It was Aug. 10, the filing deadline for city elections, and Sarah Eidelson ’12 needed to make a decision.
She had been managing Sarah Saiano’s campaign for Ward 18 alderwoman for the summer, working 16-hour days while trying to determine if she wanted to make the same aldermanic commitment to the city. Still indecisive, Eidelson woke up at 5 a.m. and gathered her friends to go somewhere with a little perspective: East Rock park.
After Mike Jones ’11 announced in April that he would not seek re-election for Ward 1 alderman — the representative whose constituents include Old Campus and eight residential colleges — the race had been left wide open for Yalies and Eidelson started to think. Vinay Nayak ’14, who was a freshman in Davenport at the time, announced his candidacy shortly afterwards.
When he first came to Yale, the idea of running for office was “never anywhere close,” and serving on the Board of Aldermen did not interest him. But after working for Board’s community development committee as a policy assistant last year, he changed his mind.
“Once I sort of immersed myself in the policy assistant program, I gained even more respect for the ability of the Board of Aldermen to exact real change,” Nayak explained. “For me, having seen all the Board could do, it was just too good of an opportunity to pass up.”
Nayak filed his papers and held a meet and greet at Blue State Coffee to announce his candidacy and meet with Ward 1 residents. He then spent part of his summer working on developing city policy, which included proposals to bring more small businesses to New Haven, and began in earnest his campaign when students returned to school.
Eidelson, who worked on a major student-driven campaign for financial aid reform at Yale in Spring 2010 and has also been involved in community organizing throughout New Haven, said she nursed the idea of running for alderwoman starting in the spring. As a senior seeking a two-year term, she would need to continue living in New Haven after graduation if elected — a commitment she was uncertain she wanted to make.
Still, she wanted a candidate in the race that was “deeply and personally invested” in the city, she said, and she thought that could be her. So she and her friends sat at the top of East Rock, looking down at the city on that summer dawn.
“It was early in the morning in August, early enough that it was still cool and beautiful,” Eidelson recalled. “I took some time to really think about it and make a final decision — it was that moment looking out at the city, seeing Yale’s campus in the middle of it all, that I was sure that this was what I wanted for my future and for the future of the city.”
That future almost failed to become a possibility. Eidelson needed 12 signatures from Ward 1 residents, almost all of whom were at home or abroad for the summer, before the 4 p.m. filing deadline.
She drove straight to Hartford to get the necessary forms, calling up all her friends in the process to see if any of them knew anybody who was in New Haven at the time. Eidelson collected the signatures of University Chaplain Sharon Kugler, Kugler’s husband, current Ward 1 Alderman Michael Jones ’11, and everyone else she and her friends could find.
“In the end, we got 26 signatures, more than double what we needed,” Eidelson said. “That felt like the first campaign victory.”
THE TRIALS OF CAMPAIGN SEASON
It was just the first of many crazy days in a frenetic election season. In addition to being a student, each candidate is running a full-time campaign.
Eidelson, an American Studies and Graphic Design double major from Bala Cynwyd, Penn., is taking four classes this semester that include her senior essay and two studio classes, all while spending eight to 10 hours a day on campaign-related activities.
Nayak, who hails from Oak Brook, Ill., follows a similar schedule.
“The whole day I’m either in class, answering emails, researching policy, writing things for the website, thinking of new things to talk about with voters or thinking of new policies” Nayak said. “Then I go to classes, maybe manage to eat some food and then I go out and start canvassing.”
Both candidates have interviews, meetings with community leaders and more to attend to in their quests for votes. Eidelson designs much of the promotional material used in her campaign. The day before the Ward 1 aldermanic debate Oct. 24, Nayak spent hours in Bass Library with campaign manager Zak Newman ’13 running debate preparation, while Eidelson prepared little by little throughout the entire week before.
Eidelson said the most time-consuming part of her campaign is door-to-door canvassing, speaking with students about the race and the issues at stake in it.
“[Canvassing] is the most important part of the campaign because that’s what it’s all about,” Eidelson said. “Part of what makes it so fun is that it’s been such a wonderful opportunity to bring so many people into the campaign.”
