While Yale students registered to vote in Ward 1 will have to wait until November to vote for their alderman, students in Wards 2 and 22 will cast ballots in two heated primaries in just one week.
Mirroring what has been the most contentious election season New Haven has seen in a decade, aldermanic candidates in Ward 2, home to hundreds of Yalies living off campus, and Ward 22, home to Silliman, Timothy Dwight, Morse and Ezra Stiles colleges, are entering a final week of fierce campaigning before the Sept. 13 Democratic primary. While the candidates and themes in each election differ substantially, both races have become suffused with tensions over labor issues that drove thousands of New Haven residents to marches and rallies this year and led Yale’s unions to actively support a slate of 15 of aldermanic candidates.
LABOR ASSERTS ITSELF
With three candidates challenging Alderman Greg Morehead, Ward 22 might be called the epicenter of an effort by Yale’s labor unions to exert more influence on the Board of Aldermen.
While Morehead and challenger Lisa Hopkins do not see eye to eye on many issues, both said they fear that union involvement in local races threatens to polarize the city’s electorate and, if successful, produce a Board of Aldermen that prioritizes union interests over those of the broader public. In a year where an unprecedented number of aldermanic candidates have some affiliation to labor unions, Yale’s UNITE HERE Locals 34 and 35 endorsed 15 candidates this August.
Among the union-endorsed candidates is Ward 2’s Frank Douglass, a 17-year veteran of Trumbull College’s dining hall kitchen and a member of Local 35’s executive board. The unions’ decision to become more politically active this year only benefits the city, Douglass said, and claims that the unions are trying to capture the Board of Aldermen for their own interests are wildly exaggerated.
“Just because we belong to a union doesn’t mean we have an agenda we’re trying to push,” Douglass said. “We’re just people who work, live and pay taxes in this city and are concerned about the direction it’s headed. No one is telling us to take over the city.”
Unions’ political activity is a vehicle for ordinary working-class New Haven residents to have their voices heard, said Ward 22 candidate Jeanette Morrison, who also received the Yale unions’ endorsement.
But regardless of whether one supports the causes of labor unions, many of which have clashed with City Hall in the past year over layoffs and benefits concessions, their political activism has turned campaigns across the city into narrow referendums on union issues, said Hopkins, who received the Yale unions’ endorsement in 2009, when she ran unsuccessfully against Morehead.
“I’m a union supporter, when you make it all about union and labor issues, regular folks get lost in the shuffle, and it’s not fair,” Hopkins said. “I hear a lot of people saying we need to get rid of the [Mayor John DeStefano Jr.] machine, but replacing that with a union-driven machine is not the answer.”
Cordelia Thorpe, Morehead’s third challenger, could not be reached for comment Monday.
THE CAUSES OF VIOLENCE
In Ward 2, which stretches from Park Street West to Sherman Parkway, labor issues cut deep into the heart of local politics and intersect with the ward’s safety issues. Douglas Bethea, a van driver for American Medical Response and street outreach worker, has turned the aldermanic race there into a nail-biter, contesting Douglass’ jobs-focused candidacy with a platform focused on addressing the youth violence that plagues the community.
Bethea, who lost his son in 2006 to a bullet shot by a young man he knew personally, said his campaign is about honestly confronting the problems of violence in the community. Rather than expect City Hall or Yale to solve the persistent problem of black-on-black violence, he said, the community needs to pool its resources together to turn teenagers away from guns, something he has tried to do himself by running a youth drum squad for 22 years and establishing an informal community center in his basement complete with billiards and foosball tables, a large-screen television and computer games.
While Bethea is exactly right about the need to address violence, however, he misses the point about its causes, Douglass said — causes that are directly traceable to the lack of jobs and opportunities for young people.
“The bigger picture is that kids don’t see a future here,” Douglass said. “Sure, parents need to get more involved with their kids’ education, but the parents aren’t doing so well themselves and the city has a role to play in getting them more resources.”
Bethea countered that jobs do exist — unemployment in the Dwight neighborhood that occupies most of Ward 2 persists mainly because residents lack job-readiness training that would help them get and keep those jobs.
Douglass and Bethea are vying for a seat vacated by former Ward 2 Alderwoman Gina Calder ’03 EPH ’08, who resigned July 1, a day too late for a special election to be held to fill her seat. The seat is being temporarily held by Greg Smith, who is not running.
AN EXTENDED CAMPAIGN SEASON
While the Democratic Party’s dominance of New Haven politics has traditionally made primaries the de facto arbiters of local elections, neither Ward 2 nor Ward 22’s race is likely to end before the Nov. 8 general election. Both Bethea and Douglass have registered as independents in the general election, and all three of Morehead’s challengers have opted to do the same, along with 14 other aldermanic candidates throughout the city.
In anticipation of the extended campaign season, Morehead has taken a low-key approach to engaging Yale students living in his ward. While he plans to lead students on a tour of the ward’s portion of the Dixwell neighborhood in late September, he said, he does not want to pester students with his campaign while they are busy transitioning back to life on campus.
Morrison has taken the opposite tack over the past two weeks, going door-to-door on campus with a team of supporters and talking to students at mealtimes in dining halls.
“My hope is to build a team of students for all four colleges so we can come together and brainstorm ideas for how to bridge the gap between students and permanent residents in the ward,” Morrison said.
Hopkins has mostly been using social media to engage with Yalies so far, she said.
On Sept. 13, Yalies registered as Democrats in Ward 2 can cast their votes at the Troup School at 259 Edgewood Ave., and those in Ward 22 can vote at the Wexler-Grant School at 55 Foote St.