Throughout the Thursday night debate between Ward 7 aldermanic candidates Doug Hausladen ’04 and Ella Wood ’15, two phrases that have weighed heavily on the race escaped mention entirely: unions and Take Back New Haven.
The contest between Hausladen and Wood has taken on a significance beyond the two individuals seeking a spot on the Board of Aldermen. It is seen by many as a fight between Take Back New Haven, a group associated with Hausladen formed this summer to increase discourse on the board, and New Haven’s largest union, UNITE HERE, for which Wood worked this past summer.
Often falsely considered diametrically opposed to each other, the two have come to dominate the race not just in Ward 7, but also in many of the city’s other wards. After a summer of door-knocking and phone calls, the city’s aldermanic contests are rapidly drawing to a close with the Democratic primaries this Tuesday, and the successes of each camp’s visions for the Board of Aldermen will be determined. Regardless of the outcome, the two forces have generated substantial change over the past months in the shape of the most local of politics in New Haven.
THE POWER OF THE UNION
Union dominance of the Board of Aldermen came, after a decade-long effort, in 2011, when organized labor capitalized on broad dissatisfaction with Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s perceived control of the board. UNITE HERE Local 34 and Local 35 – Yale’s pink-collar and blue-collar unions – led the charge against what they described as machine politics, vowing to provide better representation to New Haven residents. Ultimately, the unions won 14 of the 15 September 2011 races in which they fielded candidates.
“The unions kicked ass tonight,” DeStefano said on the primary election night in 2011.
Victories in hand, union-backed aldermen found themselves part of a sizeable majority on the board when they took office in January 2012. The “supermajority,” as Hausladen has called the block, allowed the unions to set a strong agenda over the last 20 months.
“Right now, we control 20 out of 30 seats on the Board of Aldermen,” Local 35 President Bob Proto said in June 2012.
Chief among the board’s pushes have been increased community policing, providing more resources for the city’s youth and growing New Haven Works, a jobs pipeline project, said Ward 29 Alderman Brian Wingate. In 2011, Wingate defeated then-Board of Alderman President Carl Goldfield in one of the election’s biggest upsets. Goldfield had served 20 years on the Board.
Union leaders said that the current Board of Aldermen has been far more productive than previous iterations. Laurie Kennington, the president of Local 34, said that the new bloc on the board has made the city’s politics far more dynamic. She pointed to the current charter revision, legislation to encourage employers to hire New Haven residents and increased dialogue with the mayor’s office as the board’s major accomplishments.
“For 20 years, there has been almost no vibrant political discussion in this city,” Kennington said. “There’s a whole new set of people involved in politics, a huge increase in voter participation … so I think it’s pretty exciting to have such a vibrant political culture now.”
Two years after the union victories, though, the state of the Board of Aldermen has garnered critics in significant numbers. Detractors claim that the slate of union-backed aldermen prevents meaningful debate, diversity of thought and innovative solutions in the Elm City’s legislative body. In a reversal of the climate in 2011, dissenters have appropriated the “machine politics” moniker, directing it not at DeStefano, but at organized labor.
“This is very DeStefano-esque in terms of stomping out dissent,” longtime downtown resident Edward Anderson said of the union presence in aldermanic races. “Instead of the ‘DeStefanati’ it’s the ‘unionistas.’”
A PUSH FOR DISCOURSE
The opposition to the state of the board did not crystallize until early this summer, when a vote by the Board of Aldermen set off broad dissatisfaction. That discontent at the state of politics in the Elm City quickly took form as Take Back New Haven.
On June 3, the board voted to sell High and Wall Street to Yale, permanently, for a one-time payment of $3 million, which it used to fill the city’s budget gap. The vote immediately drew harsh resentment, with police called to the aldermanic chambers in city hall to prevent protests from growing out of control after the vote.
Doug Hausladen immediately saw the vote as a mistake that “sold off the rights” of Elm City residents. Five minutes after the street sale, the board voted to take $6 million from the Connecticut state government. Half of the funds went to further plug the city’s budget deficit and half went to lower the city’s mill rate, a form of property tax. Hausladen says that the board ought to have rejected the sale and used all of the $6 million for the budget gap, rather than lowering the mill rate.
Hausladen, who was elected in 2011 but is not tied to UNITE HERE, quickly found others with the same thoughts on the street sale. Over two weeks in July, Hausladen says, he held constant discussions with other Elm City residents who he thought might be interested in challenging predominance of a single bloc of aldermen on the board.
“People started coming out of the woodwork,” Hausladen said. “There were conversations happening on doorsteps all over New Haven.”
By the end of June, Take Back New Haven had grown well beyond initial conversations. As the campaigns gathered momentum over the summer, Take Back New Haven grew to include seven candidates: Greg Smith in Ward 2, Raymond Wallace in Ward 4, Hausladen in Ward 7, Peter Webster in Ward 8, Anna Festa in Ward 10, Patty DePalma in Ward 11 and Michael Stratton in Ward 19.
Over the past two months, the candidates, along with a small group of volunteers, have chorused a steady critique of the Board of Aldermen “supermajority.” A board with a different composition, they insist, would be more likely to find new and innovative solutions to the city’s problems. At the same time, the candidates share no platform, instead finding unity on their vision for the process of governance.
Take Back New Haven candidates insist that they are not anti-union. In fact, several are members of unions and say they believe organized labor ought to play a large role in the Elm City.
“I’ve been a union member since 1970,” said Peter Webster, who, as an opera director, belongs to Actors’ Equity. “Union people, when they are well led, are the most disciplined and well-trained people.”
A POLITICAL ORGANIZATION
Behind the public message of vigorous discourse, Take Back New Haven created a match to the well organized political structure the unions brought to aldermanic races in 2011.
Two students, Ben Della Rocca ’16 and Dhrupad Nag, a student at the University of Connecticut, provided organizational support to the candidates aligned with Take Back New Haven. The two recruited volunteers to serve as full-time campaign managers, obtained voter data from the city and built a website that linked to each of the candidates, in addition to enlisting volunteers to canvass throughout the city. According to Della Rocca, Take Back New Haven maintained, at any time, two to four fulltime and three to seven part-time volunteers to manage the campaigns.
“We gave people who couldn’t otherwise run a chance to run,” Della Rocca said of the organization.
Still, of the seven initial candidates, only four remain. Wallace and Festa abandoned Take Back New Haven, citing a variety of issues with the project. Stratton, who lambasted the influence of unions on the board when he joined in the race, completed an about-face in mid-August. He asked for the support of Local 34, saying he wanted to be one of their “soldiers.”
“My big fear about union control of the Board of Aldermen has really been more of a theoretical concern,” Stratton said at the time. “Any time a group has that kind of power it can be used for evil. I don’t think Local 34 has any intent other than bringing about positive change.”
Della Rocca, who describes the abandonments as major but not fatal setbacks, refused to speculate as to the future of the project. After Tuesday’s primary, he said, Take Back New Haven candidates will know better whether Elm City residents share their vision for governance on the Board of Aldermen.
“There aren’t concrete plans for after this election. It depends on how well anti-machine reform and transparency are received,” Della Rocca said. “At the very least, if everyone loses, we hope we have meaningfully changed the discourse in New Haven.”