Contested mayoral race begins

New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. faces his toughest primary election since 2001 this year, with four Democratic challengers seeking to unseat him.
New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. faces his toughest primary election since 2001 this year, with four Democratic challengers seeking to unseat him. Photo by Grace Patuwo.

With the Democratic primary now less than two weeks away, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and his four challengers are gearing up for the home stretch in the most heated mayoral contest the city has seen since 2001.

In his quest for a record 10th term as mayor, DeStefano faces budget watchdog Jeffrey Kerekes, civil rights activist Clifton Graves and former aldermen Tony Dawson and Robert Lee. While his overwhelming name recognition and his endorsement from the Democratic Town Committee will likely give him a significant lift heading into the Sept. 13 primary, DeStefano acknowledged that a weak economy and prevailing anti-incumbent attitudes among voters of all stripes endanger his prospects at the polls.

“People are worried about the future in a way that I haven’t seen in a lifetime,” DeStefano said in an interview last week. “When you tell people you’re incumbent politician they look askance at you like never before.

Indeed, all of DeStefano’s challengers have called for mayoral term limits.

Perhaps the mayor’s fiercest critic among his challengers has been Kerekes. At an Aug. 11 debate at the Metropolitan Business Academy, Kerekes called the mayor’s staff a “$1 million entourage,” and criticized the mayor’s leadership of the police department. Kerekes said in an email that DeStefano “does not see murders of teenagers as a priority,” and that if neighborhoods such as Westville or East Shore were experiencing violence to the degree that poorer neighborhoods such as Dixwell and Newhallville are, DeStefano not only would “call in the National Guard, but the Marines.”

While Kerekes said he is optimistic about his chances of defeating DeStefano in the primary, his campaign has an escape valve if he loses: He has filed as an independent candidate in the general election Nov. 8. Top city Democrats have criticized the move by Kerekes and 19 aldermanic candidates to run as independents as well as Democrats as detrimental to party unity and reminiscent of Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s ’64 LAW ’67 controversial decision in his 2006 re-election campaign to run as an independent when his opponent, Democrat Ned Lamont SOM ’80, appeared to be gaining momentum.

DeStefano’s campaign manager, Danny Kedem, declined to criticize Kerekes’ move directly, but he emphasized the mayor’s strong commitment to the Democratic Party’s ideals. If DeStefano faces Kerekes again in November, he said, he will be “happy to talk about the issues.”

“The Democratic Party means something to the mayor as a strong progressive,” Kedem said. “He’s proud of his career working both as a steward of the City of New Haven and as a proud liberal Democrat.”

Kerekes said he has no apologies for his strategy. Unlike Lieberman, he said, he announced his strategy at the start of his campaign. Besides, he said, too few people vote in the Democratic primary and the city stands to benefit from a debate that extends to the general election.

Tuesday was an important day for Graves’ campaign, which suffered last week from the revelation that he pled guilty in 2004 to failing to file state income tax returns and had his license to practice law suspended in 2001 for failing to pay an annual fee required of all attorneys. State Sen. Toni Harp (D-New Haven, West Haven) came to a Dixwell church to rally for Graves, who has been a board member of the Greater New Haven NAACP and the city’s housing authority.

“Our city will best find its way forward under [Graves’] thoughtful and compassionate leadership,” Harp said in a press release.

Dawson and Lee could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

DeStefano won a ninth term in 2009 with 74.5 percent of the vote.

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