and addressing violent crime.

Yale students are more than welcome to join Graves as he fleshes out the details of his proposals, he said, adding that he plans to come to campus soon to recruit volunteers for his campaign.

“Even if you’re only here four years, or two years, we need new ideas, your participation and your brain power,” Graves said.

Yale has a long tradition of undergraduate involvement in the city’s social and political life, Graves said — a tradition he would like to see continue.

A resident of New Haven since 1969, Graves has served in a wide range of both municipal and civic positions. A former deputy corporation counsel for the city, Graves served on the board of the Greater New Haven NAACP and the Housing Authority of New Haven, and as director of multicultural affairs at Southern Connecticut State University. DeStefano appointed Graves to serve on the city’s Commission on Equal Opportunity, where he served from 2002 to 2010.

In an interview Monday, DeStefano said despite Graves’ long presence in the community, the city would suffer under his leadership. Despite decades of being active in the community, DeStefano said, Graves has not shown support for the city’s school reform efforts or New Haven Promise.

“He’s been nowhere on education,” DeStefano said.

But the jury is still out on the mayor’s school reform efforts, Graves said. While he said there were many issues he would like to revisit in the mayor’s School Change campaign, two jumped to mind. Longer school days should become system-wide, Graves said, and the city should consider single-sex schooling for its youngest students.

Graves said he has not been on the sidelines of the city’s education issues, contrary to the mayor’s assertion. He has been active in a mentoring system in the city’s public schools that seeks to give at-risk students role models.

“My response to the mayor is that I’ve been involved in trying to prepare students so they can actually take advantage of the reforms on the table,” Graves said.

But Graves stressed that his will not be an anti-mayor campaign.

“This isn’t about John DeStefano, it’s really just pro-New Haven,” said Graves, who is 58. “I’ve been a resident here since I was a teenager, I have love and affection for this city. This is about a new voice for New Haven.”

Reactions from aldermen to news of Graves’ intentions ran the gamut from enthusiastic support to deep skepticism.

Despite not knowing much about Graves, Ward 28 Alderwoman Claudette Robinson-Thorpe said she would be supporting either him or Tony Dawson, a former alderman expected to enter the fray in the next several weeks — anyone but DeStefano, she said.

“A lot of people are not trusting what the mayor is doing right now, it’s not just me,” Robinson-Thorpe said, adding that a major reason for her opposition to DeStefano is her objection to how he handled the city’s laying off of 82 employees in February. Too many low-paid employees and not enough employees at the top of the chain were let go, she said.

“It’s time for a change,” she said.

But none of the potential candidates in the field can compete with DeStefano’s knowledge of the workings of city government, said Ward 29 Alderman and Board President Carl Goldfield. DeStefano’s advantage when he was elected in 1993 was that he had worked at City Hall for several years in the budget office.

“None of the names that have been talked about [as potential candidates] have run an organization as large as the city,” Goldfield said. City Hall is a “complicated piece of machinery” and DeStefano knows “everything there is to know about it,” he said.

Ward 1 Alderman Michael Jones ’11 said regardless of his opinion of the mayor, he is pleased that DeStefano will have to face competition this year. Mayoral races in New Haven have not seen a “robust debate” in a long time, Jones said.

Since 1993, DeStefano has only faced one opponent representing more than a single aldermanic ward. That challenge came in 2001 from State Senator Martin Looney. No members of the city’s delegation to the state legislature have indicated an interest in running against DeStefano.

Still, DeStefano said, he looks forward to debating with Graves and any others who qualify for the ballot.

“I’ll be engaging them frequently and in many public spaces,” DeStefano said.

The Democratic primary, historically the most important race in a city with only one of 30 wards represented by a Republican, takes place Sept. 13.

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