Newman recalled one of the craziest moments of the campaign as the night of Nayak’s pre-debate interview with the News. Nayak was preparing for the interview while also canvassing voters, Newman said, while some members of Nayak’s communication team were busy working on an opinion piece. Immediately after canvassing, Nayak had to go to the pre-debate interview, and his campaign had to coordinate with his team to make sure he had the right clothes.
“On the way over we realized he was wearing tennis shoes and I was wearing loafers so we swapped shoes,” Newman said. After the interview, Nayak attended a campaign event at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale before returning to canvassing.
“Vinay canvasses, canvasses, canvasses, then takes a day off to do all his work,” Newman said. “He’s out there six days a week for at least two or three hours a day.”
Before he decided to run, Nayak consulted with students and community members familiar with the position and campaigning. Many of them warned him that being on the campaign trail is difficult, and cautioned him against running without careful consideration.
To Nayak, one of the toughest things about the campaign has been hearing what has been said about him, which Nayak said has included that he does not care about the city and that he is only running to help his chances of becoming a “big-shot politician” some day, neither of which he said is true.
“Hearing people say that without ever having met me, having people who are campaigning against you, that sucks,” Nayak said.
The campaign can also be frustrating because of the social tensions between the campaigns, Newman said, adding that he is friends with many of the people who work for Eidelson’s campaign. His frustrations, he explained, have been with the “political nature” of the campaigns, which he fully expected.
Eidelson, meanwhile, found that some of the most difficult moments of the campaign have been trying to engage voters and “hearing people say ‘You know, I just really don’t care.’”
“It’s always disappointing when you’re talking with someone who doesn’t engage and who rejects New Haven as their home,” Mac Herring ’12, Eidelson’s campaign manager, said. “It’s not disappointing when people say they’re going to vote for Vinay but instead when people who I think should care about the city don’t.”
Many of Ward 1’s residents are unregistered students. Although more than 2000 Yalies live in Ward 1, only 470 votes were cast in the 2009 aldermanic election.
Between voter apathy and an enormous time commitment, the downsides of a Ward 1 aldermanic campaign may seem overwhelming. But the campaign has not come without its share of brighter moments as well.
Newman recalled a campaign event Nayak held in front of Lanman-Wright Hall on Old Campus, where passersby who were at Yale for a Model UN conference, were so excited by Nayak’s speech that they bought T-shirts.
“That was a really cool moment,” Newman said. “The message must be good, what we’re selling must be good.” For her first two years at Yale, Eidelson said she did not feel like a part of New Haven. After spending the summer after her sophomore year in the city on a Dwight Hall fellowship working for the Community Voter Project, which works to register voters in New Haven, Eidelson said she reached a place psychologically where it would seem strange to decide not to run.
“After spending a summer on the ground and in the neighborhoods I felt a really deep feeling of ownership for the city and my place in it and the challenges it faces,” Eidelson explained. “It feels like my city, it feels like its problems are my problems.”
Eidelson and Herring explained that, to them, one of the most rewarding parts of the campaign has been talking with freshmen who are new to New Haven politics, many of whom are now going door to door for Eidelson’s campaign. They expressed confidence that the freshmen will continue to remain involved in community work and politics while they are at Yale, which Eidelson counts as a success.
“Some of the best conversations I’ve had have been meeting a freshman who just got here and hearing them say ‘New Haven seems so great, but it could be better — how do we make that happen?’” Eidelson said. “Sometimes I stop and think, ‘If I weren’t running for alderwoman I would never have met this amazing person.’”
Nayak agreed that some of the high points of his campaign have been watching people who have never been engaged in the political process become actively engaged in local politics.
Just the innate nature of the position itself is enough to keep Nayak campaigning.
“[I was told that] it is not very easy to get things done, it’s not glamorous, there are a lot of downsides,” Nayak said. “But all of that is so significantly outweighed by the golden opportunity to be able to exact an actual change in a community using public policy.”
Despite being constantly busy, with few spare moments during the day, neither Nayak nor Eidelson said they have ever felt overwhelmed by the campaign lifestyle. Instead, each candidate is buoyed by the support of their respective campaign teams, which each number over 50.
