With just under a year left in his tenure, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. will go down in history as the Elm City’s longest-serving mayor.
DeStefano announced Tuesday evening at the Russian Lady on Temple Street, where he has celebrated previous election nights, that he does not plan to run for re-election this November. With his family on stage, DeStefano described the transformation New Haven has undergone in the past two decades and told the audience that his decision not to run does not mean “goodbye.”
“Why now? A lot of it had to do with being, frankly, 57. I want to do something else and I want to do it vigorously and for a period of time,” DeStefano said. “Two years ago, with the violence in the city where it was, and school reform just getting off the ground, it didn’t make sense to me. Now I feel better about both.”
THE END OF AN ERA
U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro introduced DeStefano at Tuesday night’s event, describing his legacy as “progressive,” “deep” and “broad.”
“When I think about the city of New Haven, it is unimaginable that it would be such a vibrant place but for the leadership of Mayor John DeStefano,” DeLauro said. “He takes big gambles, big risks — and those risks have paid off for people.”
In his speech, DeStefano drew a stark contrast between the New Haven of 20 years ago — when large swaths of downtown sat empty, crime rates were high and town-gown relations were strained following the murder of Christian Prince ’93 — with the city of today. He cited infrastructure like Gateway Community College, Science Park and State Street rail station as well as progressive initiatives like the Elm City Resident Card, which provides identification to undocumented immigrants, as examples of how far New Haven has come under his tenure.
In her introduction, DeLauro noted that the partnership between DeStefano and Yale University President Richard Levin helped combat the “dividing line” between Yale and the rest of the city that existed when DeStefano took office. Levin, who was present Tuesday night and hugged DeStefano before the mayor gave his speech, praised DeStefano for partnering with Yale on a number of initiatives, such as New Haven Promise, labor union negotiations and the University’s New Haven Homebuyer Program.
Peter Salovey, who will assume the presidency after Levin, said in an email to the News that DeStefano has been a “terrific partner” for Yale.
“I look forward to as productive a partnership with the next Mayor. As a New Haven resident for more than 30 years, I have watched as our City has become a better and better place to live and work,” Salovey wrote. “The Mayor has had great vision for New Haven, and a deep understanding of the interdependence of the city and the University.”
DeStefano also discussed the state of education 20 years ago — when school buildings were an average of 50 years old — before he spearheaded a school rebuilding effort nearly a decade ago. The mayor praised the work of superintendent Reginald Mayo and the Board of Education for their success with increasing the graduation rate and implementing new programs like New Haven Promise.
Mayo said that DeStefano’s departure is “obviously a big loss to the city” and a “big loss to education in general.”
Carl Goldfield, who served as the president of the Board of Alderman for six years until his departure in 2011, called DeStefano a “great leader.” He said DeStefano was very skilled at balancing the opposing interests of constituents, and noted DeStefano’s role in ending contract disputes between Yale and its unions as an example of his talent.
“He’s very creative, and where other people would see only obstacles, he would never see things as being irresolvable,” Goldfield said. “He approached governing as if there was always a solution to every problem, and he was very imaginative and creative at crafting solutions.”
NAVIGATING CITY HALL
DeStefano began his service to the city long before he became mayor, working for Mayor Ben DiLieto’s administration as a chief budget aide during the 1980s. He then ran for mayor but lost in 1989 to John Daniels, New Haven’s first black mayor, by a wide margin in the primary. But Daniels faced mounting budgetary issues, high crime and seemingly intractable poverty, and DeStefano capitalized on Daniels’ decision not to run after two terms, winning the election in 1993.
“It was just a really tough time in the city at that point, and I think the city was looking for more aggressive management,” said Jim Farnam, who worked for the DiLieto administration alongside DeStefano. “I think DeStefano brought that aspect with his experience, and I think there was a lot of unhappiness with how the city was working at that point in terms of basic management.”
Farnam said that DeStefano played a large role in revitalizing downtown and increasing economic investment in the city, with projects like 360 State Street and Route 34 bringing developers to New Haven.And while the initial implementation of community policing began under Daniels, Farnam said people believe DeStefano was responsible for putting in place a police team largely credited with the drop of homicide and crime in New Haven.
But for all of his work, DeStefano has also had his fair share of struggles.
A scandal engulfed DeStefano’s administration in 1998 when federal funds disappeared from the Livable City Initiative, an anti-blight program that promotes home ownership. DeStefano’s administration was dealt another blow in 2009 when it was forced to pay $2 million to firefighters and $3 million in legal fees after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the city in Ricci v. DeStefano, in which the city was convicted of discriminating against firefighters on a promotional test, as the test results were disqualified after none of the black firefighters passed.
In 2011, amid a city facing the highest crime rate in nearly two decades and still reeling from the effects of the onset of the economic recession in 2008, DeStefano won re-election by his narrowest margin ever, 55-45 percent, against challenger Jeffrey Kerekes, even after choosing to opt out of public financing which allowed him to outspend Kerekes by a 14-1 margin.
Ward 10 Alderman Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 and Conn. Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, who are both running for DeStefano’s position this November, have criticized him for being in office for too long. They have described the mayor as “out of touch” and called for new ideas and fresh faces in City Hall.
When Elicker announced to a crowd of over 100 people last Thursday that he was running for mayor, he said he could not imagine being mayor for 20 years, adding that the only thing he wanted to do for 20 years was to be married to his wife.
DeStefano said Tuesday, however, that he disagrees with Elicker’s sentiment.
“Someone recently said that they couldn’t imagine being mayor for 20 years, and frankly, that’s an observation born of failure on two counts: first, a failure of imagination, and second, a failure of expectations of all the good and decent people,” DeStefano said in his speech.
DeStefano added that after serving for as long as he has, every election is now just him running against himself.
Now that DeStefano is no longer running, the field for November’s election is wide open, with Elicker, Holder-Winfield and plumber Sundiata Keitazulu already having declared their intention to run and other political figures potentially following their lead.
But even without an incumbent in this year’s election, the issues remain largely the same.
“The way I think about it is we’re electing someone to run a $600 million business,” Farnam said. “The biggest challenge is how to deal with the fiscal situation and the state and federal cutbacks in the face of growing needs of the city.”
Ward 7 Alderman Doug Hausladen ’04 said that a major issue will be continuing school reform and ensuring that the new school buildings and construction are complemented with improving school personnel. Levin agreed, telling the News that he thinks education reform should be the “first priority” of the next mayor.
The next mayor will need to juggle these issues and more, with Salovey’s ascent to the University presidency and a new public schools superintendent providing ample opportunity for change.
“I hope we get someone who’s as skilled as he was,” Goldfield said. “We have to have someone with a vision. DeStefano had a vision.”
Though DeStefano said Tuesday night that he does not support any specific candidate, he did share his thoughts on what attributes his successor should have.
“The next guy you hire to replace me: Do not hire a town manager,” DeStefano said. “Hire a mayor who’s going to make decisions, stand for something, be willing to be held accountable and get something done for our people.”
But with almost a year still left in office, DeStefano did not reference any specific plans for his post-City Hall life. Instead, he assured the audience that he is “not going anywhere yet.”