With DeStefano exit, city clerk race contested

The race for the office of New Haven city clerk has rarely been hotly contested.

Traditionally, candidates for city clerk run unopposed in the Democratic primary, tapped to run alongside the mayor to balance the racial composition of the ticket. But with Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s planned exit after 20 years in office, incumbent city clerk Ron Smith will likely have to run unattached to a mayoral candidate — and he will be given a run for his money by Ward 26 Alderman Sergio Rodriguez. Rodriguez indicated at the end of February that he was eyeing the position of city clerk following DeStefano’s retirement announcement, and nearly a month later, he said he wants the job.

Rodriguez brought his candidacy out of the “exploratory” phase over the weekend, hitting the campaign trail with the first in a series of walking-and-driving tours of the Elm City to tell voters about his candidacy and to shed light on the responsibilities that come with the position. After making the rounds Saturday through Fair Haven’s C-Town Supermarket, Grand Avenue businesses and back to his own neighborhood of Westville, Rodriguez said he will go on three more of what he called “taking it to the street” tours, the next one planned for this Thursday.

A five-term alderman sitting on the Human Services, Tax Abatement and Aldermanic Affairs committees, Rodriguez currently serves as president of Hispanic Elected Local Officials, a constituency group of the National League of Cities. He said he sees the city clerk’s office as the logical next step in a “series of leadership roles.”

Rodriguez said he aims to modernize the city clerk position by fostering a closer relationship with community members and making public information more accessible.

“People are not aware of what the office does,” he added. “We’re trying to change that.”

Jack Keyes, a probate court judge and former city clerk who has all but indicated he will run for mayor, said the position can seem “mundane” but involves duties that, if handled improperly, can have “catastrophic consequences.”

Officially called the city/town clerk, the position involves handling all public documents, including claims and suits against the city, business licenses, land records, and liquor permits; compiling and overseeing Board of Aldermen legislation; and distributing absentee ballots for city elections.

Smith, who has served for 10 years in the 20-hours-a-week position, was out of the office all day Tuesday and could not be reached for comment. City Hall spokeswoman Anna Mariotti said the mayor could not, “under any circumstances,” comment on election matters or endorse a candidate. The mayor’s office did not return request for comment on Smith’s performance as city clerk.

Deputy City Clerk Sally Brown, who served as city clerk from 1986 to 1993, also declined to endorse her boss, saying her handling of elections issues requires her to be neutral in the race. Brown said various administrative positions in the city, including city treasurer and tax collector, used to run alongside the mayor to “balance the ticket.” Although those positions have been done away with, she said, the city clerk candidate is still largely picked by the Democratic Town Committee to run alongside the Democratic mayoral candidate in the general election.

Keyes said he can only recall four contested primaries for the clerk’s office in the last 35 to 40 years. He added that he ran alongside the late Ben DiLieto, who served as mayor of New Haven from 1980 to 1989.

“It’s like picking a vice president,” Keyes added, although Rodriguez said he was looking forward to running “more of an independent campaign.”

Brown, who noted that there have been only three city clerks of minority race in New Haven history, said the effort to strike a racial balance arises from a larger desire to foster a diversity of support for the Democratic ticket.

“If you have a white mayor, of course you would go get somebody black to run with you,” she said. “It’s a given that they keep a black person in there.”

The call for diverse representation in the city extends to Hispanic influence as well. Joining Rodriguez on his Saturday tour of the city were Ernie Santiago and Santiago Berrios-Bones, two of Rodriguez’s fellow Fair Haven aldermen who say they are supporting their colleague in the election. Berrios-Bones, who won a special election in Ward 14 earlier this year with the backing of prominent Hispanic leaders in the city, told the New Haven Independent he prefers Rodriguez to Smith primarily because Rodriguez speaks Spanish.

Also on the tour was Rodriguez’s campaign manager, Ben Young, a staffer on DeStefano’s 2011 re-election campaign who served as campaign manager for Berrios-Bones’ aldermanic run. Rodriguez has also hired a social media point person and is in the process of scouting locations for a campaign headquarters.

Rodriguez and Smith will square off in the Democratic primary on Sept. 10.

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