The presence of so many supporters, Nayak said, has prevented him from feeling like the campaign has been too much.
“There are all these people who are in it with you, there are all these people who care about you and care about this effort — with all of them by my side it would be almost disrespectful to feel like the world was falling down on me when I had 10 people holding it up at the same time,” Nayak explained. “It has not been hellish; it’s been awesome.”
Volunteers on Eidelson’s team have encouraged her to continue as well. With volunteers hailing from each class at Yale as well as from across New Haven, Eidelson described the commitment her campaign workers have shown as “amazing.”
“Bringing all of these people together has just been unbelievably moving for me all of the time,” Eidelson said. “It’s the best part of the day.”
WHAT DOES WARD 1 MEAN?
At the truest intersection of town and gown, the Ward 1 alderman plays a special role — an activist for progressive policies, Yalies’ voice on the board, students’ face to the city, a campus political leader. The relationship between the city and university has always been volatile, reaching a low point in 1991 with the murder of Christian Prince ’93.
Then, the perception was that Yale and New Haven were individual entities that had to live beside one another — a paradigm that is now receding. But there is still a prevailing sentiment on campus that Yalies live apart from the rest of the city’s residents, that goings-on in City Hall are not for Yalies to worry about.
Jones, whose term as Ward 1 alderman will end in December, disagrees, calling this town-gown dichotomy false.
“At the end of the day, the city rises and falls as one — the reality is that the entire city is interconnected, Jones said. “You can’t improve East Rock in the long term without improving the neighborhoods around it. The same is true with Ward 1.”
The role of the Ward 1 alderman is thus an involved one, and is played by a student who may not be old enough to drink before his or her first term is over. But outgoing Ward 29 Alderman Carl Goldfield, a 20-year veteran of the Board and its president for the past six years, said the Ward 1 alderman is rarely limited by age.
“[Ward 1 aldermen] don’t stay there long enough to get seniority, but if they’re good at politics — and some of these folks have been great at politics — they can get a lot accomplished on the Board,” Goldfield said. “People start to forget what their ages are pretty rapidly. If you’re smart and you’re speaking intelligently, people forget how old you are.”
He explained that while some Ward 1 aldermen have been more successful than others in earning the respect of the board, those that work hard are able to become very influential. Goldfield cited Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93, now Yale’s director of state communications, and Stefan Pryor ’93 LAW ’98, who was recently appointed commissioner of the state’s Department of Education, as aldermen who have had particular success in moving agendas on the Board.
He added that the presence of a student in city politics can help to keep a fresh perspective.
“I think they keep us young, that having a Yale student on the board has made a contribution and has been a positive thing,” Goldfield explained. “Although sometimes I think they look at us and think we’ve been old and cynical, sometimes we look at them and say ‘Jesus, you don’t have a clue about how life works.’”
A large part of the job of most aldermen is known as constituent services — ensuring that potholes are filled, downed power lines are fixed and essential services are maintained. In Ward 1, nearly all of these services are provided by Yale, constituent services is one area in which the Ward 1 alderman has a lighter workload than his or her peers on the Board.
But Newman argued that instead of lightening the Ward 1 representative’s work, this lack of preoccupation with city services frees the student alderman to pursue a wider mandate for broader policy efforts.
Ben Healey ’04, who served two terms as Ward 1 alderman after being approached to run his freshman year, said he thinks the position does in fact carry constituent services — except that, as the ward’s residents are civic-minded Yale students, the nature of these services is to enact wider policies.
“Constituent service and broad policy are not an either/or — constituent service for Ward 1 is [working on] broad policy,” Healey explained, adding tha t it is the role of the student alderman to work on these bigger issues. “I spent just as much time in Dwight Hall and in common rooms talking with my constituents as any of my colleagues [on the Board spent talking with their constituents] — it just happened that the things we were talking about were about getting policy reform.”
Goldfield agreed, explaining that the lack of worry about sidewalk repair or garbage pickup meant that the Ward 1 aldermen could focus on issues that bring a “wider perspective” to the Board.
