Primaries may shake up city politics

Polls are open this morning in what appears likely to be a dramatic Democratic primary.

All eyes are on the mayoral primary, in which 18-year incumbent John DeStefano Jr. is confronting three spirited challengers as he runs for a record tenth term, but heated aldermanic races surrounding Yale’s campus have the potential to transform the city’s political landscape. Because there is no primary in the race for Ward 1 alderman, most Yale students casting ballots today will do so only in the mayoral race, in which DeStefano faces the most serious threat to his re-election since 2001.

In their race to unseat DeStefano, the mayor’s opponents will likely be helped by a boost in voter turnout citywide in 16 extraordinarily intense aldermanic primaries, many of which are battles between union-endorsed and pro-DeStefano candidates. Jeffrey Kerekes, a budget watchdog from Wooster Square who has emerged as the mayor’s sharpest critic, said the increased turnout will largely consist of voters who are tired of DeStefano at the helm of city government.

“When people are motivated to come out, they’re not motivated by [DeStefano’s] 18-year record — they’re motivated by change,” Kerekes said.

Still, DeStefano has at least one overwhelming political advantage heading into today’s election.

The mayor’s fundraising, according to the latest campaign finance reports, has outpaced that of all of his challengers combined by over $375,000, a ratio of 8.5 to 1. That gap is due in part to DeStefano’s decision this spring to opt out of the municipal public campaign finance system he helped establish in 2007, a move Kerekes said revealed a “character issue” with DeStefano.

The system, called the Democracy Fund, offers candidates who raise a minimum level of donations a $17,000 grant and matching funds from a dedicated source in the city budget.

Danny Kedem, the mayor’s campaign manager, said DeStefano’s decision to opt out of public financing was made to save taxpayers money. But Kerekes, who has raised $32,852 including a $17,000 grant from the system, called that defense a “smokescreen,” insisting DeStefano acted in response to criticisms in 2009 by members of the fund’s board that the mayor had violated reporting requirements.

In the past year, administration officials have also said the mayor opted out of the system because it is “more trouble than it’s worth.”

Heading into the primary, DeStefano’s other two challengers, civil rights activist Clifton Graves and former alderman Tony Dawson confronted fears that the two, who are both African-American, would split the city’s black vote.

When Graves and Dawson — who together have raised about half what Kerekes has — announced their candidacies this spring, both discussed the possibility that one of them would bow out of the race so as to present a unified front against DeStefano. But in recent weeks, it became clear that Dawson did not intend to step down, Graves said, causing consternation in the city’s African-American community.

Today, an attack advertisement mailed to city residents by Dawson’s campaign threw harsh words at Graves. Besides calling attention to Graves’ past legal missteps — he was once suspended by the Connecticut Bar Association for failure to pay a fee and was convicted of tax evasion — Dawson called Graves a “puppet of DeStefano.” While Graves served as a city attorney under John Daniels, DeStefano’s predecessor, served on the city’s Commission on Equal Opportunity and led a tutoring program in the city’s schools, he has never worked directly for DeStefano.

The attacks were “disgusting,” said Graves, who won the endorsement of State Sen. Toni Harp (D-New Haven, West Haven) two weeks ago.

“I told him it was the wrong thing to do, and he didn’t listen,” he said. “There will be a backlash when you lower yourself to that level.”

Despite his opponents’ disadvantages, though, DeStefano has good reason to fear for his political life, Kerekes said.

While the mayor has in the past two weeks snapped up endorsements from U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a group of Latino city and state political leaders, the city’s firefighter union and the Connecticut and New Haven Building Trades, Kerekes noted in an email that Gov. Dannel Malloy, who has made several endorsements in local elections this year, has stayed silent on DeStefano.

“The mayor does not take any vote for granted,” Kedem said.

The mayor’s fate is not the only drama that will unfold today.

Hotly contested primaries in Wards 2, home to many off-campus Yalies, and 22, the site of Morse, Stiles, Silliman and Timothy Dwight Colleges, are bringing political excitement to students despite the lack of a Ward 1 primary.

In Ward 2, Trumbull dining hall cook Frank Douglass leverages support from Yale’s unions in his battle against street-outreach worker Douglas Bethea. Three challengers — Lisa Hopkins, Cordelia Thorpe and union-endorsed Jeanette Morrison — hope to unseat Ward 22 Alderman Greg Morehead in a race that has, as most races citywide this year, become infused with tensions over labor issues.

Beyond campus in East Rock’s Ward 9, which many Yale graduate students and faculty call home, a similarly heated race will be decided between incumbent Matt Smith ’98 and union-backed Jessica Holmes.

All three aldermanic races have been marked by heightened political activism on the part of both Yale’s labor unions and those of city employees. With 15 candidates running with union backing, including significant financial contributions and organizing support, Yale and city union leaders have argued that the Board of Aldermen needs to be strengthened as a counterweight to DeStefano’s fiscal strategy, which they consider to be antagonistic to the rights of workers in the city.

If enough of the unions’ favored candidates are elected to the Board, the city’s politics — already marked this year by intense labor tensions — may see a significant shift, one that could complicate DeStefano’s efforts to cut costs on city employee benefits and pensions he has deemed unsustainable.

While today’s primaries will decide Democratic nominees, the Nov. 8 general election will still be contested. Kerekes has vowed to run as an independent if he is defeated in the primary, as have all of Morehead’s challengers and all candidates in Wards 2 and 9.

Students voting for mayor in Ward 1 should cast their ballots at the New Haven Public Library at 133 Elm St.; Ward 2 Democrats will vote for both mayor and alderman at the Troup School at 259 Edgewood Ave.; residents of Ward 22 will vote at the Wexler-Grant School at 55 Foote St.; and Ward 9’s polls are located at Wilbur Cross High School at 181 Mitchell Drive.

Polls open citywide at 6 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.

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