Rematch for Ward 9 candidates

East Rock’s Ward 9, home to many Yale graduate students and faculty, is set for another heated campaign season.

Current alderman Matt Smith ’98 eked out a victory over Jessica Holmes by 48 votes out of 1,892 in a nail-biter of a special election held last November due to the departure of former Ward 9 Alderman Roland Lemar, who was elected to a seat in the state legislature. In his bid for his first full aldermanic term, Smith will again face Holmes, who announced her intention to run to replace Smith Wednesday.

A former secretary at Yale Medical School and organizer with Yale’s Local 34, Holmes is the third aldermanic candidate with ties to the University’s labor unions to declare a bid in the past week. A fourth, Trumbull dining hall cook Frank Douglass, declared in April his bid for Ward 2 alderman.

While city politics over the past year has been marked by bitter contract negotiations with city unions and public protests by their rank and file and supporters, Holmes insisted that her past involvement with organized labor is not at the core of her candidacy.

“This election is not going to be a referendum on unions,” Holmes said. “It’s about in Ward 9 who people think will best represent their interests in the city.”

But on at least one issue that has been central to the recent labor tensions at City Hall, Holmes took a stand that was at odds with the positions Smith has taken during his six months on the Board of Aldermen. In an interview today, Holmes said she is strongly opposed to Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s proposed changes to the city’s benefits package to require city employees to contribute more to their healthcare plans.

Smith — echoing the repeated remarks of many city officials including DeStefano — told the News today that city employee benefits have become unsustainable and are in need of restructuring, but Holmes said such changes to employees’ health coverage put them at greater risk and are potentially harmful to the city’s finances in the long run.

“High-deductible health plans don’t work for people without a discretionary income — what people start skimping on is things like prevention, and they end up moving more into expensive catastrophic care” said Holmes, who previously worked for a health nonprofit in Atlantic City, N.J. “That’s a horrible way to save money.”

Holmes also took a more strident stand than Smith’s on DeStefano’s effort to privatize custodial services in the city’s schools, a key point of dispute that has brought hundreds of protesters to the Green over the past several months. While Smith emphasized his opposition to “balancing the budget on the backs of our lowest-paid employees” and said the impact on custodians and their families should be carefully studied before privatization moves ahead, Holmes rejected flatly the idea that school custodial services should have been targeted for privatization.

“Thee custodians are barely getting by as it is,” Holmes said. “Saving money by skimping on the lowest-wage workers is a Walmart-style policy — we don’t want to Walmart ourselves.”

With the custodians’ contract stalled for months in a state arbitration process, Smith said he does not believe the city’s privatization will succeed.

In addition to this slight divergence from Smith in her attitude toward the city’s fiscal policy, Holmes also said she would make a more effective advocate for transparency in city government.

When Fire Engine 8 on Whitney Avenue in East Rock was replaced with two paramedic units, Holmes said, city officials did not make a sincere effort to gather input from residents, who feared longer fire response times. Smith and Ward 10 Alderman Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 did call a meeting of the public safety committee of the Board of Aldermen to review statistics the fire department used to make its decision, he said.

But by the time Smith acted, Holmes said, it was “too late” to save the East Rock fire engine, one of two at the Whitney Avenue station. Holmes said Smith’s email to residents was insufficient, and that as alderwoman she would have been knocking on doors trying to galvanize her neighbors in an effort to stop the city’s decision.

Holmes, who has lived in New Haven for five and a half years, said her experience as a labor organizer has taught her skills she would use to build coalitions on the Board of Aldermen to make the body a stronger check on the DeStefano administration. A majority of aldermen, she said, simply vote for all of the mayor’s proposals.

For his part, though, Smith insisted that he is not an uncritical supporter of the mayor’s agenda.

As an “independent voice,” Smith said he has not been afraid to challenge DeStefano when he has found it appropriate. In particular, when the city struggled to remove snow from severe January storms that left many streets impassable for weeks, Smith was the first alderman to criticize a “lack of leadership” in City Hall, he said. Smith added that he was also an early and vocal critic of a proposal that originated from the DeStefano administration which would have sold the rights to the city’s parking meter revenue for 25 years to a private Ohio investment firm for an immediate cash infusion of $50 million.

“The idea that I’ve been unwilling to stand up to the mayor doesn’t hold much water,” Smith said.

Holmes has had six months since her narrow defeat last fall to lay the groundwork for a second run. This time around, there will be one obstacle she will not face.

Because the election in November was a special election, Holmes and Smith did not compete in a Democratic primary. Instead, the Ward 9 Democratic Committee endorsed Smith, forcing Holmes to run as an independent on the ballot if she wished to be a candidate. As a result, her name appeared at the bottom of Ward 9 voters’ ballots, while Smith, as the Democratic endorsee, had his name appear on the Democratic line.

By 11:45 p.m. on Election Night Nov. 2, Smith was ahead of Holmes by just 18 votes. His victory was sealed by the counting of 62 absentee votes, of which he won 46.

“The fact that we came so close without the endorsement means that my message resonates with Ward 9 voters,” Holmes said.

Holmes and Smith will face off in a Democratic primary Sept. 13.

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