But Healey said the Ward 1 representative must spend just as much time on campus as they do in the Board of Aldermen chamber acting as an “interpreter” of sorts, helping students understand how the workings of City Hall affect campus life and trying to draw more students into the political process.
More broadly, Healey said, the Ward 1 alderman should do exactly what the position implies — represent.
“There’s a sense that this person is the face of Yale undergraduates to the city’s political and civic leadership,” Healey explained. “I think people find that to be true — they want to elect someone, however young or new to the city, that reflects the best of our aspirations for an integrated Yale-New Haven partnership.”
That is done, he continued, by being the very best alderman one can be, from being the representative who comes to every meeting having read the entire budget, and who, when picking fights, does so only with New Haven’s best interests at heart.
“Bottom line: the people who want to be the Ward 1 alderman are people who really see students as citizens of New Haven and for whatever reason want to make themselves a bridge between those communities,” Healey said.
A LOOK BACK
According to Morand, who served two terms as Ward 1 Alderman and is Yale’s associate vice president for New Haven and State Affairs, the position has remained fairly consistent over the past 30 years.
“As a general matter, I think the roles and perceptions of the Ward 1 alderman have been pretty similar ever since Marvin Krislov ’82 LAW ’88 was elected in 1981 as the first Yale student to represent the ward,” Morand wrote in a Wednesday email to the News. “Details change from person to person and over the years, but general context has been pretty constant.”
Running a campaign, Healey said, was an exercise in learning about campaign mechanics and working with similar-minded people. He said he was not planning on running — he was “happy just doing my homelessness and labor activism” — but after then-alderman Julio Gonzalez ’05 decided not to run, he was approached with the idea by seniors who liked what he supported.
Every past Ward 1 alderman can count at least one significant contribution to his or her name, from Healey’s work on the homeless advisory committee and push on domestic partnership issues, to Morand’s advocacy for community policing, to Jones’ successful efforts to expand the city’s living wage law and establish gender identity as a protected class in the city’s discrimination codes. And all of them ran for the same reasons as Eidelson and Nayak cite — they cared about New Haven and its issues, and wanted a first-hand seat in fighting them.
“I chose to run because I love this place, New Haven, and I give a damn about its past, present and future,” Morand said. “My education before and during Yale have instilled in me a belief that the gifts I’ve been given are only as good as the use I make of them in service with my community.”
“JUST THE BEGINNING”
No matter how much both candidates want to serve New Haven, only one of the two will be elected to the Board of Aldermen. But even given how much work the campaigns have put into the race, both Eidelson and Nayak said they are not overly concerned about the results of Tuesday’s election. The benefits of running for office, it seems, are not limited to the officeholder alone.
“Everything is worth it — for both campaigns, whoever wins, the campaigns have been an opportunity to talk about what matters in the city,” Newman said. “Campaigns are really good conversations to have about what we want to do, no matter who wins.”
Neither of the candidates or campaign managers hold any regrets about running. Quite the opposite: Nayak said the process has been transformative for him and, hopefully, for all of those who have been involved in his campaign.
Eidelson, who has said she will live in New Haven post-graduation no matter the results of the election, is already looking ahead.
“This campaign is just the beginning — win or lose, we have really built a movement of students on campus who are committed to fighting to build a better New Haven for the rest of us,” Eidelson added. “Whether I’m alderwoman or not, our team of more than 50 students has already been talking about how we’re going to continue meeting together and knocking on doors after the election.”
Whichever of the candidates emerges the victor only has an uphill battle facing him or her, Healey said, as actually serving on the Board is even more work than the campaign to get there. The Ward 1 alderman must continue the task of constantly being in touch with people, responding to every phone call or email, and eating with different groups on campus. But it is also weighted with the need to make decisions about complex issues that he or she initially knows little about.
Jones agreed that during the time he has served on the Board, he has been constantly learning — part of why serving has appealed so much to him, he said.
“I like to think I did some things to make the city a better place over the two years that I’ve served,” Jones said. “The hope is that the efforts that I took part in will lead the city to be a better place for those who call it home.”
Correction: Nov. 4 — An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of University Chaplain Sharon Kugler.